4 steps to conquering your dread of public speaking

Stage fright, the jitters, performance anxiety—call it what you will—the fear of addressing a crowd can undermine the brilliance of your presentation. These techniques can save you.

On the last day of my internship, I called in sick.

I had successfully navigated the technical challenge of a software engineering internship in a major corporation, but I couldn’t stomach what I had to do next.

I had fear, anxiety and loss of breath. The symptoms of my affliction were palpable. What was I so afraid of? An awful performance review? A meeting with the CEO?

Nope. I was afraid of giving a 15-minute presentation in front of 10 people.

My boss asked me to deliver a culminating speech about my time as an intern, but I couldn’t do it due to a crippling fear of public speaking. So, I called in sick.

Maybe your shyness has held you back in your career, or you’ve experienced this visceral, do-anything-to-get-out-of-it fear.

Being famous doesn’t seem to spare anyone, either. Remember Michael Bay’s awkward exit?

That story about calling in sick happened 15 years ago. This year, I was a finalist in a Toastmasters humorous speech contest. How did I go from calling in sick to looking forward to speaking in front of hundreds of people?

The typical advice of so-called “experts” on conquering fear of public speaking is to “talk about your passion,” “know your audience” or my favorite: “practice, practice, practice!”

This conventional advice doesn’t address your core anxiety, and it lacks concrete strategies and tactics. Sure, you need to practice if you want to hone the craft of speaking, but practicing won’t solve your immediate problem.

Here are four specific and unconventional steps to vanquish your nerves, think on your feet and speak with confidence:

1. Tell a story about just one thing.

Lots of speakers get hung up on presentation delivery, which leads to anxiety, which leads to the inevitable feeling of wanting to jump off the stage.

Your brain is exploding with thoughts of “Should I do this?” and “What if I do that?” You’re experiencing:

  • Information overload: You’re overwhelmed by too much data.
  • Style overload: You’re focusing on delivery instead of the key message.
  • Decision overload: You’re paralyzed by too many decisions—the paradox of choice.
  • Knowledge overload: The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that you already know so much about the topic, it’s impossible to imagine not knowing.

The secret is that you don’t have to be polished, poised, smooth, charismatic, smart, talented or even able to speak English well. Rather, you will have an advantage by not focusing on these.

Check out the results of this Stanford experiment from the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath:

“Almost no correlation emerges between ‘speaking talent’ and the ability to make ideas stick…The stars of stickiness are the students who made their case by telling stories, or by tapping into emotion, or by stressing a single point rather than ten…A community college student for whom English is a second language could easily outperform unwitting Stanford graduate students.”

Stories, emotion and simplicity are massively more important than presentation at getting your idea across, and those things are much easier and less nerve-racking to tap into than so-called speaking talent.

So, keep it simple. Pick one thing, and talk about it from the heart, just as you would over lunch with a friend.

Action steps:

  • Write a story about something you’re passionate about. Think about a favorite memory, and write about the people, what you did and how you felt. This is real-life, built-in drama.
  • Tell the story in front of a mirror, by yourself in front of a camera or in front of your spouse or best friend.
  • The next time you give a presentation, just tell a story about one point and appeal to the listener’s emotions. Forget about style.

2. Take an improv class to fake fearlessness.

If you’re standing in front of a crowd, act as though you already have confidence. Walk with your chest high and chin up, and breathe deeply. Imagine the audience is there to beg you for your autograph.

Teddy Roosevelt writes in his autobiography:

“When a boy, I read a passage [in which] the captain of some small British man-of-war is explaining to the hero how to acquire the quality of fearlessness. He says that at the outset almost every man is frightened when he goes into action, but that he course to follow is for the man to keep such a grip on himself that he can act just as if he were not frightened. After this is kept up long enough, it changes from pretense to reality, and the man does in very fact become fearless by sheer dint of practicing fearlessness when he does not feel it.”

Easier said than done, right?

Here’s how: Take an improv class. Nothing will build confidence more than being put on the spot. Look at this Reddit comment:

“Best advice is to take an improv class, as it gives you lots of on-the-spot practice and also helps teach you how to “fake” emotions and what to do if you have to improv (slide show stops working, slides are in the wrong order, etc.)”
— Reddit, TBBT: Joel

Action steps:

  • Search for “improv classes” near you on Google Maps.
  • Sign up for a minimum four-session class for beginners.
  • Attend the class, and learn to fake confidence to become confident.

3. Use the Broody Hen technique.

Introverts will love this technique. I call it the Broody Hen.

Just like a hen broods (sits on) and hatches her eggs, sit on your topic and hatch amazing ideas from the safety of your comfortable, private space.

Abraham Lincoln wrote his most memorable speeches this way, not once practicing in front of others before it was go time. Lincoln relied on this introspective, private ritual of brooding and hatching—rather than practice—to deliver his speeches with supreme confidence:

“He thought over his talk for days, thought over it while walking back and forth between the White House and the war office…He wrote a rough draft of it on a piece of foolscap paper, and carried it about in the top of his tall silk hat. Ceaselessly he was brooding over it, ceaselessly it was taking shape.”
— Dale Carnegie

After one such brooding period, Lincoln went to sleep. Upon waking up, his first words were, “This government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free.” Now, that’s a line.

Action steps:

  • Buy a notebook; carry it with you at all times.
  • Schedule time every day to brood. Set your alarm 30 minutes earlier if you’re freshest in the morning.
  • During your brooding time, write down notes, fragments and lists that relate to your talk.
  • Write down ideas whenever they occur.
  • Let the ideas marinate and “hatch” -the longer the better (at least one day if possible).
  • Go through your notes, and pick the best ones for your presentation.
  • Arrange, revise, rewrite and edit into a final speech.
  • You now have such an intimate understanding of your topic that confidence won’t be an issue.

4. Perfect the pause.

Silence is the most powerful content in any speech. A solid, deliberate pause in your delivery:

  • Ramps up audience anticipation
  • Enhances the speaker’s credibility
  • Commands attention and respect to heighten authority
  • Ensures listener attention—a psychological equalizer

Pause before you speak. Pause between sentences and between words. If you think you’re pausing too often or for too long, you’re not.

To make pausing easier, I use a speech hack called the Stanza Strategy.

Winston Churchill said that “every speech is a rhymeless, meterless verse.” In poetry, a group of lines (Churchill’s “verse”) is called a stanza. With the Stanza Strategy, you write out your speech like a poem, with very short lines—creating frequent pause points.

Here’s what a stanza looks like:

My heart from the hum of a humming bird
To the steady beat of a drum it spurred
My nerves slowly disappear
Everyone is listening including the rear
— Paige Fitzgerald

Action steps:

  • Write your speech in your favorite text editor.
  • Hit the Enter key after every five to eight words, ignoring punctuation.
  • Add a blank line between every sentence or paragraph. This is a stanza.
  • Practice in front of a mirror. Pause after each line, and pause longer after each stanza.
  • Deliver your speech this way, and you’ll come across as extra confident.

Pausing is a way to slow down, take a breath (literally) and calm your nerves. This translates to-you guessed it-more confidence.

Put these steps to use, and you’ll be far ahead of the pack when it comes to speaking confidently.

What’s holding you back? Have you tried any of these techniques?

Philip Pape is an author, software engineer, public speaker and life-hacker who helps smart people become more confident. Check out his approach and get free content by clicking here. Follow Philip on Twitter @philip_pape. He is the founder of howtoattainsuccess.com, where a version of this article originally appeared.


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