How to Assess Your Public Speaking Comfort Level

Nervousness and public speaking go hand-in-hand. And in all my years as a presentations skills coach, I’ve found that people’s anxiety tends to fall into one of four categories. These four levels reflect a speaker’s comfort level and confidence. Which one best describes you?

  • Level 1: Pressured and Petrified: People in this category tend to display the greatest signs of nervousness—visible blushing, perspiration, quivering voice, or shaking hands. They are extremely uncomfortable and deeply afraid, often to the point of paralysis. These individuals generally have little experience speaking to groups, but because of a recent promotion or increased job responsibilities, they are now expected to speak (i.e., the technician who has been moved into the team lead position or the customer service representative who now has to manage others and represent the department). These people have little desire to speak in public, but now are required to do so. With limited confidence they have a great opportunity for personal and professional growth.
  • Level 2: Hurried and Harried: These people deal with their fear and discomfort by racing through their material for one specific purpose—to get through it! They are usually familiar with their subject matter but rarely prepare or practice. They like to wing it. Many even believe that their “practice” happens while they are giving their presentation. As a result of their lack of preparation, they “hurry” through their presentation, talking too fast, shifting their weight, avoiding eye contact, and showing other physical signs of nervousness. The good news for this group is that with a few simple changes they can quickly increase their capacity and become more comfortable and effective.
  • Level 3: Surprised and Startled: These people have situational nervousness. They are fine in their regular day-to-day presentations, but if asked to perform out of their routine, they experience anxiety and discomfort. However, they typically don’t show their nervousness. In fact, their audience barely picks up on it, but the speaker still feels anxious. These speakers take the time to practice and are generally more prepared than most, but unusual situations cause them to revisit earlier bouts of nerves and agitation. They are often the managers who comfortably lead staff or division meetings, but when asked to speak at an all-hands meeting or at a conference, they become anxious. The good news for these speakers is that they already know how to be comfortable in front of one type of audience, so it’s just a matter of increasing their capacity so that they can be as comfortable in every new situation they encounter.
  • Level 4: Eager and Enthusiastic: These are the people who love to speak and do so with ease, taking advantage of every opportunity and stepping up at a moment’s notice. They enjoy the adrenalin rush that speaking provides and ride it to peak performance. These people may be great product evangelists, expert salespeople, senior leaders, marketing and public relations professionals, motivational speakers, and corporate trainers. They have already built a substantial capacity for comfort—and there is still room to grow.

What sets these four groups apart? It usually boils down to just two things: knowledge and experience. Level 4 speakers know what they’re talking about and give presentations frequently. These confident speakers know from experience that preparation and practice are the keys to high performance. They develop powerful content. They prepare, rehearse, and get out there over and over. They have taken the time to build confidence.

Whether you need to give a presentation at a low-key staff meeting for just a few or at a high profile conference for thousands, you can increase your capacity to adapt to the demands of the speaking situation and use your skills and experience to succeed. Every speaker—even you—has the potential to get there!