Researchers estimate that 15-30% of people experience public speaking anxiety, and roughly 10% of those with it report that it interferes with their daily lives.
While it may not be possible to completely eradicate the nerves you feel in front of a crowd, there are some things you can do to help yourself feel more confident—both while preparing as well as once you’re center stage.
What is Speaking Anxiety? (Definition)
Speaking anxiety is an intense nervousness that comes whenever you have to speak in front of others.
Here are a few physical symptoms that can accompany public speaking:
- Redness of face
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shaky voice
- Being out of breath
- Increased blood pressure
- Dry mouth
If you struggle with a more extreme case of public speaking anxiety, you may find yourself making changes in your life to avoid speaking in public.
Speaking anxiety may cause you to:
- Switch career paths because the one you are currently on may require too much public speaking
- Avoid networking events or parties where you may have to speak in a large group context
- Turn down a promotion based on public speaking requirements
- Decline the opportunity to give a toast at a meaningful moment in a loved one’s life
- Unenroll from a class to avoid speaking in front of classmates
If you can resonate with any of those feelings, know that you’re not alone. Many people make significant life changes to avoid speaking in front of an audience. And your symptoms might be different than these! Speaking anxiety can look different for different people. There are many possible symptoms and ways it can affect people’s lives, including shaking and perspiration.
What Causes Anxiety During a Speaking Event?
Anxiety during a speaking event is evidence of our brains’ survival mechanism. Historically, humans felt that being watched was a threat. This made the amygdala, the part of the brain wired to help humans survive, kick into gear. This is also sometimes called the fight or flight response.
Although you may know that standing in front of a room full of peers and giving a presentation is not dangerous, your brain still registers all those watching eyes as a threat.
This is why many of the physical reactions you have when experiencing public speaking anxiety are similar to how your body would react to danger—shortness of breath, shaking, racing heart, your stomach in knots, sweating, or nervousness, to name a few.
Can You Get Over Public Speaking Anxiety?
Unfortunately, you may not be able to get over your nerves about public speaking completely. But, it may be possible to ease some of the symptoms you feel.
In the past, exposure therapy was one of the primary ways to help people overcome a fear of public speaking. This is where you expose yourself to your fear—in this case, public speaking—until it becomes more familiar and your nerves subside.
In recent years, researchers have studied the benefits of using virtual reality (VR) in an exposure therapy approach to help people overcome their fear of public speaking.
In one study, students gave 20-minute presentations to a virtual class of their peers twice per week. Every 4 minutes, the study participants could change factors such as audience size, responsiveness, and the number of speech prompts. Meanwhile, the researchers monitored their heart rates, and the participants self-reported their anxiety levels.
The results showed a decrease in public speaking anxiety both in the short and long term.
The benefit of using VR for exposure therapy is that participants can shorten the time between public speaking opportunities, achieving the benefits and results quicker.
We have more tips for conquering your anxiety below…
Ease Your Public Speaking Anxiety Using These 8 Science-Backed Tips
You may never be able to completely get rid of your nerves while speaking in front of people. However, there are some steps you can take to help ease your stress.
#1 Anticipate questions and curve balls
Speaking anxiety can be caused by a fear of the unknown. The more prepared you are, the less anxiety you will feel. Try going through these prompts before any kind of public speaking:
- What question makes me the most nervous? → And then prep for these answers.
- Are there any possible negative or positive surprises that could happen? → And then prep for these possible scenarios.
- What’s realistically the worst that could happen? → And then prepare for this outcome.
You also want to be ready to NOT know something. Being a great public speaker is only sometimes knowing the answer. It is being able to reply to any answer respectfully… and this could be that you do not know something!
If someone asks a question you’re unsure how to answer, here are a few phrases you can use to acknowledge them while moving the conversation on graciously:
- “That’s a great question! I haven’t thought about it much personally, so I’ll think about it and get back to you. For now, I’m enjoying hearing your perspectives on the topic.”
- “Thanks for asking me. I need to do more research and learn more about this topic before I have a solid answer.”
- “That is a great question. I don’t know the most recent data on that topic. Can I email you in the next couple of days once I’ve done some research?”
If you’re preparing for a speech, ask friends and family if you can practice giving it to them. If you include a Q&A time in your presentation, ask your faux audience to ask you questions at the end of your practice presentation.
This can help you get accustomed to hearing a question, processing it on the spot, and responding well.
#2 More specific generosity = less anxiety
While preparing your speech, think about your audience and prioritize helping them through what you’re saying. Research shows that shifting perspective away from yourself and towards assisting others can decrease anxiety.
Researchers studied the difference between “targeted” and “untargeted” generosity in this study. Targeted generosity means helping someone you know tangibly. This could be giving advice to a younger sibling or a warm meal to someone in need. Untargeted giving has to do with general acts of kindness that don’t target any specific person, such as donating to charity.
Both giving types resulted in increased activity in the septal area and the ventral striatum—the parts of the brain linked to altruism. These same parts of the brain show activity when parents care for their children. The ventral striatum is a key component of the brain’s “reward system,” often associated with achieving and learning.
