How I conquered my fear of public speaking

Anxiety over giving a speech or presentation can hold your career back. We sent our resident glossophobe to figure out how to beat it.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 09 Feb 2017

Whoever described pre-speech jitters as ‘butterflies in the stomach’ has never watched that scene in Alien where the baby monster explodes out of the late John Hurt’s chest. This was 70-decibel heartbeat, brown paper bag hyperventilation territory. And I hadn’t even walked through the door.

If you’ve ever felt nervous before giving a speech or presentation, the chances are you’ve figured out a few ways to try to alleviate all those baffling bodily sensations that accompany it. Chest out, chin up. Smile. Remember to breathe. Don’t fear the silence, fill it. Don’t worry, it won’t kill you. Relax.

Tell me honestly, have any of them worked? Years of trying have done me little good. I’ve avoided speaking where I could, and ploughed through it where I could not. Sometimes it went down okay, but never did it change the miserable feeling the next time I had to stand up and talk.

So one day I decided to do something drastic. In a fit of uncharacteristic whim, I enrolled in a 2-day course called Fear of Public Speaking, run by a fellow called Vince Stevenson, aka the Fear Doctor. The promise was that I would walk out of this experience comfortably able to deliver a speech. It worked, and I’m going to share with you how.

Speech 1: Dreaded introductions

  • Be authentic
  • Start with posture, body language and eye contact
  • Speaking is not a performance

‘Most of you would feel totally confident speaking to each other around this table,’ Stevenson said, surveying the eight strangers huddled in our North London meeting room. ‘But there’s something about standing up that gets us nervous.’

Stevenson - who goes by Vince, incidentally, not the 'The Fear Doctor' - took us through various techniques for the delivery of speeches. Surprisingly, much of it was concerned with non-verbal elements, such as posture. Stand straight. Feet shoulder width apart. Look people in the eye. Hold your notes – and keep any gestures – between your navel and your chest. This wasn’t so bad...

Then he started trying to reassure us about our nerves, which – given the context – could only mean one thing. Our turn.

‘Speaking is not a performance. No one’s expecting perfect,’ Stevenson said. ‘Just be yourself. As long as you’re authentic and real, being yourself is more than enough.’

I could have just died. I wasn’t authentic. I don’t mean that out of any kind of faux imposter syndrome – I literally wasn’t authentic, I was undercover.

It was a proviso of my attendance – if anyone knew I was a journalist, Stevenson had told me when we arranged this, they might start acting up and therefore not get the full benefit. At the time faking another career had seemed like a minor concession.   

‘Because if you’re not authentic, the audience will know...’

What was my cover story again? I work in events. I work in events. What if they ask me about my last event? What do people in events actually do? Is sweating this much medically normal?

‘So I think it’s high time you did your first speech. We’ll start with some introductions....’

Thankfully, the introductory speech involved asking our course mates a few non-threatening, non-job-related questions and then introducing them to the group. The relief numbed me sufficiently to get through it intact, just about.

Speech 2: A wild adventure 

  • Tell stories
  • Practice makes perfect (so long as you're practising the right thing)
  • Record yourself
  • Don’t underestimate the power of the pause

Immediately after our first foray into the world of presentations, we watched the videos Stevenson had made of our efforts. Inevitable cringes aside, it was surprisingly valuable: all of us thought we would come across sounding or looking more nervous than we actually did. I felt an embarrassing quiver in my voice throughout my first speech, but it turned out no one else could hear it.

We then gave each other constructive feedback. I should mention my fellow glossophobes here. While it would be remiss to give any details about them, it will suffice to say they were very supportive and not all that bad at public speaking actually.

A constructive environment certainly helps. Undoubtedly it’s easier to stand in front of a small, sympathetic crowd than a large, judgemental one. It allowed much needed baby steps.

The feedback I took into my second speech was to cut down ums and uhs, which are apparently something we do to stop people interrupting us in conversation. But as a speech isn’t a conversation, ‘just stop doing it.’

That’s not as hard as it might sound. The trick is to pause for a couple of seconds between points. ‘It may seem like an age to you, but that’s because you’re up there. It won’t to the audience,’ Stevenson explained.

The topic of our second speech was our best holiday, something delightfully unrelated to my flimsy cover story. Regaling the tale of a school-age trip to Greece, I took Stevenson’s advice and filled it with little anecdotes and devilish details. It’s a classic rule for any communication: show, don’t tell.

