It’s a familiar feeling: butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, an accelerated heart rate. No, I’m not talking about love. I’m talking about nerves.
Public speaking is the top phobia in America — an estimated 25 percent of people tremble at the thought of speaking in front of a crowd. Fear of public speaking tops heights, bugs, drowning, blood, tight spaces, and flying in that order. Researchers think this has to do with the evolution of humans as social animals fearful of ostracization.
Humanity has evolved, sure, but our anxieties as usual lag behind. It’s a shame because public speaking is an important skill, and one many say is essential when it comes to leadership. As a CEO I’ve developed my public speaking skills over the years, and guess what? I still get nerves.
It’s always frustrating to think your mind and body are conspiring to trip you up. The nerves may never completely dissipate, but there are ways to transcend them and proceed with confidence. Here are seven ways to get over your public speaking nerves.
1. Act like you’re talking to someone you’re comfortable with.
You may have heard the advice to pretend the crowd is in their underwear. While I don’t recommend this tactic — talk about distraction — the point is to shift the power dynamic in a way that reduces your chance of embarrassment.
When preparing for my recent podcast appearance for Georgia Business Radio, a friend gave me great advice: just act like you’re speaking with a customer or supplier. This advice really hit home, because it’s a common interaction for me in which I feel both at ease and empowered. Applying this wisdom to the podcast worked and gave me great peace of mind.
For others, that person could be a friend, colleague, or family member. Speaking to an audience like you would to someone you’re comfortable around serves to build your own confidence and a sense of intimacy with the crowd.
2. Let your passion guide you.
There’s a good reason you do what you do, and likely a good reason you’re speaking publicly. Unfortunately, when tasked with speaking to a large audience, it can be easy to belittle ourselves or forget our qualifications. A little voice inside your head may tell you you’re not good enough, but that voice is neither representative of your head or your heart.
When preparing for a public speaking gig, hook into your passion as a point of guidance. Let the enthusiasm you have for your work and life grow larger than the nagging fears. With luck and practice, you may be able to smother your fears completely.
3. Use your nerves to your advantage.
Nerves can be daunting, but they are also a good thing if used correctly. Nervous energy, when harnessed, can amplify one’s speech by putting energy into your words that reveal your passion about the subject matter to your audience. How do you do this? The first step is to remember to breathe. When people get nervous they take shorter breaths, but you can control your breathing and take deep breaths throughout your speech. Doing so will give your body oxygen it needs, and your audience a moment to digest the great things you are saying.
So take some deep breaths before going on stage. Warm up. Actors and singers do it, so speakers should too. Warming up is not reading your speech one last time — you know it as well as you ever will. Do some breathing exercises, warm up your lungs, and shake it out. Yes, I mean literally shake your body, get the blood flowing, loosen up, and shake those nerves out.
4. Practice, practice, practice.
Speaking of practice, just believing in yourself does not negate the need for it. There’s a lot you can do to prepare yourself for public speaking, and not all of it is what you’d expect. Flashcards are a given, but there are plenty of other tactics that may help you.
Watch yourself speak in the mirror. Record yourself talking. Better yet, video it — your body language speaks louder than your words. At first, this may make you more nervous — people can’t stand their own voice for a reason. You might also consider asking a friend to read your speech out loud so you can get a better sense of its flow. All of these tactics will help you make sure you are expressing your message the way you want.
Commit to doing a little each day. Don’t learn the speech at once or always practice it all that way — take it one chunk at a time. It’s better not to memorize because then you increase your nerves by trying to remember the exact words. Use an outline, speak to the concepts and only include key phrases or topics you must hit on those flashcards.
5. Stay hydrated and relaxed.
There’s little worse than speaking in front of a crowd with a dry mouth and chapped lips. In fact, anything uncomfortable could be a distraction from the message you’re tasked to deliver. Make sure you have a full stomach and are well-hydrated. Tea or water with lemon can help keep your throat lubricated, making the delivery smoother and your body, calmer.
This idea may extend to your wardrobe as well. It’s a good idea to toe the line between looking great and feeling comfortable. For example, if you’re confident in your hair and makeup, or are smartly dressed, this is likely to give you a boost. On the other hand, if your new shoes are hurting you, or you don’t feel like yourself, it can be detrimental. Finding that balance between comfort and style makes all the difference.
You might even try light exercise or meditation to clear your mind before the event. We’re all different, so find a ritual that works for you and keep at it.
6. Don’t fear the audience — they’re there to help.
Going back to the underwear trope, there’s another reason imagining the crowd in their skivvies is a bad idea. Experts maintain that paying too much attention to the audience is detrimental to the speaker. So focus on your message first and foremost, and think of the audience as a support system that can take you to the next level.
After all, the audience is there to listen, not to thwart you. I personally believe in interacting with and engaging the audience in order to build a connection with them. This way the message becomes more meaningful and personal to those listening, and to you! If they wanted to experience something divorced from their existence, they would have stayed home and watched TV.
7. Take pride in your success.
Lastly, if you take pride in yourself and your successes, you will develop a heightened sense of self-worth that won’t be taken down easily. When you get through a public speaking ordeal, consider it an accomplishment to be built upon rather than something you’ve endured.
Even if you make a mistake, framing the entire experience in a positive light will ensure that the experience was an enriching one. The goal is to let public speaking give you power rather than taking it from you, so you can do it better every time. Conquering our fear once feels great, but doing it repetitively makes you a true champion.
At the end of the day, nerves are normal, whether you are of the one in four people with public speaking phobias or not. We’ve all been there, so we can all take steps to overcome it. Believe me, both your personal and professional life will be better off if you are willing to try.