What the researchers did not anticipate was the decreased activity in the amygdala when study participants were targeted in their generosity. The amygdala is the epicenter of the fight-or-flight mechanism and other charged emotions.
So, how can you use this when giving a presentation?
In the preparation stage, think of the individual people that your speech benefits by taking your attention away from you. In what way is your material educating them? Find one or two main takeaways that you would like for them to learn.
If you’re not sure how your presentation can benefit your audience, take some time to learn as much as you can about who you’re speaking to. If you’ve been invited to speak at an event, you can ask the event organizers to give you some general information about the attendees.
Then, construct an “audience member profile.” This can be based on what you know to be true of those in the audience, with a few additional details thrown in to make them feel more like well-rounded people you know.
Action Step: If you don’t know members of your audience personally, you can help yourself feel like you know them by creating one or two “audience member profiles.”
Base these on what you know about the audience, then flesh it out until they feel like real people. For example, if you’re speaking at a non-profit fundraising event, ask the event organizer who their typical attendees are and consider what type of person will likely attend an event like this.
Here’s what an example audience member profile could look like:
- Works at a tech startup
- 35 yrs old
- Looking for places to give end-of-year charitable donations
- Wants to have some idea of how her donation will be used and would enjoy a bit of followup
- How I can help: Give her guidance to make an impact.
- Works in project management at a large firm
- Father to 2 young kids
- Received a bonus at work and wants to give back to others
- Doesn’t want to be overly involved, just give a donation and trust that it will be used well
- How I can help: Honor his generosity and give him ideas for his donation.
Even though Brianna and Derrick are not real people, these audience member profiles can help give you a “person” you’re helping as you tailor your presentation.
#3 Learn the Art of Stage Presence
Did you know that public speaking is actually a skill? Many people struggle with stage anxiety because they feel they ‘missed the memo’ on public speaking or they are lacking because they do not have a natural stage presence. Not true!
Stage presence and public speaking are skills you need to be taught—very few people have them naturally.
Here are all the aspects of public speaking you can master.
- How to make a first impression on an audience
- How to have a stage presence
- Powerful body language
- How to speak with a commanding voice
- What to do with your hands while speaking
For every speaking skill you add to your toolbox, the less speaking anxiety you will feel.
If you want help diving into your social skills, sign up for our course…
#4 Imagine yourself rocking it
When you feel yourself getting anxious about public speaking, try to replace those thoughts with how you would feel if everything went well.
Research shows that visualization and positive self-talk can reduce anxiety. One study challenged individuals diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) to replace their worry with positive self-talk.
Interestingly, they found that the positivity didn’t have to be about what the person was worried about. Replacing worry with positive visualizations about other scenarios helped reduce study participants’ anxiety.
Decreasing your anxiety can help increase your ability to focus and do well in your presentation or speech!
Action Step: The thoughts you think make a difference! If public speaking is too overwhelming and you need help imagining yourself succeeding at it, start with something else.
Think back to a time you accomplished something you were proud of. Maybe you landed a big client at work or crossed the finish line of a race you trained hard for.
The next time you’re feeling anxious about an upcoming speaking event, try to remember how you felt when you succeeded.
#5 Use tech to tighten up your presentation
When you’re getting ready for a presentation, practice your technique. This can help you feel more confident in your capability to speak well and can help remove some of the uncertainty from the event.
Thankfully, some apps can help you with many different aspects of public speaking!
Here are a few:
- Plan using voice notes and dictation: If you’re a verbal processor, try speaking your speech to figure out what you want to say.
- Check your pace with Metronome Beats: It’s easy to speak too fast when nervous. Counteract that by practicing with the app Metronome Beats (available for Android and iOS) to help you recognize when you’re speaking too quickly.
- Eliminate filler words with Ummo: Ummo analyzes your speech and helps you recognize how many “um’s” and other filler words you use.
- Sharpen your pronunciation with Orai: Orai is aimed towards helping users who have accents or speech impairments practice and perfect their words.
- Keep within the allotted time using Toastmaster Timer: You may not always have a clock in the room you’re presenting in. In these cases, Toastmaster Timer (available for Android or iOS) can help prevent you from lingering for too long on any section of your presentation.
If you’re looking for a little bit of help improving in these areas, check out our article 6 Public Speaking Apps to Try Before Your Next Presentation to help you practice your technique.
#6 Find your eye anchors
When you’re speaking in front of a room full of people, using eye contact can help you create a connection and draw people in. However, if you experience anxiety when speaking in front of a crowd, it might be hard to look people in the eye and stay calm.
Try finding a few anchor points in the room. If possible, establish one in each “section” of the room. For example, if there is a center, left, right, and balcony, find a spot in each of those you consistently look to.
One nice aspect of speaking to a room full of people is that you don’t have to make direct eye contact with any individuals. The crowd won’t necessarily know if you’re making eye contact with someone else or no one!
Here are some places you can choose as anchors:
- Right over the top of people’s heads
- An empty chair (in a large crowd)
- Someone who is giving you encouraging nonverbals like a head nod or a smile
- A friend in the crowd who is supporting you
As you become more comfortable with public speaking, try to ease up and look around more. But if your nerves are bad, this can be a helpful way to warm up while still looking like you’re making eye contact.
