How do I get over my terror of public speaking?
September 1, 2008 1:14 PM   Subscribe

How can I get over my fear and anxiety of making class presentations?

I have a global communication class this semester which I am very excited about. I am interested in the course content, my classmates seem friendly, and my professor seems relatively easygoing. Yet I am absolutely terrified of doing a solo presentation to the class. I have a 5 minute presentation to do in a couple of weeks, and Im first up. When I found out, I immediately felt that surge of adrenaline and anxiety which I am sure will arise again about ten minutes before I need to stand up and begin speaking. I know this is a common problem, and I cringe when I see it happening to other students, because I know how horrible it is to feel that paranoid light-headed fear. Even if I know the subject well, it still happens. Even just answering or posing a question in class does it to me.
Im a pretty laid-back socially comfortable person, and it is so embarrassing when I feel like everyone in the room can suddenly see my deepest darkest awkward fears. Im a grown woman for christs sake, I should be over this already!
Is there anything I can do to be more comfortable up there? Are there exercises that help with this? What does one do besides being sure that you have mapped out every word and are extremely confident with your knowledge on the presentation topic? Any tricks that help you guys get over that anxiety? A friend of mine jokingly advised smoking a joint before class, but Im pretty sure the mountain of paranoia in that case would make me freak out, or black out. Apart from that and picturing everyone in their underwear :), what might help?

posted by osloheart to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a friend outside of class you can practice on?
posted by mkultra at 1:18 PM on September 1, 2008

Not to toss "your crazy and need help" into the thread; but anxieties in general have been well handled by CBT. Resources in general that can help anxieties over xyz will usually help in similar cases.

For me; doing lots of them has helped, and a belief that "I know my shit, and I am awesome".
posted by SirStan at 1:23 PM on September 1, 2008

Gloria Steinem had a paralysing fear of public speaking for years, so much so that she was notorious for cancelling her TV appearances. She wrote that the best advice she ever got was, "Pretend you're Eleanor Roosevelt and that you have to do this silly thing so you can go do something important."

Also, I recommend that you make sure you're well prepared and that you do several dress rehearsals in front of as many people as you can coax into playing audience, and also in front of the mirror. The better rehearsed you are, the better you'll be able to work through any anxiety.
posted by orange swan at 1:23 PM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding orange swan in advising you to be prepared. Make sure you know the material as well as can reasonably be expected, have a plan for the presentation, and know your plan inside & out.
posted by ambulatorybird at 1:28 PM on September 1, 2008

Think of it as a good thing that you get to go first. It will be over with quickly AND you get to sit back and enjoy instead of sitting around dreading your turn.

I find that smiling and taking a deep breath right at the beginning helps. Keeping my shoulders straight and good posture also allows me to feel "on point" and this helps to direct me through the nerves.
posted by collocation at 1:32 PM on September 1, 2008

Try Toastmasters. I have no experience with them, but they're dedicated to helping people become better public speakers including overcoming stage fright. See if there's a local club that you can attend.
posted by jefftang at 1:33 PM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

You probably don't have time to do much with toastmasters in the next few weeks, but I'd like to elaborate a little on the practice thing. You can build an audience over the few days before you have to actually present -- give your speech a couple of times to one person, preferably a friend from your class. Give your speech to a few people, hopefully a couple from your class. Give your speech to as many people as you can bribe into your living room with beer and pizza, again, hopefully with a few people from your class. In between, give your speech to a mirror as many times as you can.

On the day of, have the few people you've already give the speech to sit directly in your line of sight, on each side of you. Look at them while you talk and not at anyone else. There's all this stuff about making eye contact to be a good speaker and yadda, yadda -- you're just trying to survive, so screw that, and look at people who've already heard your speech and are prepared to be supportive of you and that you feel comfortable with.

Also, how big is the class? I've found that a presentation given from a seated position is much, much less intimidating than one given while standing. Is that something your professor would allow?
posted by jacquilynne at 1:41 PM on September 1, 2008

Sometimes beta-blockers are prescribed for performance/public-speaking anxiety.
Propranolol comes from a class of drugs known as beta blockers, which lower blood pressure by blocking particular sympathetic nervous system receptors. These receptors also happen to be the ones that get activated in times of fear or anxiety, which is why beta blockers are useful as performance enhancers. A beta blocker can keep a person’s hands from trembling, his heart from pounding, and his forehead from beading up with sweat. It can also keep his voice from quavering, which is why shy people sometimes sneak a beta blocker before giving a big speech or a public presentation. Beta blockers do not directly affect a person’s mental state; taking a beta blocker before firing a pistol is not like taking a Valium, or tossing back a shot of Jack Daniels, because beta blockers do not alleviate anxiety so much as block the outward signs of anxiety.
In defense of beta blockers
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 1:52 PM on September 1, 2008

Try to internalize the fact that people are genuinely for you, and not against you, as they are going to be in your shoes very soon. If you can think of it as more of a collaborative effort to learn, instead of an opportunity for others to be critical of you, then it helps settle the feelings of possible failure. You are just one person up there sharing with other people who want to learn something as well.

