The Fear of Public Speaking: 8 Tips to Overcome It

Updated Over a Week Ago


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CEO with Public Speaking Skills

Estimated reading time: 20 minutes

Fear of public speaking, for better or for worse, is what hinders most leaders …meaning they don’t like it but they are evaluated by how well they perform when they’re in front of a crowd.

It’s why far too many brilliant and valuable leaders shy away from the title – despite adding tremendous value to the teams of which they are a part, and in every interaction in which they engage, they simply have a fear of public speaking or presentations.

Life Threatening Leadership Skills

The fear of public speaking is in fact one of the great fears in our society.

And you know what?  That makes total sense!  The fact is that we are all here because our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents (and so on back into time) were smart enough to stay out of dangerous situations, and passed those genes on down to us. 

It’s why most of us are afraid of heights, and sharks, and high-speeds—they’re dangerous!

The fact is most of us are the offspring of people who had a genetic aversion to things that could kill them, it is how they hung around long enough to have us!

What’s so life-threatening about public speaking?  Well, not much in its current form, but our social world has changed much faster than our brain’s physiology has, so try to imagine what our lizard brain sees when we step in front of an audience to present: us, standing alone, with a lot of pairs of eyes on us.

While that’s not all that physically dangerous in the 21st century, throughout most of human evolution, that usually meant we were soon to be lunch.

So if you have a fear of public speaking or presenting, don’t beat yourself up about it.  The fact is it’s not a character flaw, but rather the result of thousands of years of evolutionary wariness on the part of your brain.

That being said, improving your presentation and public speaking skills will go a long way in helping you make a positive impression and help make your leadership goals come true. 

As such, here are a few tips I’ve picked up through doing over 500 presentations over the past decade.

Public Speaking Tips

Public Speaking and Presentation Tips

1. Create a Practice Presentation

When was the last time you chose to speak in front of a group?

The fact is most of the presentations in our lives are assigned to us, and we only practice presenting as we draw nearer to one of those assigned presentations.  I believe one of the things that keep people from becoming better public speakers is that they rarely take the opportunity to practice.

The primary reason being is that for most people the opportunity to present comes along rather rarely.  Unfortunately, those rare opportunities are also relatively prescriptive on what you will be presenting about.

So not only are you only presenting, say, once a month or once a quarter, you don’t get to choose the topic about which you will be speaking.

This situation isn’t conducive to significant improvement.  Not long ago I decided that I wanted to learn how to drive a standard transmission car, so two or three times a month I’d visit a friend and we’d go out and practice.

I’d improve a little over each session, but when I’d return a couple of weeks later, I had generally regressed most of the way back to the novice.

It wasn’t until my friend suggested we swap cars for two weeks, and I had no choice but to practice each day (much to the chagrin of everyone waiting to turn left behind me at traffic lights) that I truly managed to become proficient.

In addition, it’s never fun to do things we don’t find interesting or enjoyable.  So the challenge becomes making presenting into something that you can practice consistently, and that you will find interesting and even enjoyable.

So whether you’re a novice speaker or a seasoned pro, I offer this suggestion: create your own presentation, about something that you truly care about or find interesting. 

Then schedule a dinner party or backyard BBQ where you will have to present it.  There are two different ways I suggest approaching this:

  • Create your own 18-minute “TED Talk”.  TED.com has become wildly popular, and is often seen as the “holy grail” of speaking engagements.  Imagine that the TED conference called you tomorrow and told you that you had a spot at the next conference.  You could speak about whatever you were most passionate about.  Create that presentation and work on refining it each day.
  • Create an 18-minute presentation on your “Edge of the Bed Advice”.  The full story behind the Edge of the Bed Advice concept in a nutshell it is this: imagine that your son or daughter was leaving home tomorrow, and you went and sat down on the edge of their bed the night before, only to have them ask, “what is the best life advice you can give me?  What are the key things you’ve discovered that lead to happiness?”  What would you answer?  Create a presentation about the things you have discovered that make you wise.  For some people, imagining a presentation they’d give to their 18-year-old selves is an approach that works as well.

