I’ve been terrified of public speaking for most of my life.
In kindergarten, I faked a sore throat to get out of auditioning for The Three Little Pigs, our class play.
In high school, I had a bad habit of nervous giggling when it was my turn to present.
In college, I delivered what was probably the worst speech of all time when I was named president of my honor society—I read directly off the paper with an uncontrollable tremble in my voice.
And in grad school, as a working professional in my twenties, I literally fainted mid-presentation in front of all my classmates. Yes, literally.
So it’s safe to say I’m no stranger to what can go wrong when public speaking, and how scary it can feel getting up in front of a room full of people! But despite every nerve-racking or embarrassing experience I’ve had with public speaking, I was determined to get better, no matter how uncomfortable it made me feel.
The good news? It’s possible. The bad news? There’s no quick fix, but if you’re willing to work through your discomfort, it’s totally worth it. While I’m still a work in progress, here are four things that helped me overcome my fear of public speaking.
1. Acknowledge Your Fear
First, let’s recognize that fear of public speaking is common. According to Psychology Today, approximately 25 percent of people experience fear while public speaking. You’re not alone!
Next, realize that trying to simply “get over” your fear is easier said than done—you probably won’t ever lose that feeling of nervousness before you get up to speak. (And if you do, please bottle your confidence and sell it to me.) Instead, try this piece of advice from one of my favorite professors: Acknowledge your fear and welcome it.
That’s right—welcome your fear and the physiological symptoms that come with it, like a shaky voice, rapid heartbeat or trembling hands. According to the Hormone Health Network, these symptoms all actually responses to adrenaline—your “fight or flight hormone”—and are normal reactions to a stressful situation. So instead of automatically trying to stop these reactions from happening, acknowledge that they exist. You may even say out loud to yourself, “Hello fear, nice to see you again!” Silly? Maybe. But this simple phrase can help reshift your outlook and channel your fear into positive energy.
Then, take proactive steps to manage your usual symptoms. Personally, I’ve found that projecting my voice loudly helps keep it even; deep breaths help slow my heart rate; and grounding my feet or placing my hands on a podium help me avoid trembling in front of a crowd.
For inspiration, check out Joe Kowan’s TedTalk, “How I Beat Stage Fright.” Not only does he acknowledge his crippling stage fright, he makes a song out of it, addressing each symptom that he’s come to recognize. How badass is that?!
2. Dress to Impress
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when you look good, you feel good. But there is actual science which backs this up!
In a 2012 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers found that people who wore a white coat they believed belonged to a doctor showed an increase in attention, whereas people who wore a white coat they believed belonged to a painter did not. In other words, just the thought of wearing something affiliated with a doctor—a profession that requires extensive education and training—changed people’s behaviors.
Clearly, our brains are tricked easily. Use this to your advantage. If you think success looks like a tailored blazer and skirt, wear that when you’re speaking. If you think the best leaders radiate confidence in jeans and a t-shirt, go for it (dress code permitting).
It’s simple: Dress like a boss B, feel like a boss B, speak like a boss B.
3. Put it in Perspective
In addition to physiological symptoms of fear, you may also experience a rude little voice in your mind saying, “Sit down and shut up before you embarrass yourself. Remember what happened last time?”
That voice, my friends, is a liar. For a long time, I told myself I was bad at public speaking, until I realized something: I wasn’t bad at public speaking; I just didn’t know how to do it!
You wouldn’t expect a surgeon to operate without a medical degree, or a lawyer to practice without passing the Bar, right? So why on earth would you put pressure on yourself to excel at public speaking, if you’ve only done it a few times? That doesn’t make sense, yet for some reason many of us think like this.
Experience and success build confidence in all things, especially public speaking. Repeat that until it’s ingrained in your brain. Which leads us to..
4. Practice, Practice, Practice
I told you there was no quick fix! You won’t get better at public speaking without practice. And half-assed practice won’t do either; reading over your speech once before bed won’t help you control your fear in front of an audience the next morning.
Rather, your practice needs to be what K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist, calls “deliberate practice.” According to a Harvard Business Review article Ericsson co-authored, “Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills.”
So while it’s good to practice delivering speeches to an empty room, practicing in front of an audience will help you get even better. If you always rely on notecards to get by, continue to practice with them, but try to get familiar enough with your material to speak from memory, too.
To sum it up: Overcoming your fear of public speaking won’t happen overnight, but there are steps you can take to improve. So get out there, say hello to fear, remind yourself that you’re constantly learning, and make a real effort to get better. Oh, and get dressed. Then do it all again.