Also, try to think of it as a conversation with one other person you know well, rather than a whole group of people. One way to do this is to focus on a person or two at a time, and pretend that you are sharing this information over an informal lunch or something. Switch this focus around to others in the room, but always think of it in terms of a smaller and more intimate conversation. Looking at one person as you do this can help settle the feeling that the one person is genuinely interested in hearing you speak. You just spread this love around the room, treating people like individuals in the room, rather than a mob out to get you.

I do a lot of public speaking, and it used to freak me out in a big way. Although this isn't what you want to hear right now, the best way to get over this kind of thing over time is simply to do it over and over again. Part of what makes people effective public speakers is that they find their "groove," that is, how to present themselves up front in a way that is comfortable and natural for them personally. It can take some time. This may be little comfort to you right now, but if you are thinking about future public speaking, it's really one of the (nearly) guaranteed ways to get a good handle on the nervousness.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:56 PM on September 1, 2008

You sound exactly the same as me at school, but it really does get easier with practice. I actually enjoy public speaking now and regularly get complements. The key for me was to put in a lot of preparation and practice to ensure that I totally knew the material (including speaking aloud in an empty room while not reading my notes - ie from memory) and to really believe (whether true or not!) that I have something interesting to contribute, and that people want to hear what I have to say. To ensure that, I make sure that my content is as interesting and punchy as possible.

People are completely supportive of someone who is speaking; nobody wants to cut anybody down in public because then they look like a jerk to everybody else. The kick of adrenaline is still there, but now it enables me to do a better job, think more clearly, and remember stuff that normally I'd forget. Unfortunately short talks can be the hardest because you don't get a chance to get into a groove, but they don't require as much work to prepare and memorise.

PS - I know several people who were in Toastmasters, and their public speaking always improved.
posted by rocks009 at 2:11 PM on September 1, 2008

Go to an open mike night at a comedy club with nothing prepared. Bomb. Get heckled off stage. Realize that you survived without visible scars. You'll never be afraid of speaking in public again.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:16 PM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do you have any friends who were on their high school's forensics, debate or model UN team? Or, if your university has anything like that, do you know anyone currently involved with it? They could help you practice the speech and give pointers on the things you don't necessarily think about, but which can greatly improve your confidence and comfort level--what to do with your hands, how or when to walk around, what to do when you've completely lost your train of thought mid-sentence, etc.

For me, the key to being comfortable with a presentation or speech is to know the material really well, and to practice not only my speech but also my gestures or movements. That way, I don't get up in front of the group and get distracted by a panic that "oh no! I'm using the same stupid hand gesture over and over and it looks really dorky and everybody's judging me and I want to melt into the floor and die."
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:19 PM on September 1, 2008

I used to be a nervous wreck for things like this. No matter how well prepared I was, my notes would be rattling in my hands and I'd be talking a mile a minute without knowing quite what I was saying. I was a horrible presenter. Now, I love presenting -- it's one of my favorite parts of my job. 80% of that transformation happened in one session I had with a therapist who I was seeing many years ago for other reasons. Here's what she had me do:

Relax somewhere comfortable with your eyes closed. Picture yourself where you most would love to relax. Hang out there in your mind and enjoy for a few minutes. Choose a physical signal you can give yourself during the presentation -- I picked touching my thumb to my middle fingertip. Do this signal and keep imagining yourself relaxing in your selected place for a few more minutes, noticing the physical signal while you picture yourself there.

Now, imagine yourself in front of the class, speaking well, while everyone looks at you with interest and positive regard, and whatever other reaction you're wishing they'd have. Keep using your physical signal and noticing it. Visualize everything you can about the room, your audience, and yourself. Maintain your relaxation, or, if you feel it slipping, restore it by imagining relaxing in your selected place again, then switching back to your presentation.

Do all this a couple more times between now and the presentation, including as immediately before it as possible. When you get up to give the presentation, give yourself the physical signal. That's it. Unbelievably to me, especially since I'm not at all a new-agey type and this all seemed a little flaky to me, the first presentation after I did this went great instead of horrible, and they've pretty much all been going great ever since.