#7 Have a game-day routine
If you find yourself often needing to talk in front of people, try to find a routine that helps ease your anxiety as you step into familiar motions. Researchers have found that this can be a helpful tool for people.
Many professional athletes have rituals that help them feel ready for game day. Here are a few examples:
- Mike Bibby, Basketball—Clipped his fingernails every time he went to the bench for timeouts.
- Turk Wendell, Baseball—Chewed 4 pieces of black licorice while pitching. He would spit them out and brush his teeth each time he returned to the dugout.
- Jason Terry, Basketball—Wore 5 pairs of socks during basketball games. He claimed that it made playing more comfortable.
As you can see, your ritual doesn’t have to be directly related to your presentation! The goal is to find something that can either help you feel better prepared or help ease your anxiety.
A ritual you could incorporate to help you feel prepared could be doing a few vocal warmups to ensure your voice is strong and ready to go. You might also glance through your notes in the morning or check in with the technicians to confirm that the PowerPoint is working correctly.
Other routines that are less directly related to public speaking but could still help you feel prepared are things like having a specific type of tea in the morning, getting a workout in before you go, or wearing a special piece of jewelry every time you speak.
#8 Practice, practice, practice
If you’re giving a speech or presentation, plan what you will say and then practice it over and over (and over) again. Doing this helps build familiarity with your material and can help you feel more confident if you start to feel the nerves settling in.
Don’t settle for practicing your speech once or twice. Instead, aim for dozens of times—at least.
Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor delivered one of the most popular TED Talks, “My Stroke of Insight,” with close to 30 million views. Can you guess how many times she practiced delivering her speech?
Despite being a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, Dr. Bolte-Taylor spent at least 3,600 minutes practicing the delivery of her 18-minute speech. That’s 60 hours—a full work-week-and-a-half.
And that’s only delivery, not the time she spent writing and rewriting her speech.
Even the best speakers—the ones you may look at with jealousy at how easily they seem to navigate the stage and how confidently they present themselves—spend time practicing their delivery and making sure they are saying everything just how they want to.
If you want to check out Dr. Bolte-Taylor’s fantastic speech, you can watch it here:
My stroke of insight | Jill Bolte Taylor
Pro Tip: It can take more work to plan and practice for conversations. If chatting with another person is often a source of anxiety for you, try preparing a few fun questions to use in case there’s a lull in the conversation!
Here are some options to get you started:
- Do you have any nicknames?
- What is your biggest pet peeve?
- What is something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t tried yet?
- What do you look forward to every day?
- If you could start a charity, what would it be?
- What’s your favorite family recipe?
- What personality traits are you the proudest of?
- Do you ever lower the music volume when trying to figure out directions while driving?
- What’s the strangest purchase you’ve ever made?
If none of these feels like the right fit, choose another question from this list of 450 Fun Questions to Ask People in ANY Situation (That Work!).
Try experimenting with a few ideas until you find a combination that works for you!
Stage Fright is Normal, But You Can Try to Minimize It
The fear of public speaking is among the most common fears in the world—so know that you’re not alone in getting extra nervous when speaking to a group of people!
That being said, nerves can vary in severity. If you feel as though your anxiety limits you, you may want to meet with a therapist to receive more personalized advice.
Use these tips and tricks to help you ace your next presentation:
- Practice makes progress. You may never “get rid” of your nerves, but making sure you know your material can help decrease your stress around public speaking. Practice delivering your speech over and over to help you feel prepared.
- Expect the unexpected. Prepare for any questions or objections your audience may have to the material you’re speaking on. You can ask various loved ones to help you by listening to your presentation and asking some hard-hitting questions.
- Imagine your success. Envision yourself as a successful orator! What you think about matters. This can help ease your anxiety and build your confidence.
- Be generous to specific audience members—even if you don’t know them. When you’re tempted to think of your audience as an intimidating sea of faces, try to remind yourself that it is a group of individual people. Ask yourself how your knowledge and expertise can help them and make their life better.
- Download some apps. There are so many helpful pieces of technology available. Try out a few specifically for public speaking to help you tighten your speech.
- Make eye contact with places rather than people. Looking into the crowd can help people feel more engaged with what you’re saying. However, if it feels too stressful to look directly at people in the crowd, try finding places you can look. Try to find at least one eye anchor for each section of the room, and then look back to those throughout your presentation.
- Have a routine. Routines can help you feel calm and confident before stepping on stage. Whether it’s wearing 5 pairs of socks or flipping through your note cards, try to find little things you can do to help yourself as calm and collected as possible.
Crack The Code on Facial Expressions
The human face is constantly sending signals, and we use it to understand the person’s intentions when we speak to them.
In Decode, we dive deep into these microexpressions to teach you how to instantly pick up on them and understand the meaning behind what is said to you.
Don’t spend another day living in the dark.
Want a better handle on performing on the stage? We got you covered: Stage Fright: How to Overcome It in 7 Easy Steps.