How to use your fear of public speaking to be a better speaker

It’s normal to get nervous about public speaking.

When you stand up in front of people and open your mouth, you’re making yourself vulnerable. Public speaking involves risk. So aiming for zero fear is unrealistic.

I still get nervous when I have to present in unfamiliar situations. I’m very used to presenting to small groups of people on a course. That’s my comfort zone. But take me outside of that familiar situation, and I’ll get nervous.

If I were to get upset about being nervous, I would make it worse. I don’t fight my nerves, I use them.

Here are three specific ways in which you can use your fear of public speaking to make you a better public speaker and presenter.

1. Let your fear of public speaking motivate you

I gave a presentation on Monday, which I prepared over the weekend. I decided that I would use the flipchart as my main visual aid, but I had three PowerPoint slides that I wanted to show. I didn’t rehearse with the PowerPoint slides because I saw them as such a minimal part of the presentation. Half an hour before the presentation as I sat listening to the presenter before me, I realised I had forgotten to insert black slides into the PowerPoint file (find out more about black slides ). It wasn’t a disaster, and probably nobody noticed but me, but I knew that my presentation was not quite as good as it could have been.

Here’s the lesson I take from this: I wasn’t nervous enough and complacency got the better of me. If I had been more nervous, I would have rehearsed with the PowerPoint slides and realized that I needed to insert black slides.

Preparation and rehearsal take time and effort. We need to be motivated to do it – and fear is a great motivator. People without fear tend to skimp on preparation and rehearsal, they wing it. So they waffle and ramble their way through their minutes on stage.

Let your fear motivate you to prepare and rehearse and you’ll be a more effective speaker.

2. You can choose how to interpret your fear of public speaking

Here’s a classic experiment in psychology:

Students were led to believe that they were getting a vitamin injection with no side effects, but were instead injected with adrenalin. Adrenalin causes a pounding heart, tremors and a flushed feeling. They were then asked to wait in a room while the ‘vitamin’ was getting absorbed. There was another person in the room with them – a stooge of the experimenters. In half the cases, the stooge was playful and fun – creating a ‘euphoric’ atmosphere. In the other half, the stooge was disagreeable, moaning and groaning – creating an ‘angry’ atmosphere. The students were observed through a one-way window and were then asked to fill in a questionnaire about their feelings. The students described and labeled their mood according to the atmosphere they had been placed in. (Adapted from Weiten W Psychology:Themes and Variations 1992)

Adrenalin is also at work when you feel nervous about speaking. The students in the experiment interpreted the effects of adrenalin differently. So can you. Feel the adrenalin and choose to interpret it as excitement and energy towards the challenge of speaking.

3. Use the adrenalin to fuel your passion

In surveys of what audiences want, passion, enthusiasm and energy are often mentioned (public speaking survey from SixMinutes, presentation survey from 2connect). We love passionate speakers.

A totally relaxed and laidback speaker is unlikely to show passion. To show passion you need to be full of energy and excitement about sharing your message with the audience. That comes from adrenalin. The same adrenalin that is making you nervous. Use that adrenalin to fuel your passion.

So don’t fight your nerves, make friends with them – and use them to make you a better speaker.

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17 Comments

  1. While turning nervousness into excitement might seem on the surface to be a good idea (and frankly, it’s better than nothing) the reality is that nervous energy has “jagged edges” and ends up “poking” the audience.

    Really, a better idea is to get at the root of the problem which is how a person is representing the task of speaking to themselves in their minds.

    Stage fright doesn’t come from a virus, it originates as unpleasant results pictured in the mind, usually accompanied by self-defeating self-talk.

    Getting at those self-defeating representations is the heart of conquering stage fright and fear of public speaking.

    Hope that helps!

    Best,
    David Portney

    • Hi David,

      I agree with you that getting to the root of fear of public speaking through analysing your self-talk is most important. I’ve written about that here (for an example see http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/nervousness/thinking-sins-public-speaking/).

      This article is also about self-talk. Instead of seeing fear of public speaking as a terrible thing to be avoided at all costs, I’m encouraging people to see the fear as something which is likely to be present and which if they see it in a particular light can also be helpful.

      I don’t agree with you that nervous energy has “jagged edges” that “poke” the audience. I’ve watched many, many people who are very nervous and often members of the audience simply cannot tell.

      But, yes, looking at the self-defeating self-talk is at the heart of it. Olivia

  2. adrenalin could be diverted to willpower. it’s pretty much the same, isn’t it? both have the same characteristics of rush that could be used for productive purposes. it’s the jitters that I am afraid of, sometimes it freezes the speaker when on stage.

    • Hi Carol

      I would put willpower in a different category. Nervousness and excitement are both things we can feel. Willpower is about control and discipline – through your thoughts.

      Saying “I’ve got the jitters” is another way of saying “I’m nervous”. So I think it is possible to put the jitters to productive use as well (like the way you’ve put that).

      Freezing on the stage is not pleasant. You’ve heard of the fight or flight syndrome? Freeze should also be included in there as another reaction we have when under threat. Freezing can manifest itself in two ways:

      1. Your mind freezing aka a mind blank – for suggestions on how to deal with this see http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/delivery/recover-mind-blank/ .

      2. Your body freezing. If you know this is something that happens to you, practice how to deal with it. You need to get yourself moving as soon as you start your presentation. Act as if you’re not frozen, and you will gradually feel less stiff and nervous. I’ll write more about this in a future post.

      Olivia

  3. Olivia,

    I think of nervousness in two ways. (Maybe that’s my way of interpreting the fear, as you suggest.)

    The way we commonly think of it comes down to stage fright, a sort of performance anxiety that jolts us with a surge of adrenaline. Your suggestions for dealing with it — both here and elsewhere — are exactly right.

