4 simple strategies to quell public speaking fear

Reframe those negative thoughts, tackle anxiety head-on, and consider your presentation in the context of world history.

Public speaking fear can become a career-crippling problem.

It’s nearly impossible to eliminate nervousness, but there are plenty of ways to ease anxiety, boost confidence and reduce the type of dread that can rob you of golden opportunities.

Try these four strategies to squelch public speaking fear:

1. Rewrite automatic thoughts.

If you’ve had a speaking experience go awry, you might still feel defeated by it. It’s common for speakers to feel defensive or guarded because of that experience—and they carry those scars into every new speaking opportunity.

It’s important to learn from mistakes to grow as a presenter. However, there’s a difference between learning from the past and carrying that burden with you into a room of people who’ve not heard you speak.

Every presentation offers a chance for a reset. Instead of deflating yourself with negative thoughts, a process called cognitive restructuring can help replace your automatic but distorted thoughts with more accurate and productive ones. As examples:

Automatic thought: “I blew my last talk, and I’ll probably blow this one, too.”

Positive rebuttal: “I learned from that experience, carefully thought through how I could have handled it better, and I’m a better speaker today as a result.”

Automatic thought: “I’m not a good speaker.”

Positive rebuttal: “I’m imperfect—but who isn’t? They’re going to see how prepared I am and be impressed that I really know my stuff.”

Automatic thought: “I’m going to screw this up.”

Positive rebuttal: “I may screw something up—but if I do, I know I can gracefully recover from that momentary error and still deliver a terrific talk.”

Automatic thought: “They’re going to catch me flat-footed during the Q&A.”

Positive rebuttal: “If I can’t answer a question, I’ll promise the audience member that I’ll get back to them with an answer. I don’t have to know everything in order to be seen as credible.”

Now, go back and reread the automatic thoughts above, but do so out loud and in your most sarcastic voice. Then, reread the positive rebuttals using your most compassionate, confident tone. Which voice would you rather have running through your head as you approach the microphone?

2. Reappraise your fear.

If you’ve planned a wedding, there’s a good chance you have experienced the bracing combination of excitement and anxiety that often accompanies the occasion.

That same relationship between anxiety and excitement comes into play in public speaking, says Alison Wood Brooks of the Harvard Business School. The key, according to Brooks, is reappraisal, or considering anxiety in a different way. As she puts it:

Individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better.

Brooks suggests using positive self-talk, such as saying “I am excited!” out loud or using reminders such as “get excited,” which help speakers adopt an opportunity mindset rather than a threat mindset.

She notes that speakers who used the reappraisal strategy performed better than the ones who simply tried to convince themselves to “calm down.” In that context, attempting to deny or dismiss anxiety appears to be a poor substitute for acknowledging and redefining it.

Acknowledging anxiety by labeling your fears, or putting them into words, can also help. One interesting study published in Psychological Science found that people who described their fear of spiders before being asked to approach one showed less of a physical reaction (as measured by skin response) than people who didn’t.

3. Contextualize your fear.

Many of us have wrestled with some rather challenging questions:

  • Am I good enough?
  • Do people really think I’m smart?
  • Am I deserving of love and respect?

Presentations make us feel vulnerable, so they often become convenient targets onto which we place our fears, anxieties, insecurities, hopes and dreams. It helps to place your presentation into a broader context. Is your talk at a midday luncheon really a referendum on your entire worth? Is your next sales presentation truly indicative of your overall capabilities?

When you magnify your perception of a talk’s importance far beyond its actual importance, the added pressure makes it more difficult to succeed. When you align the two more accurately, you allow your focus to remain primarily on your presentation, rather than making it a self-worth referendum.

Another technique is to place your talk into a historical context. Before a big speech, I think about the billions of people throughout time, all over the world, who spoke to a group of people and felt the very same feelings I’m feeling just before I hit the stage. That reminder puts the presentation into perspective. Yes, I want to perform well, but viewed through the long lens of world history, my presentation seems somewhat less momentous, which helps me loosen up and perform better.

4. Flip the formula.

When I ask speakers why they’re anxious, they often say similar things:

  • “I don’t want to make an embarrassing mistake or forget a key point.”
  • “I don’t want to be boring or disappoint my boss.”
  • “What if I become flustered when an unexpected question arises or appear too nervous?”

Those “I” statements are an indication that the presenter has adopted a self-focused perspective. He or she should flip the formula to redirect attention toward the audience.

Here’s a handy mental exercise. The next time you’re about to speak, look into the audience, select someone at random, and make up a story about the person. For example, I might think, “That woman flew to this conference last night. Her flight was delayed by three hours, the airline lost her luggage, and she only slept for four hours. She’s also recovering from a cold, is overwhelmed with work and misses her family.”

Then, I think, “How can I make her life better during the hour I have on stage? How can I help her forget her fatigue, re-energize her, and help her remember what she loves about her work?”

That exercise will help you adopt a service mentality. Think: How can I serve you? When you’re busy wondering how you can improve somebody else’s life, there’s less time to be consumed with your own concerns, worries and anxieties. That’s a great way to reduce public speaking fear, and it’s not a bad way to approach life in general.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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