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How To Eliminate The 3 Most Common Public Speaking Fears

Imagine yourself on a stage in front of 3,000 people. Everyone is staring at you with anticipation. The room is eerily silent.

The eager listeners in the audience came to see you.

The topic doesn’t matter, only the fact that you are the center of attention.

Does this thought inspire your supreme confidence and unabashed enthusiasm, or does it conjure up some of your worst fears?

  • “What if I forget the words?”
  • “I might do something stupid and embarrass myself.”
  • “They’ll have no idea what I’m talking about.”
  • “My [insert body part here] is/are sweating and everyone will know!”

According to a Gallop Poll, 40% of us are afraid of public speaking.

So afraid that we’re more scared of speaking than death or snakes.

I’ve been there myself. When I was an intern in college, I called in sick on my last day of work just so I didn’t have to give a short presentation to a small group of engineers (who I had worked with).

Why is speaking in front of others so terrible for most of us?

It turns out that the millions of people petrified of public speaking share the same three universal fears.

Fortunately, all of these fears can be conquered if you just know what they are and specific strategies for dealing with them.

Let’s look at these three most common public speaking fears and how to eliminate them starting today.

1. How you speak

The first is a fear of saying the wrong thing, or in the wrong way.

You’re trying to express yourself, but you’re afraid you’ll forget what you wanted to say, you’ll “blank out,” you’ll mispronounce words, you won’t speak loudly enough, or you will fail to articulate what you meant.

Your goal is to share content with your audience, and yet you fear stumbling over the content itself (or completely forgetting it).

How to eliminate the fear of how you speak:

Do you usually memorize your speech from a script? If so, throw it out. Instead, use a single page of large-typed, outlined notes. Then, practice it—out loud—three to six times, depending on the length and your comfort level with the material.

When I started out, I used to write out my speeches and memorize them. The problem with this approach is that any slip-up throws you off and results in the “blanking out” and losing your place that’s so central to this fear in the first place.

By using higher-level notes that key you into the important points, each practice run will feel more like a conversation, and the speech will develop organically.

After you’ve put together your presentation and notes, find a room that’s as close to the real deal as possible. Practice with an overhead projector if you plan to use slides, and get a feel for the flow of the speech from start to end, such as transitions and areas where you expect to involve the audience.

Practice the opening, closing, and any critical points (such as quotes) more often. This will increase your confidence at the beginning (when you’re most nervous) and help you close with a solid and memorable impression.

2. How you look

The second is a fear of appearing awkward, or put another way, “looking like a complete idiot.”

Should you fold your hands, put them at your sides, or gesture with them? Are you making sufficient eye contact? Are you rocking, pacing, or fidgeting? Is your face making the right expression?

You might have a million thoughts bouncing around your head about how you look that have nothing to do with the message. And yet, you know you’re being judged.

How to eliminate the fear of how you look:

We all have nervous habits that make us appear nervous—whether we are or not.

If you can become aware of those habits, and develop new ones, you could learn to appear confident—whether you are or not.

Ironically, even confident people can have habits that make them appear nervous. The key here is to appear as confident as you are in the message you want to deliver.

If you knew you folded your arms, you would practice opening them up and using what’s called a “power” pose. If you knew you liked to stare at the same person (usually the most friendly faces in the audience), you would practice distributing your eye contact to make more of the audience feel included.

But the only way to do this is to get feedback. How?

Here are two ways I personally like to get feedback. You can use these to practice repeatedly and start replacing bad habits with good ones.

  • Record yourself on video. Use your smartphone or a cheap video camera, and film yourself speaking for about 5 minutes. Then watch it back and write down the nervous habits that you notice most. This will give you the initial feedback to start replacing them with more confident, less nervous looking habits.
  • Join a speaking club. Clubs like Toastmasters International, and training courses like Dale Carnegie, are designed around providing group feedback in a live setting, which will accelerate your awareness of your nervous habits so you can address them.

3. How you connect

The last is a fear of the audience not understanding you or your message—failing to connect.

Why are you speaking in the first place? To inspire, persuade, teach, or inform others. You might have the most amazing TED-worthy idea in the world, and yet you’re afraid the audience just won’t get it. Your fear is that you won’t connect.

How to eliminate the fear of how you connect:

Remember that you’re trying to solve a problem for the audience—whether it’s inspiring or educating. They’re not here for you the individual but rather what they will hear from you that satisfies their burning needs, pains, or desires.

One idea that’s worked for me is reaching out to or interviewing potential audience members in advance. If you can talk to even two or three members of your audience, you can tailor the speech to exceed their expectations. This will make it easy to connect.