In both of these scenarios, the presentation is about what you think, what you care about, and what you think is important to share with the world – not about a strategic plan you might not necessarily buy into, or the dry boring data of the last quarter, or some other topic you’ve been “assigned” to speak about.

If you have a fear of public speaking it’s crucial that you set up a time to present your practice presentation.  Make it 6-8 weeks in the future if you’d like, but make sure you schedule a time and place where you know you’re going to have to actually deliver it.  It’s the only way you know you’ll stick to it.

If you have a fear of public speaking it’s crucial that you set up a time to present your practice presentation.  Make it 6-8 weeks in the future if you’d like, but make sure you schedule a time and place where you know you’re going to have to actually deliver it.  It’s the only way you know you’ll stick to it.

Once you’re done, start work on another presentation, and set up another dinner or BBQ. 

In this way, you’re constantly creating presentations you care about, practicing them, and then presenting them in a safe space.  In fact, you may find that colleagues welcome the opportunity to present as well.

The patio at my apartment is host to a monthly get-together where people share the presentations they’ve been using to practice for the last couple of months. 

It’s a chance for people to get together, hone their presentation skills in a safe environment, and of course, have some good food and wine with friends!

2. “What Is The Audience Afraid Of?”

What do you talk about more on any given day?  The things that make you happy or the things that frustrate you?

I’ve found that there are two things to which people will always pay attention: things that annoy them, and things that frighten them.  Of the two, I’ve found that it’s easier to capture an audience’s attention by focusing on what they fear.

Let me be clear, this doesn’t mean you should scare the audience!  Rather, it means you should craft your presentations in such a way that the audience sees them as being helpful in addressing their fear.

For instance, my first TEDx talk was supposed to be about leadership.  I asked myself, “when it comes to leadership, what is the audience going to be afraid of?”  I determined that many people were afraid of calling themselves leaders because they thought it would make them look cocky or arrogant, or that they wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectations claiming that title brings with it. 

I chose to craft my presentation in a way that tried to demonstrate that fear was unfounded.

When crafting a talk on mental illness, I realized that not everyone in the audience would be able to relate directly to having a mental illness, so I asked, “what universal fear could I address through my personal story of mental illness?” 

I decided to focus on the fears of looking weak, being an embarrassment to those that care about you, and coming off as unemployable.

Those fears are universal, not just present in those with mental illness, and I aimed to create a presentation that talked about how to effectively address those fears, regardless of whether or not you had a mental illness.

However, I demonstrated those approaches through a personal story of dealing with mental illness. 

By creating a presentation that focused on more universal fears, I aimed to get people to connect with the less-universal experience of mental illness.

The key is to ask yourself, “what universal fears are related to the subject matter that I want to present?”

Public Speaking Presentation Planniing

3. Make it a Story

If I asked you right now to simply “tell me your story”, what would you say?

When I ran the Leadership Development Program at the University of Toronto, we brought in an amazing man named James Maskalyk, who worked with Doctors Without Borders, to talk about his blog and book, Six Months in Sudan. 

I asked him why, after days in 50 degrees Celsius heat, watching children die from things we can cure with a simple pill here in Canada, he would sit down and relive his experiences through writing his blog.

“Drew,” he said, “the story is the basic unit of human understanding.  If you want people to understand and care about something, you have to make sure you tell it as a story.”

The story is the basic unit of human understanding.  I believe that all effective presentations build off of that fundamental truth.  So take a look at whatever it is that you want people to know as a result of your presentation, and ask yourself, “how can I make this into a story?”

It doesn’t have to be the story of something that has actually happened to you.

It could be the story of what could happen; the story of what has to happen; the story of what will happen if certain things don’t change, but it has to be a story.

Broca_Area

4. “Wake Up Broca”

Do you remember a feature on cell phones called T9?

