Anxiety and public speaking: What everyone ought to know

I joined Toastmasters to learn how to overcome public speaking anxiety. I found a welcoming and supportive club and gradually got more comfortable about public speaking. I even found that anxiety and public speaking weren’t words that automatically went hand in hand. So I started to stretch myself. I entered the Toastmasters public speaking competition and to my surprise won the club competition.

Suddenly I was competing at the next level. That anxiety about public speaking walloped me out of nowhere. When I got up to speak, my legs felt like noodles. My notes were shivering in my hand. As I looked out at what seemed to me several football fields filled with people, I could feel my heart beating like it was going to explode out of my chest.

I was on autopilot but I got through that speech (I didn’t win). Friends came up to me afterward and when I asked if they could see how nervous I was, they said no. My partner Tony was there too, and he said that he could see some nervousness, but only because he knew me so well. He added that most people wouldn’t have been able to tell. I didn’t believe these nice comments at the time. I thought they were all trying to make me feel better!

But a couple of years later, Tony and I were preparing a seminar that we would be delivering at the Toastmasters annual conference. As part of our preparation, we gave the seminar at a local Toastmasters club and videoed ourselves. The anxiety was there too, but I watched in amazement at the video afterwards. I could not see the anxiety that I had been feeling at the time.

Swan Anxiety and public speaking: It doesn’t show as much as you think it does

Just like we don’t see the energetic paddling as a swan glides across the water, you don’t look as nervous as you feel.

15 years later, as a presentation trainer and having worked with hundreds of people, I see this phenomena all the time. The presenter’s anxiety does not show at the same level as they feel it. After a course participant has delivered their presentation, we’ll often ask them to rate their anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10 where extreme nervousness is 10. The presenter might say they were ‘8’ on the scale. Then we ask the other participants what they thought. They’ll say ‘3’. Just like I was, the presenter is amazed.

You don’t look as nervous as you feel.

Here’s why. You feel the symptoms of nervousness. The audience can only perceive what they can see and hear. They cannot feel your feelings. Here are some examples of this:

1. Your heart is racing

You feel like you’re a bomb about to explode but the audience sees nothing. They cannot hear your heart beat or feel the kaboom in your chest.

2. You’ve got a dry mouth

Your mouth feels like cotton wool but all the audience perceives is an occasional unclear word.

3. Your voice is shaky

You think that you sound terrible but people who don’t know you don’t know that that’s not your normal voice. People who know you well may be able to perceive a slight difference.

This is not to say that an audience doesn’t perceive anxiety at all – just that what they perceive is at a much lesser scale than you.

The best way to convince yourself of this is to video yourself and then watch yourself. But do read my post on watching your video first  because there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing it.

Remember: you don’t look as nervous as you feel.

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  1. Great observations. I also tell my class participants that “You never look as nervous as you feel”. It helps them to know that it is feelings and self-talk they must deal with, not “problems” in their presentations. It isolates the issue and leads to a solution.
    But your post suggested another point: that just as “The presenter’s anxiety does not show at the same level as they feel it”, The presenters positive passion and commitment do not show as strongly as they feel it either.
    This reinforces the need to demonstrate your positive energy about your message by using gestures, tone and words.

    • Hi Santo
      I agree that dealing with self-talk is the most effective method for reducing anxiety.

      I love your point about our positive feelings not showing up as much. Again videoing yourself gives you really useful feedback on whether you’re showing as much energy and passion as you’d like too.

      I’m cautious about suggesting to people that they think too much about their gestures and tone. It can lead to artificiality in the way that they come across.

      Here’s how I would approach it:
      1. Review how you come across on video,
      2. If you decide “Yes, it would be useful for me to come across with more passion”, then
      3. Video yourself again and this time let your passion come out more, be less inhibited.
      4. Review the video and decide whether you’re happy with the way you came across. Often we’re concerned about looking foolish if we show too much passion. The video will show you whether you’re in any danger of that.

      Thanks again, Santo, for pointing out this parallel between our nervous feelings and passionate feelings. It’s a great point.

  2. Great post!

    Looking at your own video is ok as a starting point.

    Of course at some stage public speaking has to be done in ‘public’. the web provides an exciting way to practice in public ‘virtually’

    Several of my public speaking friends have taken it a step further and submitted videos of themselves speaking to my website

    They get a simple page built around their speech video.

    They get to watch it and get constructive comments.

    They can show it to their Mom!

  3. Nice post…recently i experienced this…i thought i had messed up my presentation and was feeling embarrassed that my anxiety must have been evident…but my friends told that i did a pretty good job…

    • Hi docspike
      It’s really useful to have friends around who can tell you how you did. But they’re not always there, so next time you present and think your anxiety must have been obvious, remember that it doesn’t always show.
      All the best with your next presentation.


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