Nervous about Public Speaking? Here’s How to Get Past It

Do you get anxious before a presentation? You’re not alone—most people have some level of fear of public speaking. In my experience coaching hundreds of people around high stakes meetings and presentations, I can tell you it’s extremely common at all levels up and down organizations. You’re not alone!

Public speaking has been said to be many people’s number one fear, surpassing even death. Which explains why some folks would rather die than give a keynote. The physical response can be overwhelming. “I literally barfed before my speech,” as one of my clients eloquently put it.

But the fact is, you can deal with these intense feelings. Here are some great ways to work with public speaking nerves:

  1. Practice—Be well-prepared and rehearse out loud. Most people greatly underestimate the time needed to craft and rehearse an important presentation. And the more important it is, the more time you need.
  2. Think of public speaking as a conversation—Don’t frame it in your mind as a performance. Focus instead on connecting with one person at a time, and being yourself, like you would in a 1-1 conversation. This mindset shift can be a game changer.
  3. Embrace the nervousness—Feel it, let it occur, think of it as “fuel” to help you be more dynamic. Be aware of the sensations, not judging or suppressing them. Practice mindfulness. Think of nervousness as excitement.
  4. Abdominal breathing—Breathing into your “belly”, slowly, is a recommended stress management technique. Let your stomach rise and fall with each breath, like a baby does when it breathes. Do this for a few minutes.
  5. Stand up! (or sit down…)—Some people feel more comfortable either standing or sitting. In some situations you have a choice. Do what feels more natural, as long as it’s appropriate for the context.
  6. Do something physical just before the speech—Exercise helps burn off stress chemicals, so a brisk walk around the building or a few jumping jacks can help you destress at a physiological level.
  7. Authenticity—Speak to what you are most passionate about, to the extent your topic allows it. If you are speaking from your center, talking about something you genuinely care about, it’s easier to feel and sound confident. See my Speaking with Authenticity blog series. If it’s a technical topic, be authentic in your open or close.
  8. Get help! Work with a speaking coach. Or talk to your doctor! I’ve seen executives who found beta blockers (adrenaline reducing drugs) to be life changing for their public speaking anxiety. And you can take them “as needed.”

You would be amazed at some of the seasoned senior leaders I’ve worked with who privately were struggling with this part of their lives. And if they can work through this, so can you!

For a deeper dive, see HBR postings by Nancy Duarte and Bonchek & Gonzales. Or check out Stanford’s Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking.