Q&A: How Do I Get Over My Fear of Public Speaking?
Fear of public speaking (also known as glossophobia, in case you ever have to answer that question on Jeopardy) is extremely common, but why? What’s the worst that can happen if you flub a word or stutter a little bit? You won’t be executed or ostracized. From a physical standpoint, there’s no real reason to be scared of it. Nevertheless, public speaking tends to leave people feeling on edge.
So, what’s the solution?
Well, it may sound harsh, but your only real option for overcoming your fear of public speaking is to just get over it. This fear is a psychological barrier that you’ve placed on yourself. If we want to really peel back the layers, we could blame your fear of public speaking on mom and dad or that grade-school bully who made fun of you at recess, but, at a certain point, none of that matters. This is a barrier that you’ve left in place, and it’s time to tear it down.
Most of the people who ask me for public speaking tips are high school- and college-aged, usually around 26 and under, so I’m mainly writing this piece with that audience in mind. However, that doesn’t mean that this information loses its value the second that you step out of the classroom. Most older working professionals (some of whom I’ve worked with in the past) could also stand to level up their public speaking game.
Am I going to give you “3 Simple Steps to Help You Ace Your Presentation with Zero Preparation”? Nope. This will take time, but every good thing takes some time to do it right. If you want to wow the audience, you need to put in the work.
Here are my 3 effective ways to kick butt in public speaking class:
1. Use Bullet Points.
Throw out the long form article. You don’t need to memorize your speech word-for-word (nor should you). In the past, I’ve tried reading from a prepared speech, and it just left me feeling confused and disengaged.
Instead, just focus on building your speech structure and how you will connect the beginning to the middle, to the end. Trust me, it’s going to sound a lot more natural if you just use short key phrases to guide your speech rather than reciting it from a sheet of paper. If you need to, you can keep note cards or a list close at hand to stay on track, but you shouldn’t rely on it too much. And, if you’re using PowerPoint, whatever you do, don’t read directly from your slides (unless your goal is to put everyone in your audience to sleep).
2. Record Yourself Talking Off-the-Cuff
After building your bullet point structure, practice by record yourself without thinking too much about what you want to say. You’ll start to recognize that the magical pattern that emerges is YOU! Everything you naturally want to say will showcase itself very similarly and define your presentation. After a while, everything just tends to fall into place.
Most people get stressed out before they step up to the mic. This anxious energy physically manifests with stuttering, unusual pauses, lack of eye contact, and a bunch of other nervous tics. They focus too much on getting the wording exactly as they’ve rehearsed it, and they forget what’s really important. That’s why you need to practice. There’s no getting around it. In your first couple of attempts, just focus on talking naturally about your topic. Give yourself a chance to get over that awkward self-conscious feeling. After you start to feel more comfortable, you can focus on organizing your thoughts, tweaking the structure of your speech, and perfecting your approach. Do it again and again until delivering your speech feels like second nature.
3. But Professor Needs a Copy of my Speech…
Some professors want an essay that’s based on (but not a word for word copy of) your speech. Others just want a straight transcription that they can use to jog their memory during the grading process. Whatever the requirement, this is where step #2 is going to make your life a whole lot easier.
Remember those recordings you made earlier? Take your final recording, the one where you hit all your marks and do so with confidence, and transcribe it to create the written version. Don’t try to do it the other way around because, like I said before, reading directly from a script is going to come off as unnatural and inauthentic.
Sometimes, you’ll need to take it a step further if the speech and the essay have different requirements for structure, content, etc. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use your recordings as a helpful jumping-off point. In fact, one of the best ways to tackle writer’s block is by just talking about your topic. This kind of out-loud brainstorming means that you never have to spend time just staring at a blank page ever again.
Why Does It Matter?
I’ll be honest. Real public speaking isn’t like giving a speech in your communications class, and, depending on your profession, it might not be as common as your professor will lead you to believe.
Unless you’re planning on becoming a politician, you likely won’t be asked to stand on stage and deliver a speech very often. However, for most working professionals, you will need to practice public speaking from time to time. Maybe you’ll need to pitch your services to a group of potential clients. Maybe you’ll be asked to lead a discussion or teach a skill to your colleagues at a Lunch and Learn. Communicating effectively to a large group is an essential professional skill, just like Microsoft Office proficiency or project management.
The good news is that public speaking gets much easier when you enter the working world. When you have to stand in front of a real audience, I guarantee that you will know exactly what you are talking about. You won’t be speaking and writing some B.S. prepared speech of some random topic that was chosen for you. You’ll be talking about something that relates to the type of work that you do every single day.
The bad news, however, is that you still need to practice, and you can’t do that just by reading articles (although it’s a good first step). You can read all the tips and tricks you want, but action is what really matters. If you’re truly ready to leave your fear of public speaking in the rear-view mirror, go all in with me. Seek out opportunities to get out of your shell. Sign up to go first when your class is planning the presentation schedule. You may be nervous in the moment, but you’ll thank me afterwards!