Also, make sure to mingle with the audience before you speak. This will help calm your nerves, give you a chance to ask what they’re expecting of the talk (and tailor accordingly in real-time), and appear confident, authentic, and personable.

Lastly, tell your story. In Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath found that telling a simple story with emotion is much more powerful than your presentation delivery skills.

Final thoughts

My personal experience with these techniques gives me the confidence to stand by them. I used to be a shy, socially awkward, introverted engineer afraid of speaking up even in small meetings.

Today I regularly deliver speeches to large crowds, compete in speech competitions, and present myself as capable and competent. But that’s only because I worked at eliminating these fears by developing skills, not by changing who I am. You can do the exact same thing.

Now that you know the three most common public speaking fears and how to eliminate them, take action today!

Did these three public speaking fears—and how to eliminate them—resonate with you? Reply below!

If you liked this article, you might also like howtoattainsuccess.com.

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Philip Pape is an author, public speaker, and Success Coach who helps smart people become confident and self-disciplined at howtoattainsuccess.com. He’s here to help you transform your approach to life—while making it all feel like it’s who you were meant to be. Checkout his free giveaways here. Follow Philip on Twitter @philip_pape

7 Responses to How To Eliminate The 3 Most Common Public Speaking Fears

  1. Philip Pape says:

    Let me know which of these you’re going to put into action!

  2. NickW says:

    Hi Philip!

    EXCELLENT article! I too used to get very nervous about speaking in public (…like you, I’m an engineer. Engineers don’t normally *do* public speaking!..). Your advice is excellent, and I do each of these regularly. For me, injecting light humour right at the start of your talk is a great ice breaker, and you’re dead right on the cue cards.

    You’re also spot on with the practice. Like any skill, you need to practice, practice, practice. A cheap video camera and then time spent watching and listening to yourself is highly recommended.

    Also, I would advise a long glass of water nearby. I’ve found that public speaking can dry your throat terribly, and just reaching for the glass and sipping a few mouthfuls gives your brain chance to re-group and order itself.

    Thank you for this very timely article!

  3. Philip Pape says:

    Absolutely. Humor always works (if you can pull it off). What strategies have you used to incorporate humor?

    For me, competing in the Toastmasters “Humorous” speech contest has helped tremendously.

    Great idea about water. It’s what gets me going in the morning (before coffee), and there is definitely physiological evidence that fluids lubricate the vocal apparatus (vocal chords, lungs, etc…).

    Good points, and thanks for sharing!

  4. Richard Garber says:

    Philip:

    You can reduce the fear of saying the wrong thing by doing careful research. Results of a 2001 Gallup poll which reported that 40% of people fear public speaking were discussed in an March 19, 2001 web article titled Snakes Top List of Americans’ Fears. It said 51% of people feared snakes, and death was not even on the list of 13 fears. “So afraid that we’re more scared of speaking than death or snakes” just is nonsense.

    Richard

  5. Philip Pape says:

    Hi Richard – I’m aware of the survey. While it’s true that the percentage of people who fear snakes might be more than that for speaking, when RANKED together speaking comes out on top.

    The question is not WHAT ARE you afraid of, but what are you MOST afraid of.

    Put into numbers…out of 100 people, 40 fear public speaking and 51 fear snakes. You can’t know how much overlap there is between the 40 and 51, but let’s say it’s 30 people that fear BOTH. If you ask those 30 people which they fear MORE, you’ll find numerous surveys that show public speaking ranks higher than snakes and death.

    But you will find surveys to back any claim, I suppose.

    In the end, that’s not the point of my article. The point is that this fear is common to so many people that it’s helpful to have specific strategies to deal with it.

  6. NickW says:

    Gentle, self-deprecating humour always seems to work well. BUT, it has to be ‘gentle’, otherwise your audience may start to think you’re a comedian, so may start ‘joining in’, which may be inappropriate.

    I guess it all depends on how they react as you first stand up.

    Re: Water. Yes, but not *too* much. If you do too much, then you may find your bladder rules, and that you may have to cut the talk short!

    I remember drinking a couple of pints before one talk, and after a few minutes, images of racehorses came to mind…

    Oh, and never, NEVER alcohol before you go on stage! 😉

  7. Zoey says:

    Great advice! I so do the first one with memorizing my speeches and I can see why thats bad now. Not sure how I would be kind of free styling it though. But I’m definitely giving it a try. Every point in this pair makes complete sense and I think it’s going to help me out a lot!

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