How to overcome a fear of public speaking

Over 75% of us are frightened of public speaking. Yet speaking persuasively and passionately is an incredibly important skill for all of us to learn.

Years ago, back in 2013 when I was Ethique’s only employee, I was a participant in a business foundations course put on by our local business council.

It was a great opportunity to learn more about business fundamentals, participate in weekly presentations from different business leaders and bounce ideas off fellow participants.

But looming over this experience was a night I was already beginning to dread months out. The ‘graduation night’, everyone had to do a five-minute pitch on their company to a room of about 100 people.

I cannot overstate how terrified of this I was.

We had a practise session the week prior – just in front of the 18 people in our class. I couldn’t face even that, so bailed and feigned some excuse.

As the day drew closer, I grew so stressed I couldn’t focus on anything and lost my appetite.

On the evening, I was so nervous I shook all the way up to the podium, and I think from memory I cried several times in the hours prior.

And after reading my opening sentence, all of that fell away. I don’t remember much about the actual presentation, but I do remember the high I felt afterwards and that became addictive. I didn’t become a fear-free speaker from that moment onwards and live happily ever after, but I did take note of how much I actually enjoyed it and decided that it was a skill worth pursuing.

Even now, when I do a speaking event, I remember very little of it, which I think is some sort of protection my brain puts in place in case I really do stuff it up, but I love speaking to an audience – and because of that I get paid for it! And I would never have thought would be the case.

Over 75% of us are frightened of public speaking – it’s one of the most shared fears across people everywhere and no wonder – our brains want us to avoid humiliation at all costs.

Yet it’s an incredibly important skill for all of us to learn, because being able to speak persuasively, passionately, and tell stories to groups of people is helpful in almost all industries – and of course our personal lives.

I put a lot of work into getting over my fear, but I definitely still feel a twinge of nerves right before I head up on stage. So here are my top tips for banishing the extreme fear and nailing a presentation. Some of these clash with what you will read on google about best practise. But this is what works for me, so maybe it will for you too.

1.      Admit you are nervous. Pretending you are not scared and refusing to acknowledge your feelings out of some kind of bravado actually makes it feel worse worse. I don’t mean publicly, because the audience don’t really care (the idea that you put your audience at ease isn’t true, you tend to just undermine yourself if you admit you are scared to speak in front of them). Admit it to yourself. Allow yourself to feel the feelings, realise that that is totally normal and okay, and rationalise them. Why are you scared? What is the worst that could happen? How could you avoid those things happening? Which nicely leads into…

2.      Preparation. I am actually the worst at this, because I am, and always have been, the worst kind of procrastinator. But if you step on stage and feel unprepared, which is especially true if you are not confident in the subject in which you are presenting, you will feel a million times worse. You can get away with a little less prep if it’s something you know intimately – like your life story – as you are less likely to forget it. Preparation isn’t just practising a speech either. It’s understanding who will be in the audience, understanding what facilities you will have (a lectern, a clicker, a handheld mic, etc) and most importantly, understanding why the organisers wanted you to speak and want they want you to get across. The more you know, the more you can be fully prepared and not only know you are fulfilling the brief, but you will also be able to answer any questions afterwards easily.

3.      Don’t rely on words on the screen. I audibly sigh whenever I see someone speak to a presentation. And by that, I mean they have more than ten words on each slide and they are in effect reading what the slide says. I would much rather someone emailed me a presentation so I could read it myself in that case. Your visual aids, if you are using them, should be imagery, with a sprinkling of words only if they add to what you are saying. Never ever read off a slide. I understand you might feel better if you think you can use your presentation as a bit of a crutch, but it will make your presentation boring and less interactive, which means your audience won’t care and trust me – you will be able to tell they’re bored on stage, which will undermine your confidence.

4.      Speaking of crutches, notes are a whole topic on their own. The vast majority of speaking tips will tell you not to write out your speech word for word. Well, I disagree. If that is what you need to feel confident, you do that. But for the love of god, don’t read it off the sheet whilst you stare down at your paper. I tend to write my speeches out and have my iPad with a scrolling view on. I don’t read it word for word, but because I tend to underprepare, I find it helpful should I get lost, or wander off on a tangent. But I ensure I make a lot of eye contact, speak with a lot of expression and passion, and ask the audience questions.  If you simply want bullet points on a small card to remind you, great, do that. But don’t be put off because the internet tells you that you shouldn’t write your speech out. Do what works for you.

5.      Make it personal. Tell stories, show your excitement, speak with flourishes and intonation, show your personality.  Be yourself. Finance is probably the topic I find the least interesting to hear a presentation on. Yet one of my favourite speakers of all time is actually an accountant, because she spoke with passion, taught through anecdotes and got the audience involved. She was a quirky, self-deprecating jokester, and some people would say that she should have been more ‘professional’ with her delivery. But it made her standout. It made people pay attention and realise how much she had to teach us. It didn’t undermine her credibility, but it did make her a human and the feedback she got afterwards showed that. The people who acted grownup, staid and ‘professional’ were forgotten.  That is not to say don’t be polished and prepared, simply to say be yourself.

6.      20/20/20. This is my favourite tip. Have you been allocated an hour to speak, but you’re worried about how you will keep people’s attention that long? You should be, because typically people pay attention for about 20 minutes before starting to ponder what they’re going to have for dinner. So, my favourite thing to go back to the organisers with is a request to break it up into 20 minute sections. A 20 minute presentation, a 20 minute interview with an interviewer on stage with me, and 20 mins of Q&A from the audience. The presentation gives context, without boring people, the interview asks questions that your presentation didn’t cover and breaks the ice for the Q&A portion where people can ask deeper questions on things they really want to know more about. Without question my favourite way to break up an hour.

7.      Bonus number seven – if you have been asked to speak, and you would love the opportunity but you are not there yet with your confidence, say yes, but request that it is an interview. Get a friendly interviewer who will ask you questions on stage, which immediately lowers the anxiety factor for you as you won’t be alone, and the questions will act as prompts. This also has the bonus of being more interactive, so often more enjoyable for the audience. Ensure you agree on your questions beforehand, so you have chance to put together some good answers.

8.      Okay another one - bonus number eight. Your opening is the most important piece – followed by your close. You should follow a typical story-telling structure with your speech. Don’t start your presentation with a longwinded introduction about yourself. Take a lesson from best practise tiktok videos, and catch their attention with a hook. It can be a question (my favourite), a jarring statistic, a short story with emotions – whatever is interesting to your audience. (If you go with a question, go with one that can be answered with simply counting hands in the air, rather than expecting people to speak up that early in the piece.) Capture them from the start and you are already off on the right foot.

I hope this is helpful. My intention is not to cover what makes a good presentation (that’s another blog entirely), but simply to provide tips and tricks I have learned in the last ten years that may, or may not, encourage you to give public speaking a try.

Good luck!