Make fear of public speaking your friend

January 15, 2018

When you stand up to speak, you want to share something worth hearing with your audience.

You want them to enjoy the ride and leave with what they’re looking for.

Flip that around and sit in the audience – how do you think they feel when the speaker comes on stage and every inch of their being tells you they are petrified.

How do you feel as the listener? Uncomfortable? Worried for the speaker? Certainly not relaxed and ready to enjoy their speech.   

Over time I’ve learnt how to befriend those speaker nerves so that the real me can get on stage and share with my listeners. 

Being nervous is normal.  As Mark Twain astutely observed: 

“There are two types of speakers.  Those who get nervous and those who are liars.” 


No one is born with a fear of public speaking; it is something we learn, so we can equally learn to quash the debilitating nerves and harness the good nerves, those nerves that give us positive energy and presence on stage, those nerves that help us connect with our audience.  To achieve this, we need to reprogram our mindset and make friends with our nerves.  It seems to me that we need to pay attention to five key areas. 


1. Examine your excuses

What are the emotional barriers that you put up to convince yourself that you can’t speak in public? 

  • I’ll be under scrutiny and be caught out
  • I’ll be a lesser person if I’m not perfect
  • I’m afraid of rejection – people won’t want to know me anymore
  • I’ll be boring
  • And you can probably think of others?


Public speaking has nothing to do with self-worth.  You are more than your speech and your ability to speak has nothing to do with who you are as a human being.  The good news is that managing the nerves and speaking with confidence and sincerity is a skill that you can learn. 

Try making a list of all your excuses.  Once we know what our fears are, we’re in position to confront them head on.  Interrogate them.  Deconstruct them.  Render them powerless and clear our head of negative thoughts.  Think about what you would say to a friend or a child presenting you with these excuses.  What would you say to them?  Would it have something to do with self-belief, visualising successful outcomes or some other positive advice? 


2. Don’t expect perfection from yourself

Perfectionism is the curse of the speaker.  By striving for perfection, you set yourself up to fail.  None of us is perfect and we all make mistakes, so as a perfectionist, failure lurks around every corner. 

Be clear in your own mind that the audience is unlikely to know if you make a mistake unless you tell them.  Speakers often reprimand themselves for forgetting a chunk of their speech, but the audience does not know what you had planned to say and, therefore, won’t miss it. 

Instead of trying to be perfect, do yourself a kindness and give yourself permission to be less than perfect.  Set yourself challenging, yet achievable, standards and give yourself a pat on the back when you’ve spoken.  Focus on what you did well, savour the glory and note ways in which you can be even better next time.  Great speeches do not happen overnight.  They are an iterative process of crafting and honing content, practising delivery and seeking feedback. 

Think like a sportsman, carry a post-it note with you to remind you … “Connection, not perfection!” 


3. Persuade your brain to work with you

When we are really nervous, our ability to think quickly and clearly diminishes and may vanish entirely to the extent that we actually dry up.  In the words of the judge, George Jessel: 

“The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public” 


When we are speaking in public we want our brain to be working with us, in the moment, thinking about what we are saying, responding to the needs and reactions of our audience.  The 2017 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking Manoj Vasudevan made precisely this point about delivering his winning speech.  He said that as he took to the stage, he could see that the audience looked tired and ready to go home.  Reading the low energy level, he toned down his delivery to ensure he did not come across as overly abrasive.  He had to make a judgment call, as he spoke.  This would not have been possible if his brain had been frozen by nerves. 

According to psychiatrist Steve Peters who wrote The Chimp Paradox, we can learn to manage stress positively.  He talks about the Human part of our brain that works with logic and reason and the Chimp that makes snap judgments based on emotions and gut instinct.  They can work independently or together.  In public speaking, we need them to work together. 

As public speakers who are stressed or nervous, our Chimp will always react first.  To keep us safe it will go into fight, flight or freeze mode.  This is normal, but it is not what you need for a strong performance and quick thinking. 

One solution is to programme your brain with positive speaking associations.  This reinforces a sense of safety that does not need the intervention of the Chimp.  What does this mean in practice?  In any public-speaking environment, arrive early.  Familiarise yourself with the speaking area so that you feel comfortable.  Introduce yourself to members of the audience, so you see friendly faces from the stage.  Register the applause.  Give yourself a pat on the back for a speech well delivered.  Once you are more comfortable and your Chimp is no longer in control, your ability to reason and think on your feet will grow, while your Chimp will help bring energy and enthusiasm to your speech. 


4. Expect to be nervous and make it work for you

As Mark Twain said, we all get nervous when we speak.  But what is nervousness?  It is energy; it is what we experience when the adrenaline is flowing.  And adrenaline is our friend, giving us energy and presence on stage.  It helps us demonstrate our enthusiasm and passion for our subject, it helps us engage with our audience and generate a real sense of fun and excitement. 

Before the adrenaline kicks in, we need to be well prepared and focused on what will go right, not what could go wrong.  Give yourself the pre-match pep talk – I’m ready, this is going to be fun, etc.  Once the adrenaline surges, we need to make it help us.  Some people find it helpful to move, run on the spot, jump up and down.  Breathe slowly and deeply.  Take to the stage and pause.  Take a deep breath and start to connect with your audience with your attention-grabbing opening.  After your speech, enjoy the surge of wellbeing you get from your success. 


5. Connect

Don’t overthink audience reactions.  There will always be someone on the phone, yawning or looking distracted.  This is not personal and there is nothing you can do about it.  Don’t let it paralyse you.  Instead, focus on the majority of people in your audience who are with you, who are alert and attentive, the people who are smiling, nodding and appreciating what you have to say.  Connect with these interested people by sharing relevant stories and ideas in a way that is meaningful to them and you will feel happier and more relaxed on stage. 

Reprogramming your mindset won’t happen overnight, but continuous speaking practice and a permanent (post-it) ‘note to self’ about connection (not perfection), your new friends in the audience will set you on the road to more enjoyable speaking experiences. 



About the author

Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s membership exceeds 352,000 in more than 16,400 clubs in 141 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. To find your local club:  Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter. 

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