How to… Struggle through the Fear of Public Speaking

When asked to list their top fears, most people actually list public speaking as a greater fear than dying.  I guess the people surveyed feel either secure in their eternal destiny or simply would rather die than having a group of people stare at them while they speak. Whatever the reason, the fear of public speaking lives and breathes as a very strong feeling of fear for many people.

Personally, this fear does not make my top 10 fears, but my days of teaching beginning speech class at a community college taught me that the fear is not only very real but very powerful for a great deal many people. The student who sticks out most in my mind is one who actually could not finish her first speech. She simply couldn’t stand being in front of the class, completely froze, and then walked back to her seat. More about her later.

Based on my experiences with terrified students, I am going to share 5 tips that will help you struggle through the fear of public speaking. First, let me just say that this is not a “how to” on giving a speech, nor is it a list of ways to totally overcome the fear of public speaking. In my experience, most people don’t speak in public enough to actually completely overcome their fear. Until they do, they need to focus on pushing through those feelings.

Not only that, but even after my many years of public speaking (teaching at a community college, teaching adult Sunday school, speaking to women’s groups, and giving presentations to businesses), I still have a niggling feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I speak. The feeling is not fear. Rather, it’s that feeling of hoping that I’ll remember what I want to say, that I’ll not do anything to make a fool of myself, and that my audience wont’ be totally bored. (All of these have happened to me on more than one occasion, by the way.) Personally, I think if that feeling ever goes away, I need to stop speaking in public. That feeling keeps me motivated to prepare properly as well as keeps me from over-confidence.

Now, on to the 5 tips that will help most people push through the fear of public speaking.

  1. Have and use an outline. Even if you believe you know your material well, have and use an outline anyway. You’ll be glad you have it when you go blank with all those pairs of eyes staring at you. (See How to… Create and Use an Effective Outline for more details.)
  2. Know your topic. Especially for your first time, choose a topic you already know well. Doing so gives much-needed confidence. Public may be stressful all on its own, but try doing it when you don’t know your topic well. (Note: Look for tips on “How to… Create & Use a Web” for help on choosing a topic in two weeks.) Many of my students struggled with speeches because they weren’t choosy enough about their topics. (Incidentally, the most confident student was one who gave a speech on how to put on a condom. Typically, I approve speech topics ahead of time, but he changed his on me at the last minute. Suffice it to say, I was quite surprised. Yet, he did choose a topic he knew very well, that much was clear.)
  3. Practice. Practice. Practice. I have practiced speeches in front of my son in his highchair, (he just sat there and grinned at me), while running on the treadmill (you’re supposed to be able to talk while running anyway, right?), and while driving. The more you ingrain your speech/talk into your mind, the easier it will flow at delivery time.
  4. Focus on the nose. Many people struggle with making eye contact when speaking in public. I told my students to stare at the bridge of people’s noses instead. Try it… people really can’t tell the difference between that and looking directing into their eyes. I still do this today, even with one-on-one conversations. (Great tip for those of us who are also very shy. Yes, I speak in public event though I am shy.)
  5. Expect to mess up. Once you accept the fact that you will stumble over your words at least once (and probably multiple times), and that it is possible you will trip or drop something, public speaking becomes much easier. These things happen to even the most experienced public speakers, and what do they do? They simply keep going. I have spoken in front of a group after getting a stain on the back of my pants and after having some pretty stupid words come out of my mouth. Guess what? I lived through it!

Over time and with experience, the fear of speaking in public will diminish. Some people will even grow to love public speaking. Remember that student who couldn’t even finish her first speech? She ended up doing very well in the class and gave me a Christmas present at the end because she was so grateful to have struggled through. She represents the fear that almost all of my students had with speaking in front of a group and that all of them were able to struggle through and overcome to some extent. Believe me, if those college students (all ages, by the way) can do it, so can you. I promise!

11 thoughts on “How to… Struggle through the Fear of Public Speaking

    • I'm glad! Please let me know if you try one of the tips and how it works for you. These are the ones that seem to work for most, if not all, of my students and that work well for me still today.

      • I think the focus on the nose might help the most. I'm one of those typical southerners who looks people in the eye. It's always been important to me to do that. But when speaking in public it can really throw you off. I never thought about looking at the nose. I have a bad habit of doing an outline, maybe even writing out what I want to say, then each time I practice I think of more things, or better things. That's the "think on your feet" part. I can't think of those things all at one time to put down. Then I end up getting lost even in my own outline… Mind you, I don't have to do this much. I'd like to be willing to do it more. I normally end up writing things instead of speaking them!

        • The thing with the outline is to not get too detailed with it. I keep my fairly simple, depending on the specific situation, and only put the absolutes that I want to remember. Any of the extras that I keep thinking of I may put in some study notes, but I don't always take them to the presentation with me. I just rely on instinct and the Holy Spirit to bring to the surface what needs said. I just figure that it's impossible to say everything that I could say, so I focus on the minimum that I feel is important (what's on my outline) and let any extra that comes out be frosting. Hope this helps. Your thoughts on outlining are appreciated especially since I am writing on this topic for next week's "How to…" Thanks for commenting!

  1. I may be unusual, but I've never really had a fear of speaking in public. Certainly I get nervous when speaking in front of large groups, but it normally passes.
    For me, the practice part is crucial. Not just in practicing what I'm going to say each time, but also in the general practice of speaking. The more I do it, the less nervous I get each time.

    • The more we interact, the more I see how much we are alike. Practicing is so important, and I still do it even after almost 20 years of public speaking. Getting nervous is a good thing too, don't you think?

  2. At one time I literally shook just having to do a reading in front of a small church where everyone was my friend. This however led me to become a pastor who did funerals and weddings and all sorts of events where you don't have total control even of your part. I learned to pray and let the Spirit use me, guide my words, and yes, the sermons were all written out first, read and reread, prayed over, and then given. God got me fron scared to an overcomer. If I can do that, anyone can! And your points reminded me of the speech class I took, but I never heard about the nose! love that idea. thanks

    • You are a wonderful example of how this fear can be overcome with practice and perseverence. Learning to operate without total control is a great point and something with which all speakers must come to terms. I'm sure I stole the nose idea from someone, but I don't remember where I got it anymore. Guess it's mine now!

  3. Pingback: How to… Create and Use an Effective Outline | Struggle to Victory

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