Back when cell phones first started texting, before the advent of “smartphones” with full keyboards, T9 was a feature where you’d type words using your phone keypad, and it would recognize patterns in your typing and guess what word you were likely typing next.

The brain works the same way.  An amazing presenter once told me about “Broca’s Region”, a region of the brain primarily responsible for language recognition. 

However, he said that it’s also part of the brain responsible for recognizing patterns.  Like the “T9” function on phones, Broca’s Region played a role in processing what words had been spoken and guessing which was going to come next.

This essentially allows the brain to be a little lazy – it doesn’t have to pay total attention to what is being said to understand it.

However, as a speaker, you WANT people to be paying complete attention to what you’re saying.  When they can put their brains on autopilot, you’re far more likely to lose their interest, and they’re far more likely to miss important parts of your presentation.

As a result, my friend pointed out, you have about 45 seconds at the beginning of your presentation to “wake up Broca”, and make the brain think, “Hey, this is different, I better pay attention here.”

As such, plan on how you’re going to “wake up Broca” at the opening of your presentation.  I use three main approaches:

  • Pose a question the audience should know but probably doesn’t, e.g., “What are three key values you try to embody every day of your life, and how do you define them?”
  • Pose a question that causes the audience to be self-reflective, e.g., “How many of you in this room are completely comfortable with calling yourself a leader?”
  • Provide an interesting piece of trivia that has something to do with your presentation or with the room you’re speaking in.  For example, I often speak in a large hall in an old building at the University of Toronto.  In the corner is a stone turret like you’d find in a castle, with a spiral staircase.  I often open presentations in that room by asking if people knew that all spiral staircases ascend the same way (clockwise), because most people are right-handed, and it allowed right-handed swordsmen to freely swing their swords downward at attackers.

Whatever you do, avoid the standard, “Hello, my name is X, and today I’d like to speak with you about…”  Feel free to introduce yourself and your credentials early in the presentation, but do not lead with it.  It makes the brain say, “oh, I’ve heard this before, and they’re not going to say anything for a couple of minutes.” 

The problem is, once they tune out, they rarely tune back in.  Too many great presentations lose the audience because they aren’t great fast enough.

In Part 2 of this article, I’ll present strategies for effectively making a point, working with minimal notes, and engaging the audience in your presentation effectively.

Public Speaking Presentation Process

5. The Three-Part, Three Point-Presenting Process

Have you ever sat back and analyzed how you try to convince someone of something? 

When I finally did, I realized that ultimately a presentation is you making a series of points that you hope the audience will find valid, even compelling.  As such, the better a job I did at convincing them the majority of my points held water, the more successful a presenter I’d be.  As such, I’ve adopted a specific and systematic approach to each point I’m trying to make in a presentation.  I call it the “Three-Part Point-Presenting Process”.

It looks like this:

  • State your point/thesis
  • Provide a specific example that you believe demonstrates your point is valid.  Specific means it’s the opportunity to tell a story of a specific instance, that you can then indicate has proven valid in the majority of cases.
  • Indicate to the audience why this is important to THEM.

That final step is the one that most people skip over.  Here’s an example of how I would use the above approach in a presentation to educators, in an effort to convince them that we need to put more emphasis on the development of self-awareness in the education system:

  • State your point/thesis
    We need to ensure that young people can identify how they can add value to their own lives and the lives of others with the same proficiency they can write tests and essays.
  • Provide a specific example that you believe demonstrates your point is valid.
    During a presentation two years ago, I asked a brilliant student who had received numerous scholarships a single question, “why do you matter?”  He completely froze up, and was unable to offer any answer at all.  Thinking that I had put him on the spot, I asked another student in the room, who had the same response.  Since then, I’ve asked hundreds of the most intelligent, dynamic, passionate, well-educated students in the world that same question, and 9 times out of 10, they can offer no answer at all.
  • Indicate to the audience why this is important to THEM.
    You want to have your heart broken?  Those of you with children, go home tonight and ask them that question.  Watching how they struggle with it should be all the convincing you need that we need to do a better job making sure that our students are not their own worst subject.  Everyone here takes pride in being an educator, but I ask, how can we call what we’re providing an education if the most well-educator of our children cannot answer the question “why do you matter?” because they’ve never been asked it before, and never been convinced they should be asking it of themselves?

