How I Conquered My Fear of Public Speaking

The Best Way to Get Better at Public Speaking and Overcome Your Fear
by Jessica Chang
November 11, 2016
No matter how confident and aggravatingly rehearsed they might appear, the truth is that most people have a little fear of public speaking.
You may have dealt with that familiar knot in your stomach, those racing thoughts, the spontaneous cold sweat, and the sinking fear that the world will end when you step up in front of a crowd and start nervously forgetting all the intelligent things you had to say. Those who truly want to be better speakers might search for articles on how to improve their presentation, join groups like Toastmaster to practice their skills, or even pay for training with courses like the Dale Carnegie programs. And now, here’s my confession: I have tried them all.

What you’re about to read next is not written by some expert or experienced speaker. It is written by yours truly, who has had a severe, diagnosed form of public speaking anxiety. Yes, I even saw a therapist for my public speaking phobia. It was that much of a reality. After much trial and tribulation, I am proud to say that I can now finally give presentations and speak to a crowd effectively without a panic attack. The road to this anxiety-free state, however, was a practice in resilience: my two years of business school required presentations almost every single class, and there were countless moments in which I contemplated faking a car accident over speaking to our group, or was tempted to dash out of the meeting room and never come back.

But in the back of my mind, I knew I had to do it. It was, without question, essential to my goal. My friends, family, and classmates constantly reminded me that I could do it—that I could overcome fear and move assuredly toward my dreams. Despite my history of traumatizing experiences, negative self-talk, and deep-rooted anxieties, I was certain of what I wanted: to become a successful businesswoman, have my own ground to stand on, and realize my own aspirations and inspire people to do the same. So, I never stopped attempting to better my public speaking skills.
I was certain of what I wanted: to become a successful businesswoman, have my own ground to stand on, and realize my own aspirations and inspire people to do the same. So, I never stopped attempting to better my public speaking skills.
I want to share a few of the most important things that helped me along this journey and made me a better public speaker. Are presentations my favorite thing to do now? Not entirely. But my recent experiences have proven to me that not only can I speak comfortably in front of a crowd, I can actually speak well. Here, eight extremely helpful tips to overcome a fear of public speaking.

Find out the root cause(s) of your anxiety

Our emotional reactions, especially the more extreme ones, usually have external triggers. These triggers are often associated with life events—many of which we never fully understood the ramifications.  

So, what were your experiences like growing up when it came to public speaking? Were your parents or friends unsupportive and discouraging of you expressing your opinions?

Were there people around you that were also afraid of public speaking or voicing their perspectives? Or, perhaps, you grew up with a lot of good presenters and performers whose skills seemed like an unreachable goal to your younger self.

In my case, English wasn’t my mother tongue or native language. For those of us who learned English as a second language, we may have entrenched, subconscious beliefs that we simply don’t have a good enough command of English.

If the answers seem murky, finding an anxiety specialist or therapist may be a good route. When anxiety kicks in, our brain tends to go quickly down the worn, familiar path of fear. Seeing a therapist can sometimes help you learn how to slow that thinking process. When you understand why you’re doing something, it’s actually a bit easier to understand that you have the power to stop. Calling your anxiety by what it is—anxiety and anxious thinking—is actually the first step in taking control. Knowing yourself is the key to changing your behavior, and this comes with asking yourself why you have the public speaking holdup.

Know what is driving you TO become a better public speaker

I always had a secret, intrinsic belief that I had the potential to be a good speaker. And as a marketing professional, I knew the power of persuasion and a great speech. I wanted to be the best I could be as a person and as a professional—this acted as the driving force behind my efforts. I needed to make my external personae align with my internal values.

What is your motivation to become a better speaker? Is it a good grade you need in a class? Is it to impress your boss? While these are, indeed, legitimate motivations to start improving your skills, they’re not lasting fuel for your journey. Ultimately, change is rooted in a personal responsibility toward yourself. Find out what your intrinsic motivations are by mentally filling in the following:
  • If I don’t master public speaking, I will feel ____, because I won’t be able to ____.
Take some time to think about it. Dig deeper. Understanding the gravity of your motivations will help keep you dedicated and help you understand the ultimate value of what you’re doing.

