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Overcome Public Speaking Anxiety

Wendy M Yoder, Ph.D.
Overcome Public Speaking Anxiety

Fear of public speaking is incredibly common, and not just in those with anxiety. While anxiety tends to fuel public speaking fears, nearly anyone can suffer from this type of phobia. Public speaking anxiety is one of the most common fears shared among the general population, and unfortunately these days few people have the tools necessary to overcome this fear.

What Causes Fear of Public Speaking?

Fear of public speaking - also known as Glossophobia - has its roots in social phobia. It comes from the fear of being judged, which stems from all the attention that people place on you when you're speaking. Ideally, you need to be able to deliver a loud, effective speech. Yet doubts over our own ability combined with the knowledge that others are forced to pay attention to the words we share can create a feeling of fear that is tough to shake.

Public speaking fears are also frequently reinforced. No one gives a perfect speech. If you go up there and do a great job but make a few mistakes, your mind tends to focus on the mistakes, and your fear is then confirmed.

In addition, there is reason to believe that the modern day lifestyle makes glossophobia more common than it had been in the past. Consider the following:

It doesn't matter if you're younger or more experienced - the modern day lifestyle has less interaction with other people, which can only increase the ease to which people develop public speaking anxiety.

How to Reduce Public Speaking Anxiety

A little bit of anxiety as you prepare for a big speech or presentation is common. Even the best speakers in the world get a small amount of anxiety before they get on stage or speak in front of a large group. You should never expect yourself to be completely anxiety free. What you need is for that anxiety to fuel you into giving a great speech, not hold you back from speaking.

When your fear of public speaking overwhelms you, you need help. The problem is that we have a tendency to focus on the mistakes, so it's not always easy to overcome that anxiety right away. One mistake (and yes, everyone makes mistakes), and you may accidentally convince yourself that your fears were justified.

In order to cure your public speaking anxiety, you need to make smart decisions before, during, and after you speak. Some people get public speaking anxiety just by talking in front of their friends when their friends are in large groups. 

In this case, we're talking about learning to speak in front of a group. It may be planned (such as a presentation at work) or unplanned (such as talking at a meeting when you have a good idea), but you still need to make the right choices and deal with your anxiety directly.

Below are strategies that will help you overcome your public speaking anxiety.

Before Your Speech or Talk

Practice Thoroughly

Obviously practice is step one, and the step that you need to complete beyond adequately. You practice for several reasons. You practice to remember your speech or your lines. You practice because it turns the act of speaking into more of an instinct. You practice because you become more familiar with what giving your speech and speaking up is like, so that if you do lose your way and your speech is derailed you have an easier time making your way back.

But you need to over-prepare. Don't just stop because you think you know it. Stop when you're annoyed that you have to keep doing it. Then do it three more times. The point isn't just to know your speech. The point is to know it so well that you don't even want to give it anymore. That's when you're ready to go.

Visualization and Relaxation

Your next step is to try to get used to the fears you're going to have. Do this only after you've practiced thoroughly. Then, imagine a huge crowd of people judging you. Imagine upset faces and anger. Imagine the things that will cause you anxiety.

Once you've done that, you should start to experience a bit of anxiety. Your heart rate should increase a little and your fear should start to take over. Once that happen, take some deep breaths. Try to relax. Imagine those frowning faces mean something better. Imagine that they really love your speech, and they're glaring at you because they can't handle it. Try to calm yourself down until you feel better, then keep going.

Once it no longer brings you anxiety, give the speech and imagine you're giving it in front of a hostile audience. See if you can calm yourself down while giving the talk without any distractions. That'll help you get used to it.

Get Used to Embarrassment

You can also try a strategy that some people use to get over their social phobia. You can try to get used to the idea of embarrassment. If you no longer fear embarrassment, your ability to overcome some of your public speaking fears will be cured with it.

How to do this is up to you. One of the easiest ways is to dress up in some ridiculous outfit and simply sit outside somewhere public. People will look at you, and people will think you look funny, and you'll feel embarrassed. But if you stay out there for a long time, eventually that embarrassment won't bother you anymore.

You can also do something a bit more active. You can try yelling in a bar ("who here loves baseball?!") or try to say "hi" to everyone you walk past. It's not that important what you do, but it is important that you do a lot of it. You do it until you it bores you, and you stop worrying about whether people are judging you.

This isn't a cure for public speaking anxiety on its own, but every little but helps.

What to Do on the Day of the Speech

On the day the speech arrives, you need to make sure you do all of the little things that help your body and mind control anxiety. You need to make sure that you're fully rested, with a good night's sleep. You need to make sure you're properly hydrated and that you've had full and healthy meals. You need to go jogging, or do something to relieve some of your muscle tension.

You should also prepare everything you need in advance, so that you don't have any worries about whether or not you have everything ready. You can try practicing the presentation one more time and do the visualization techniques again - or you can integrate many relaxation strategies to make sure you're calm for the day, such as:

The less anxiety you experience that day, the easier a time you'll have on the speech. The buildup can be one of the worst parts, and avoiding the buildup will decrease the way that anxiety affects you.

Finally, remind yourself that it doesn't matter what people think. Don't go in there worrying about everyone else. Go in there reminding yourself that you've done what you can, and that no matter how well it goes you'll continue to get better.

The Speech

There are strategies you can integrate when you start speaking to reduce anxiety as well. These include:

Once you're into the speech there isn't as much you can do. But there are ways to improve the likelihood of a positive outcome. As soon as it's over, pretend you did a great job. Worry about any mistakes you may have made later.

After the Speech is Over

One thing that many people don't realize is that what you do after a speech can also affect how well you are able to handle the next time you speak. If you sit in the corner and think about all of the things that went wrong, then you'll worry about the next speech more. If you allow yourself to feel too "relieved" as well, you'll reinforce the idea that what you did was scary, and increase the likelihood of fear next time. Consider the following:

How You Can Overcome Public Speaking and Anxiety

The reality is that you can recover from your fear of public speaking. Using the above tips can be a big help. If you're also someone that suffers from anxiety regularly, you'll also benefit greatly from controlling your overall anxiety. Anxiety tends to be cumulative, and those with anxiety are far more likely to develop public speaking fears.

Article Resources
  1. Kirsch, Irving; Henry, David. Self-desensitization and meditation in the reduction of public speaking anxiety. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 47(3), Jun 1979, 536-541. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.47.3.536
  2. Pertaub, David-Paul, Mel Slater, and Chris Barker. An experiment on public speaking anxiety in response to three different types of virtual audience. Presence: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments 11.1 (2002): 68-78. 
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