Again, many presenters do a great job with steps 1 and 2, but it’s asking yourself, “how can I make it clear why this matters to the audience” that takes your presentations to the next level.  Don’t assume they’ll figure it out, lay it out for them.

Business Presentation

6. Be Indispensable to the Presentation

We’ve all been in the audience for a presenter who simply places text-heavy slides on the screen, and then reads them to us.  If you’re anything like me, five minutes into the presentation you’re thinking, “just give me a copy of the slides, and we can all get out of here much faster!”

The fact is that you should be indispensable to the presentation – 80% of the content should come from you and not any slides or visuals you might use.

However, the idea of remembering that much content is really intimidating to many people, and as a result, they bring extensive notes and spend most of the presentation reading them or referencing them.

If I was to ask you, “can you memorize and present a 30-minute presentation?”  What would you say?  Many of you would believe that given enough time to practice it, you could probably pull it off, while some of you would simply say, “there’s no way.”

I think that the key is to make sure you don’t look at a presentation as being 15, or 30, or 60 minutes.  I prefer to break presentations down into a series of 3-minute “segments”.

If you don’t think you can remember a 30-minute presentation, make your challenge remembering a 3-minute “joke”.  A 30-minute presentation is just ten 3-minute “jokes”.

The bonus is, you get to use your slides to remind you what joke comes next!  And each joke has an opening, a middle, and a closing. These happen to coincide with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the “Three-Part, Three-Point Presenting Process” outlined above.

When you create your presentation, ask yourself, “what are the main points I want to make?”

Put those points (and those points only) on your slides.  Those points are the “Part 1” of the 3-Part process I outlined above.

Now go through each one and identify what you are going to say for Part 2 (coming up with a specific example that demonstrates your point), and Part 3 (how you’re going to demonstrate it’s important to the audience).

Practice going through each slide and saying Part 2 and Part 3.  If you find that you can’t remember them, add a little bit of information to the slide to prompt you.  Try to get used to presenting using just onscreen prompts to remind you of what comes next, rather than relying on notes.

Why do I call them “jokes”?  Well, jokes are supposed to be fun, interesting, and something people will enjoy listening to.

By thinking of each point in a presentation the same way, I think you’re more likely to craft points that succeed in being interesting and engaging.

7. Mentally Tap into the Internal Play-by-Play of the Audience

Next time you’re watching a presentation, note the dialogue that’s probably going on in your head.

You’re likely providing yourself with a color commentary like you’d hear watching a sports event on TV:

  • “I see what he’s trying to say there, and it would work sometimes, but he seems to have forgotten about the fact that…”
  • “I really liked what he said there!  I’ve always thought that, but haven’t heard it put that way before!”
  • “That would really work in our office, when I get back, I should talk to X about what he’s saying here.”
  • “Yeah, that might have worked in his experience, but how would I apply it considering that…”

As speakers present, every single member of the audience is making comments to themselves about what they think of it, both positive and negative.

As speakers present, every single member of the audience is making comments to themselves about what they think of it, both positive and negative.
Author

Great presenters anticipate these comments ahead of time and use them to craft their presentations.

One young woman, upon hearing me talk about this “internal play-by-play”, exclaimed, “yes, that’s exactly what scares the heck out of me about presenting!

I KNOW that everyone in the audience is evaluating me at each step!”