Speech 3: Getting personal

  • Experience is subjective
  • Adrenaline can be your friend
  • Breathe deeply, breathe slowly

By the end of the first day, I was exhausted. Being anxious all day (and most of the day before) kind of takes it out of you. The final speech of the afternoon was about what inspires us. It’s a tricky one because by its nature it’s very personal. I chose to speak about my grandmother, who’s been a very inspiration figure in my life.

This was not an easy speech to give, but again the tape afterwards revealed a far more composed speaker than I thought I’d see.

‘Experience is subjective,’ Stevenson said, mystic-like. Not entirely convinced, I asked about adrenaline, the hormonal enemy of composure and clear thinking. Was there any (non-pharmaceutical) way to counteract it?   

There were two answers. The first was that slow, deliberate breathing (counting five seconds in through the nose, holding for five seconds, then breathing out through the mouth for five seconds) does calm the adrenaline response, which is often caused by a lack of oxygen to the amygdala, deep in the lizard brain. That can work even if it’s five minutes before you have to stand up and deliver, incidentally.

The second was that adrenaline isn’t necessarily the enemy at all. When you feel panicked, you have adrenaline in your system, but when you receive some brilliant news and find yourself jumping up and down for joy, the adrenaline response is exactly the same. The difference is psychological, not physiological.

Speech 4: A best man mishap

  • Vary pitch and pace
  • What’s in it for your audience?
  • Get remembering

This was weird. Day two, and I wasn’t afraid. Not at all. I was actually looking forward to it. Today we were to go into more detail about anxiety, but in fact it had already become apparent that overcoming public speaking anxiety and delivering a good speech were two sides of the same coin. If you know how to deliver, the anxiety fades.

Stevenson is fond of Aristotle, and quoted him extensively when talking about the principles of good rhetoric. Varying your pitch and pace in an unpredictable pattern keeps people interested. Metaphor, startling statements and rhetorical questions all make for good intros, and never neglect to end it on a punchy last line.

 A slightly less obvious point was about empathy. ‘Know your audience. What are they expecting? What can you give them that they can use? What’s in it for them?’

This rather novel idea was just sinking in, when Stevenson announced our next speech. No biggie, I thought, counting five seconds before blowing out a lungful. How bad can it be?

‘The theme is, "it’s not what happens, it’s how you deal with it".’

Everyone else had been scribbling for five minutes before I’d even moved. It was becoming increasingly hard to think of speeches that weren’t work-related, and it was becoming conspicuous that I consistently kept my glittering events career out of proceedings. Most of the others’ speeches at least touched on their jobs.

Then it came to me: I was going to give a speech about giving a speech. Who said postmodernism was dead? 

I won’t bore you with the frankly heroic details of my first and only experience as a best man, but suffice it to say it involved a defective projector, some last minute improvisation and lots of champagne. The important thing is that, for the first time I can remember, I delivered a speech without really referencing the notes, let alone reading from a script. And it was all the better for it.

It was perhaps easy in this case. But Stevenson has some advice for getting easy recall when it’s not such a well-worn memory.

‘There’s a difference between having a good memory and being good at memorising things. Read out your speech into a voice app and play it back five or six times, on the train or at home,’ he advises. That way, you end up knowing it without having to think about remembering it. Notes will then come in handy, but you won’t need to rely on them.

Speech 5: Inauguration day

  • Anxiety is just a thought
  • Be courageous

Stevenson, perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who uses his voice for a living, can be hypnotic when he wants to.

‘Anxiety is just a thought...  just because it’s in your mind, it doesn’t mean it’s your thought... everything in this room was once just a thought in someone’s head... you are your thoughts... what is the quality of your thoughts?’

Yes, we’d moved from Aristotle to the Buddha. It was all getting a bit spacey. But there was one small idea I really did find very appealing. If anxiety is just a thought, then it follows it can be replaced by another thought, and that means you’re only ever one thought away from not being anxious.

The last speech – an inauguration day speech, a la the Donald – wasn’t my best, but it was easy. I didn’t tighten up at all when it came to my turn. In that sense, the experience had worked.

The question is, was that just because I had been immersed in a comfortable, safe setting? That temporarily, giving a speech wasn’t something to be afraid of?

Stevenson’s final advice was clear on this: you need to keep pushing yourself. Join a speaker’s group. Offer toasts. Volunteer for presentations. None of that is easy for the people in that room, but what is worthwhile that doesn’t require a little courage?

‘It’s human to feel anxious sometimes,’ Stevenson said, ‘but if you do it enough, eventually you start to enjoy it.’ If you can say that about public speaking, then indeed the fear will be well and truly conquered. 

If you found this useful, take a look at our Your Career stream for more personal development tips.

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