Five Keys to Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

Ask people what their biggest fears are and chances are the fear of public speaking will top the list. Even though today’s world has numerous stressors, from the threat of terrorist activity to global warming, public speaking remains the number one fear of mankind. We fear it more than death!

Most people are gripped with fear because they don’t know what it takes to give a presentation. They “talk” every day of their lives, so they think the same communication skills apply to giving a presentation, and when those skills don’t work, they panic.

So how do you overcome this fear and become more capable in the face of higher speaking demands? How can you develop the deep mental strength and unbreakable will power to be comfortably in control in any speaking situation? It all comes down to five essential techniques.

1. Practice Proper Breathing

Years of stress and the pressure of daily life force many people into bad breathing habits. When most people take a deep breath, they do so in their upper chest, where they pull in their stomach and raise their shoulders. This creates a situation where you “over-breathe,” and it’s not a good situation for speakers. This type of breathing can actually cause anxiety.

So here’s a short lesson on how to breathe correctly. Sit very still and allow your belly to move in and out slowly and repeatedly. Inhale when the belly moves out; exhale when the belly collapses in. Keep your shoulders still, your neck relaxed, and your chest quiet. As you inhale and your belly moves out, slowly count 1-2-3-4. As you exhale and your belly moves in, slowly double your count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. You’ll have to breathe very slowly to make it to the count of eight, but if you practice this for ten to fifteen minutes you’ll get there and it will begin to feel more natural. Learning to cultivate this belly-breathing habit will help you release your fears and calm your physical nervousness.

2. Concentrate to Win

Many speakers struggle with the condition of “roving attention.” They are easily distracted by either external stimuli (the audience, the room temperature, etc.) or by internal stimuli (a headache, stiff neck, etc.). The solution is to corral your “roving attention” and begin to concentrate with more precision and discipline.

Here’s a quick concentration exercise to get you started. Sit in a comfortable chair and place a book in your lap. Close your eyes. Use your left hand to hold the book and slowly drop your right hand by your side. Feel the weight of your right hand by your side. Let that hand become heavier. Feel your fingers become heavier. Keep your full concentration on your right hand for a few minutes. If other thoughts enter your mind, release them and pull your focus back to your right hand.

Very gradually, shift your focus to the hand holding the book. Focus on your left hand. Feel the position of that hand and weight of your fingers. Stay with your left hand for a few minutes. Now go back to your right hand. Feel the weight. Gradually begin to move your right hand and lift it to your lap to join the left hand. Allow both hands to hold the book. Feel the weight of the book, the angle, and the texture. Notice how your fingers are holding it. Open your eyes.

What did you notice? Was it difficult for you to maintain your concentration at any point of the exercise? Were you thinking such things as, “Why am I sitting in this chair with a book on my lap?” If so, don’t worry. It will get easier with each practice session. Just don’t give up!

3. Use Generous Self-Talk

What do you tell yourself before a presentation? What internal messages do you unknowingly promote? If the messages going through your mind before you’re standing up to present are: “Oh no, I’m going to fail,” or “This audience doesn’t like me,” then you’re fueling the fire of anxiety. Instead, you need to fill your mind with rich and empowering statements that make you feel great about yourself and your role as speaker. Some great self-talk statements include:

  • My audience needs this information and will greatly benefit from hearing it.
  • What I have to say will get this team on track.
  • I am extremely prepared, committed, and confident!

The goal is to have your positive self-talk be automatic, so that every time you stand up to speak, you are flooded with positive, supportive feedback. When you can do this, don’t be surprised if public speaking becomes something you actually enjoy.

4. Create Rich Mental Image

How do you “see” yourself before you get up to speak? What images race through your mind? Visualization is an important skill for presenters to cultivate. It enables us to create a mental picture of what we want to occur. Anyone can create images of their best performance or that show a desired successful outcome. To be most helpful, visualization works best when you imagine every single detail and the way it feels to perform just the way you want.

The images you create can be visual (images and pictures), kinesthetic (how your body may feel), or auditory (what you may hear). Using your mind, you can summon these images over and over, enhancing your presentation skill through repetition and mental rehearsal, similar to physical practice. With mental rehearsal, your mind and body become trained to actually perform the skill imagined. Just as high performing professional athletes, artists, and musicians use this technique to perform better, you too can use this power of visualization to enhance your speaking performance.

5. Craft a Perfect “Catch Point”

A “catch point” is like a safety harness in rock climbing. When you are “on belay” you can only fall so far. And while you still might get hurt, the real life-threatening danger is eliminated. A catch point is a phrase or mental image (like a rabbit’s foot!) that stops you from moving into the spiral of self-doubt and stepping off the cliff.

Here’s a great catch point to remember: When you’re getting ready to speak to an audience and feel fear coming on, tell yourself, “I know more about this topic and my presentation’s content than anyone else in the room.” That one thought—that you know the information better than your audience—can keep you focused on the task at hand and can keep your fears at bay. So when your mind takes you to that uneasy place of, ‘Oh no, I have a presentation to give tomorrow and I’m not as prepared as I would like to be,’ reassure yourself with your catch point. It works like a charm.

The Power to Persuade

Now that you have learned five powerful techniques for removing fear, you’ll soon discover that you can take on more challenging speaking opportunities every day. Keep in mind that refining these skills requires that you know your audience’s needs, understand your presentation’s purpose, organize your message, and practice, practice, practice! With continued practice, you can become a radiant, compelling, and fearless speaker who knows how to engage and persuade any audience.

About the Author

Angela DeFinis is an expert in professional public speaking. As a presentation skills trainer, speech coach and founder/CEO of DeFinis Communications, she has spent over twenty-five years helping business professionals find solutions to their communication challenges and develop a broader repertoire of potent speaking skills. Her message and approach create positive, personal, and lasting change. Contact Angela at [email protected] or call (415) 258-8176.

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