That may very well be true, but instead of finding that fact intimidating, use it to your advantage to show the audience that you’ve given some thought to the things that might concern them.  At every stage of crafting your presentation, keep asking the following questions:

  • What will the audience be thinking at this point?  Should I address those thoughts directly or leave them be?
  • What could the audience be doubting or questioning at this point, and how can I address those doubts/answer those questions?
  • What is the most appropriate way for me to acknowledge the thoughts going on in the audience’s heads, and what would it take for ME to be convinced?

By playing Devil’s Advocate to your own arguments, you’re going to show the audience that you’re aware of potential weaknesses, and more importantly, you may identify ways to immediately address the questions they’ve raised in their heads, which increases your credibility and impact in the eyes of the audience.

Playing Devils Advocate

8. It’s About THEM

Which presentations are the ones that truly engage you? 

I bet if you think about it, it won’t be the presentations that provide you with fascinating information you’ve never heard before – it will be the presentations that make you think about things that have happened (or are happening) in your life, and ways the information you’re receiving could impact your life as you’re listening to the presentation.

When you present, you are the one giving the presentation, but ultimately the presentation has to be about the audience.

As a result, while you should always be telling your stories, you should practice finding a way to make the audience think of their own stories while you do so.

This takes practice, but by paying attention to developing this skill, you will make your presentations much more engaging.

For instance, look back at all eight tips that I’ve given you in this article.

Each and every one of them started with something designed to engage you, the audience, in the story that I wanted to tell by asking you to tap into a part of YOUR story.  Here are the eight opening sentences provided:

  • When was the last time you chose to speak in front of a group?
  • What do you talk about most in the day, the things that make you happy or the things that make you angry?
  • If I asked you right now to simply “tell me your story”, what would you say?
  • Do you remember a feature on cell phones called T9?
  • Have you ever sat back and analyzed how you try to convince someone of something?
  • We’ve all been in the audience for a presenter who simply places text-heavy slides on the screen, and then reads them to us.
  • Next time you’re watching a presentation, note the dialogue that’s probably going on in your head.
  • Which presentations are the ones that truly engage you?
The most powerful thing a speaker can do is not to make people say, “oh wow, I didn’t know that!” The most powerful thing a speaker can do is to make people say, “oh wow, I thought I was the only one who thought/needed/feared that”

The most powerful thing a speaker can do is not to make people say, “oh wow, I didn’t know that!” The most powerful thing a speaker can do is to make people say, “oh wow, I thought I was the only one who thought/needed/feared that.”

Every time you make a statement or tell a story, ask yourself if there is a question you can ask or a statement you can make that will turn the statement or story into something more universal that people can connect with.

If you’re telling a story of a heated exchange you had with a co-worker that you’re ashamed of, could you add in “have you ever lost your head at work in a way you weren’t proud of?”

That simple sentence will get the audience nodding, as they connect to an experience in their mind to which they can then apply whatever strategy or idea you provide next.

The fact is, every interaction is a presentation, and all of the tips above can be used when you stride onto a stage in front of hundreds, or you’re striving to effectively engage someone one-on-one.

The key is to consistently practice, and figure out how to make each tip work for your particular style.

Happy presenting!

Do You Have a Fear of Public Speaking?

If you have ideas about the fear of public speaking that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Drew Dudley
Drew Dudley
Drew is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership, Inc., and the former Coordinator of one of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.
  • Awang Anwaruddin says:

    Excellent. Thanks a lot for sharing.
    Awang ANWARUDDIN, NIPA Indonesia

  • This is honestly highly effective. Never seen it like this anywhere else before!

  • The sole aim of our being is to show and give off ourselves. I longed for this knowledge, am glad you provided the awesome tips and lovely guide to being a better leader. In the universe just two people exists, the leader and the led. One remains subject though the goal may be mutual but the outcome always projects the brave who thinks and act promptly. I love your post, thanks for making my day and the world will soon thank you for making a leader. I feel blessed.

  • It is always to have a good and intelligent impression at the start and remember always to keep your audience interesting with your topic.

  • Wonderful. This has really given me the leverage to provide a better presentation to my clients. Thanks so much

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