How to overcome your fear of public speaking

Fear of public speaking is one of the most common forms of anxiety, affecting millions of people in the UK alone. And if you suffer from this type of ‘performance anxiety’, giving a presentation at work or just speaking up in a small group is deeply uncomfortable. Common symptoms include a dry mouth, excessive sweating, a constricted throat, trembling hands, racing heartbeat and fast, shallow breathing. Not only are these symptoms unpleasant, but they can have a detrimental effect on every aspect of your life: at work, you do anything to get out of making presentations, which may have a negative impact on your career. In your social life, dinner parties may fill you with dread, while parental duties such as speaking at your daughter’s wedding may be impossible to fulfill.

The good news is that this type of anxiety is relatively easy to cure. And the first step is to understand why you get so nervous. It’s likely that, on an unconscious level, you fear exposure – imagining that when you get up to speak something embarrassing will happen, like drying up and forgetting your lines, or your audience becoming bored or even laughing at you. So you perceive your audience as a threat, which means your ‘fight or flight’ response is activated every time you speak in public – or even think about it, because the threat-focused part of your brain cannot distinguish between imagined situations and real ones. That’s why you experience all those unpleasant symptoms – all part of an ancient, hard-wired human response to danger, which served us well among hungry animals on the savannah, but are less useful in a departmental meeting.

It’s also likely that you are ‘catastrophising’ about speaking - predicting the future (which no-one can do) and being absolutely certain that the worst-possible scenario will unfold (which no-one can know). The solution? Let’s say you have to give the keynote speech at a conference in two months’ time. I want you to do two things: make a bullet-point version of your speech and practice, practice, practice. Read it to your partner, your kids, your friends. Make a joke of it and do it at the pub or over the Sunday roast. Record yourself on a camcorder or smartphone and – kindly and constructively – note aspects of your speech you could improve.

The second tool at your disposal is positive visualisation. Instead of imagining every little thing that could go wrong, I want you to visualise your speech going brilliantly. Run through it step by step, with as much sensory detail as possible. See yourself walking up to the stage, getting your notes ready, taking a sip of water (always have water to hand!), waiting for the audience to quiet down. Feel your feet firm on the floor, standing with an erect, dignified posture, a half-smile on your face (you are excited, after all). When you start to speak, hear your voice sounding strong and clear as you make eye contact with the friendly, interested, engaged people before you. And when your speech is over, hear the applause, feel the sense of pride and accomplishment as you soak it up.

Again, do this every day before your big speech, which – according to new research from the field of positive psychology – will trick your brain into thinking you’ve already done it. When the time comes, you’ll be amazed at how confident and exhilarated you feel. Because (and here’s the payoff), once you get past the nerves public speaking is really exciting and fun. Honest! Just use these two simple tools and your days of performance anxiety will be over.

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