    And, I think, there’s also something else going on, something that isn’t just performance anxiety. It has more to do with making ourselves vulnerable. When we stake out a position that isn’t commonly accepted or conventional, when we say what we believe and value without hiding behind highfaluting words and phrases or presentation pyrotechnics, we’re taking a risk. Speaking is and should be scary. There are no techniques to transform this kind of fear. The only antidote is courage.

    Chris

    • Hi Chris
      Thank you for your valuable addition to the conversation. I agree with you.

      I think of the two types of fear in this way:

      1. Natural fear. As you say – speaking is and should be scary. Courage and channeling it in the ways I’ve suggested it are what is needed.
      2. Self- induced fear. This is the nervousness you get because of unuseful self-talk. Saying to yourself things like “I must not make a mistake”, “The audience mustn’t see I’m nervous” etc. You can reduce this fear by managing those thoughts. See this article for more on this http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/nervousness/thinking-sins-public-speaking/.

      Olivia

  4. You’re dead right about complacency being a dangerous enemy.

    Many moons ago, I had to speak at an IBM venue near Brussels. A flight traffic controllers’ strike meant that we were diverted to another airport and, after a frantic taxi drive, I ended up walking into the lecture theatre one minute late as I was taking my coat off. To my surprise, after all that stress, it went very well.

    A few weeks later I had to do the same gig at the same venue and decided to get to Brussels the night before, allowing plenty of time to arrive early. The travel plans went very smoothly, and this, I thought, would be a doddle – after all, it had gone down well last time to a very similar audience. But it didn’t this time, it was one of the poorest performances I’d ever given and it was entirely my fault for being too laid back and relaxed about it.

    That’s why I always teach that, however many times you may have given the same presentation, you have to remember that the next one is always another first time.

  5. This is an excellent example of a ‘first instruction’ post. When you’re teaching someone to ‘get over’ the ‘jitters,’ often times they’re not able to get over them right away. Or, in other situations, the individual has a day job – they can’t devote the energy to really conquering their stage fright. In this situation, the best advice really is – divert that nervous energy to something constructive.

    Like your mother told you when you started bouncing around the house – why don’t you use all that energy to take out the trash?

    Every now and then, I run into Problem #1, or the problem attached to your third point. When you approach your presentation as if you’ve seen and done it all before, you’re shortchanging the people who have spent their time, energy, and oftentimes money, to hear what you have to say.

    At the same time, if you have too much adrenaline fueling that passion… well, things can get a bit messy, hectic, and rushed. Learning to throttle your energy is one of those things a speaker can devote oodles of time to.

    Thanks for the article!

  6. Great point abobut the adrenalin. I can’t imagine an ethics committee allowing that sort of thig these days, but it does prove the point that we interpret our environment to see what we want.

    Cheers

    Darren Fleming
    Australia’s Public Speaking Coach

  7. Thank you, Olivia. I agree with your position on using fear as a motivator. Some of the greatest masterpieces have been created while out of the creators’ comfort zones. Fear of public speaking is one of the most common fears. I recently read a poll that reported that some people would rather have dental work than deliver a speech!

    This technique of using fear as a motivator can be adopted in any field. Today many people who have lost jobs have used fear as an ally, by pursuing a business they have always considered or training for a new career. Real estate expert Carlton Sheets speaks of how he started his successful coaching business while out of his usual ‘comfort zone’. The cliche’ “Necessity is the mother of invention” definitely has merit.

    Fear of anything can be crippling. The only way to overcome fear is to meet the fear face to face. Preparation truly arms us with the the confidence needed to be triumphant over our fears.

    • Hi Danna

      Thanks for your contribution. Being out of the comfort zone can be a great motivator. But preparation doesn’t always help overcome fear. You can be incredibly prepared for an event and still be nervous.

      Olivia

  8. I used to be really good at public speaking because I would channel in on my nerves and turn it into passion and excitement. But after a long break from public speaking, I got up in front of a group and was sooo nervous and excited that I spoke so rapidly that my speech was over and done with a lot quicker than I expected. The feedback I got from my audience was that they couldn’t remember what I had said, because I had rushed through it so quickly.

    While it’s important to be passionate and excited about what you are delivering, it’s also important to remember to have breaks/pauses in your speech. Pause and stress the important points to give your audience time to soak in and think about what you are saying. As a result, your speech will be so much more effective and enjoyable.

  9. Olivia Mitchell,
    I have to say that this topic is what I always confronted with. Every time ,I stand up on
    the group of people, what I prepared before are gone, after I finished the presentation, finding that the content prepared for the presentation was missed?

    • Hi Kane
      It’s very frustrating to stand up and forget all the material that you’ve carefully planned. Or to find when you sit back down that there was a crucial point that you missed.

      I’ll write a post on this issue, but in the meantime here are two tips:

      1. Create yourself some notes and train yourself while you’re rehearsing to look at them when you’re not sure what to say next.
      2. Create a handout for the audience with all your critical points. That way if you miss something critical you can comfort yourself with the thought that at least it’s in the handout.

      Hope this helps.
      Olivia

  10. i am troubling with the freeze or the mind blank problem and it some times worsens. Sometimes (it has happened) i went upto the stage to give the talk or the speech or some presentation , i am so completely frozen (inspite of practising etc) that i even forgets who am i , where am i and where is the projector and what is the topic and why ami standing on the stage.
    I get the first remark at such times – have you not practised??
    but i think my problem is – i think it must go perfect otherwise i am dead.

  11. No matter if some one searches for his vital thing, so he/she wishes
    to be available that in detail, so that thing is maintained over
    here.

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