The idea of standing up in front of a crowded room and delivering a wedding speech or an important work presentation fills many with heart-pounding dread.
Fear of public speaking is common, with studies showing it affects up to 75 per cent of the population.
Jerry Seinfeld famously said: “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
The physical effects can be extreme, with many people doing anything they can to avoid the uncomfortable symptoms of their public speaking phobia, such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, dry mouth and nausea.
But although it’s a common form of anxiety, it’s also a treatable one, and you don’t need to let the paralysing panic of being in the spotlight hold you back in work and life. With preparation and persistence, you can become much more comfortable with the skill.
1. Practise, practise, practise
“The most important public speaking advice is to practise. The more one speaks, the less uncomfortable you become over time,” says Matt Eventoff, founder of Princeton Public Speaking.
If you don’t have regular opportunities to speak at work, a handy tip is to join a local book club to build confidence in sharing your ideas. Try signing up for a public speaking and leadership skills course, or even just run through presentations with friends and family.
Videoing yourself delivering a speech sounds painful at first, but it can be a helpful confidence boost, as you often come across much better than you imagine.
2. Try some calming techniques
People suffer from varying levels of nerves, but if you’ve been given the task of a work presentation, a couple of handy techniques can help to calm you on the day.
“Remind yourself that the people in the room want to listen to you and what you have to say,” says psychologist Paul Russell.
“You could try putting a picture of a person that helps you to feel calm on the podium in front of you, and any time you feel nervous, pretend you are talking to them.”
Alternatively, he says you could “pick two people” in the audience, on opposite sides of a row, towards the middle of the room, and “speak directly to them”. This, he says, makes it looks like you’re speaking to the entire room.
3. Prepare for success
Trends forecaster Shivvy Jervis, who has headlined more than 600 events to audiences in the thousands, says: “Get really familiar with your material – but not in the format of a formal speech.”
Rather, he says, think of it as “friendly bullet points” that read as natural dialogue. “When you keep your talking points in this form and flow, it sticks in your brain far better.”
“Neuroscience shows that our brains can retain and then present information six times better when we ‘learn’ it in a more immersive way,” Mr Jervis continues. “For instance, try attaching a visual association to what you know you want to say.”
4. Don’t forget to breathe
Proper breathing is a powerful tool that can enhance your public speaking. When we’re nervous, we tend to take short and shallow breaths, which is why Paul Wingfield, head of Vocal and Operatic Studies at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, recommends slowing things down.
“A ‘low’ breath, found by releasing your belly on inhalation, will be your friend on stage,” he says. “Not only will it help stabilise any nerves, but it will also help you ‘support’ your voice for healthy vocal production – which is useful if you’re going to make a habit of speaking to large groups of people.”
He adds that as our heart rate increases, so does our speaking tempo – something experienced speakers are aware of, so they take the time to ‘take time’. “You may feel as though you’re speaking slower than normal but chances are it’s just right.”
When it comes to public speaking, TED Talks (ted.com) are right up there as some of the best to watch, so spend 10 minutes per day studying some of their most-watched talks on YouTube for handy pointers.
5. Manifest success
Manifestation is bringing something tangible into your life through attraction and belief. It can be a useful practice when you’re ruminating about an upcoming business pitch or training session.
“The best way to beat any fears is to think back to a time where you felt super confident,” says mindset coach Amy Crumpton. “Where were you, what were you doing and what were you feeling at the time? Ask yourself: How can you borrow some of that confidence and energy and use it when you’re feeling fearful?”
Ms Crumpton says to “tap into how you want to feel” when it comes to public speaking. “Visualise yourself absolutely smashing it, everyone clapping and cheering and telling you how brilliant you were.”
“Visualisation is a super powerful tool which tricks your mind, as your brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined.”
You can practise regular short-term goal visualisation, for five minutes twice every day, by picturing yourself speaking with calm and cool confidence.
If you can’t overcome your fear with practice alone, consider speaking to your GP. They may refer you to a cognitive behavioural therapist, which is a skills-based approach that can be a successful treatment for reducing social anxiety.
Do you dread public speaking? Or are you quite good at it? Why not share your public speaking journey in the comments section below?
– With PA
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