Memorize your script and practice endlessly

Yes, some naturally good public speakers are able to go off the cuff and sound like they have an arsenal of wit and wisdom at their disposal. But you’re here because you’re not a naturally good public speaker. Yet. Practice your speech or presentation until you have nothing left to practice. Practice it so well that when you’re saying one sentence, you already know what’s going to follow next. For now, it’s better to sound like you’re reading from a script than fumbling over your words and freezing up on your points.  

Try recording yourself on your phone or, better yet, taking a video on your computer. Then watch it with a critical but kind (always kind!) eye. It might be cringe-worthy, but it’s an incredibly effective tool to evaluate how you present in front of an audience. That way, you’ll know what to expect.

Pay attention to your body language

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on the power of body language changed my life, and it could change yours. The science of her method is controversial, but her attention to detail and dissection of what we portray without words forces you to take a close, analytical look at what good public speaking really is.
This exercise certainly worked for me. It also gave me something to work on when I’m dealing with the jitters. Cuddy suggests that spreading your arms makes you feel and appear more powerful in a natural, evolutionary way. While I was working to become a better speaker, I had a system: ten minutes before I had to give a presentation, I would make a habit of using an empty conference room or restroom to take some alone time, spread my arms, stand tall with my chest up, and tell myself that I was going to own that audience.  

A few simple, less abstract body language tips can also make a world of difference in a presentation or in a general business setting. I’ve found the following to be very effective:
  • Sit in the front of the room
  • Don't play with your hair
  • Speak up when you are speaking
  • Speak toward your audience and not the computer or projector screen.
Part of what makes a good speaker is the energy they radiate along with their words. Paying attention to body language before and during your speech will help relax your body and, thus, relax you.

Seek help from professionals

If your company has development funds set aside for employees, take a public speaking training course. They typically last two days, and you are often required to give presentations based on particular topics. The best (or worst) part is that you are taped and a professional speaker will review the tape with you to find out ways you can improve for your next speech. Dale Carnegie and the American Management Association both offer classes like this. And while it may exacerbate the anxiety in the immediacy, it’s helpful in the long-term.

Learn how to channel your jitters and re-process them as excitement instead of nervousness

Research has proven time and again that the way our body reacts in response to fear and excitement are very similar, if not identical. Knowing this, try to trick yourself into changing your attitude. Learn techniques on how to convince yourself that you are excited for the event, rather than scared. When people are told they are "excited" about something, they are much more likely to report a higher rate of success than people who are told they are "nervous". 
Learn techniques on how to convince yourself that you are excited for the event, rather than scared.
I personally make little flash cards that help guide my thinking in the positive, hyped-up direction. "This is your chance to knock them out with your awesomeness and preparedness. You are going to rock the audience!" one of them might say, "treating my upcoming presentation as a chance to show-off instead of an opportunity to mess up." Our thought processes are learned and engrained, but we can re-teach ourselves new, more productive ones.

Volunteer to speak publicly

This may sound insane to those in the midst of a public speaking anxiety attack, but it’s one of the most helpful tips in the book. Makes sure that you only do this after you’ve practiced (hopefully, using the above suggestions) and you know that you have an adequate toolkit for dealing with queasiness and jitters. Then, actively look for opportunities where you’ll be able to put all the skills you’ve acquired to use.

Two months ago, I was a part of a panel of eight for Taiwanese American Professionals. I spoke about my heritage, the cultural shift as an immigrant, and my views toward the future as an immigrant young professional. Even more recently, I spoke at PoshFest for a workshop on sales and marketing tactics. In both events I was able to share my personal stories, my perspectives on various issues, and provide information to educate, inspire, and empower the audience. I was able to speak on topics I already knew very well and intimately (slightly easier than a research-based presentation), and was thus able to explore my presentation rather than worry endlessly about saying something silly.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but volunteering to present can actually help desensitize you to the anxiety of public speaking when it’s required. The prospect of an upcoming business presentation might still be daunting, but you know for a fact that you can do it. Why? Because you did a panel just last week.

After both of these aforementioned events, audience members approached me to say that they had learned something new and had found the panels to be inspiring. On the surface, this was important simply because it was an ego booster, which helps (at least in the short-term) with confidence. But more importantly, it made me realize that what I have to say is valuable and worthwhile and that my life experiences (even the rather painful journey of becoming a good public speaker) have happened for a reason. The highs and lows have put me in a position where someone else can benefit from my experience—as I hope you can, too.
How do you feel before giving a speech? What rituals do you have to ease the anxiety?