3 ways to overcome your fear of public speaking

Accepting that everyone gets the heebie-jeebies is a good start. Try these tactics to chase away the butterflies and bring your best every time you address a group.

Pre-talk jitters strike pretty much every speaker.

Whether you’re facing your first presentation opportunity or your fiftieth, chances are you will experience some level of apprehension.

Even seasoned professionals who have been presenting for many years must manage their nerves leading up to the event.

Fear of public speaking is a normal response—one that’s hard-wired into the human brain. That doesn’t mean you should allow sweaty palms, a shaky voice and fluttering pulse rob you of the chance to accomplish your goals for your presentation.

Read on to learn about A.R.M. (acknowledge, reframe, manage), my three-step process for dealing with pre-show jitters. Whatever your level of experience with public speaking, following these steps will help you minimize nerves and project confidence:

Step 1: Acknowledge your response.

When your knees are shaking before you step up to speak, it helps if you understand the natural source of your anxiety: human biology.

When our ancestors faced a risk, it was often life-threatening and required a shot of adrenaline to survive. Unfortunately, today that “fight or flight” response still manifests itself in risky (but not deadly) situations such as giving a speech. The adrenaline creates those physical symptoms that exaggerate everything you are experiencing.

Presenting with confidence has a learning curve, as do many other skills we want to improve. With practice, public speaking becomes more familiar. As your skills improve, presenting will seem less risky and you will learn to use that adrenaline rush in your favor.

It’s important to realize that even when you feel like a mess, your audience doesn’t necessarily see that. Simply recognizing what’s happening will help you gain perspective.

Step 2: Reframe the situation.

Before a presentation, do you find yourself watching an internal movie in which you do everything wrong? Giving in to that narrative only escalates your anxiety. Instead, change the channel in your brain by developing tactics to distract you, and “burn off” excess adrenaline at the same time.

Many confident professional speakers have a pre-game ritual they practice religiously before every presentation:

  • A mentor of mind, Dr. Robert Haakenson, who was a Dean at Temple University, used to run laps around his car.
  • Matt Abrahams at Stanford University practices saying tongue twisters.
  • Helen Moses of Command Communications does vocal exercises to prep her voice.
  • Harvard social scientist Amy Cuddy suggests performing a power pose to prepare for high anxiety situations.

My own pre-game ritual includes arriving early to set up the room, taking time for a short prayer, sipping hot water with lemon—and then burning off any nervous angst by meeting and greeting listeners as they arrive. This familiar routine helps direct my focus and my energy in a positive and productive way.

Step 3: Manage in the moment.

When you stand up in front of an audience, your presence and delivery should communicate that you can handle any situation that arises. For those of you who are experienced speakers, you know things can and do go wrong. However, as the saying goes, the show must go on. So how do you keep from panicking so that you can manage in the moment?

One effective way to calm your nerves is to think through what you’ll do if problems arise. For example:

  • Your mind goes blank. There’s no need to over-apologize. Simply pause to collect your thoughts and then proceed. In other words, breathe and reboot.
  • You trip walking on stage. If Jennifer Lawrence survived doing this in a ball gown at the Academy Awards, you can also get through it without losing your cool. Pick yourself up, smile directly at the audience, and nonverbally reassure them that you’re fine and good to go.
  • Your slides stop advancing. You should always be prepared to present without AV, since you can’t always control when technical difficulties may arise. That just happened to a client at a companywide strategy meeting. In this case, she simply ignored this technical glitch and continued with her talk. In some cases, you can politely ask for help while you keep the flow of your presentation moving, possibly by sharing an example or telling a story.

What if something happens that you didn’t consider? Your goal should always be to avoid drawing attention to what went wrong. Simply keep smiling, and forge ahead.

When you A.R.M. yourself by understanding the source of your fear, practicing rituals that calm you, and having a plan to handle whatever comes your way, you’ll find that anxiety is significantly reduced. You will always feel some nervousness before a presentation—it’s the nature of the beast—but now you’ll be confident it won’t undermine your success.

A version of this post first appeared on Professionally Speaking.


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