As you prepare and as you speak, focus on the content you want to get across, but with the exception of the first sentence, don't pre-plan the exact words you'll use to convey it. After all, you get across ideas every day, and you magically come up with the words you need on the spot. It's no different during a presentation, and I find that attempting to memorize how I'll say things just makes me worried I'll forget. And I agree with SpacemanStix about directing what you're saying to a person or two at a time. I also sometimes pick someone who's not there to be my imagined audience -- someone who I know likes me, and who I like, and who would want things explained in clear, basic terms. (I often chose my grandma.) Good luck!
posted by daisyace at 2:23 PM on September 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Buddhism or anything else that will make you realize that what happens in that class will have nearly no effect on your life/happiness and zero impact to the rest of the world. You're going to die someday, you know? Probably sooner than you think. Don't waste time dwelling on anxiety. Practically, on the day of the presentation don't do any more preparation just focus on staying in the moment the whole time. Focus on your breathing, notice all the subtlety of the ins and outs. Don't over think the presentation, don't think at all, just be attentive and conscious so you can be in a resourceful state.
posted by wolfkult at 2:31 PM on September 1, 2008

How can I get over my fear and anxiety of making class presentations?
Make one! Then one more. Then one more.
posted by meso at 3:11 PM on September 1, 2008

I was (and if I were still in school, would still be) just like you. Hated talking in class, dreaded presentations. The one thing that helped me get through stuff like that was to get to know my classmates. Obviously you're not gonna be buddy buddy with everyone, but just having a couple people who you can chat with while waiting for class to start makes it feel more like you're talking to a group of friends, instead of giving a presentation to a group of strangers.

I would also try to participate more in class - ask questions, etc. Maybe give yourself a goal of "I am going to ask two questions in class today," or "I will contribute at least 1 thought to a class discussion." Reward yourself if you have to - "I will buy myself a Mocha Frappewhatever after class if I comment on a connection between [whatever] and something I read outside of class." Even if you think you're going to sound silly, it doesn't matter because everyone will have forgotten about it by the time someone else starts talking. I started consciously doing this my last few years in school, and I do think that I got a lot more out of my classes once I actively started making myself say things and ask questions.

It IS a good thing that you are one of the first to have to do it too - imagine sitting in class all semester with this hanging over your head! Now, you're getting it out of the way early, and you kind of get to set the bar, rather than having to follow Johnny Superstar and second-guessing your material. A couple weeks from now, it'll be over, and you can enjoy the class (and everyone else's presentations!) for the rest of the semester.
posted by AlisonM at 3:31 PM on September 1, 2008

Get through the first one, and the rest become a lot easier. Oh, also Klonopin.
posted by meta_eli at 4:20 PM on September 1, 2008

I used to teach public speaking, so I'm very familiar with your fears. Please know first off that you are completely normal--most adults (yes, adults) in the US have moderate - high public speaking anxiety. Please don't judge yourself negatively for these fears--you are completely normal here.

That said, if you want to lower your anxiety I cannot agree enough with all the posters who stressed *practice.* I always advised my students to practice their speeches multiple times, alone and in front of others, well in advance of their presentations. The advice to try gradually building up in audience size is very good--if you can't find classmates, then just find friends or family (although sometimes I've had people express *more*anxiety about presenting in front of people they were close to, as opposed to the relative strangers in class).

DO NOT try to memorize your speech. Memorization (as in delivery without any notes) is one of the worst things you can do as someone with high speech anxiety. One momentary lapse can derail the whole speech, as your anxiety will quickly take over.

Use notes, preferably in outline/bullet form. Rather than writing out the entire speech word-for-word, make notes for all of your main points, etc. Every time you rehearse, rehearse with your notes, so that you know the material but are not wedded to specific wording.

A lot of it is about mindset--if you tell yourself you are going to be nervous, mess up, etc., then you may very well do that. You need to go into the speech knowing that you know the material and feeling confident in that knowledge. And, as others have said, recognize that many (if not most) of your classmates are in the same boat--they are anxious and they are not judging you b/c they are so busy judging themselves. Anything you think is weird or abnormal about your performance will most likely not be noticed by most of the people in the class. The exercise that daisyace posted might also help.

Long term, the best way to lower your speech anxiety is to force yourself to keep speaking in public. It really, truly is.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 4:57 PM on September 1, 2008

I have managed to turn around being an awful, cringe-inducing public speaker with crippling pre-talk nerves to someone that gets an absolute adrenaline rush out of talking in front of an audience and receives a lot of positive comments about my skill at it. I would even call it a Flow experience for me. I actually wish I had more opportunities to do presentations (though I never tell anyone this). Nothing has changed but my thinking. The first thing I did is decided that I wanted to be really good at it. Not just cope, or manage, or get by, I really wanted to be one of those speakers that people go...oh wow. I'm not there yet, but the nerves have gone. Here is a list of things I did. They're not easy things to achieve - you can't just think away the problem, but for me at least, I have to really concentrate and focus on the following things in order for the experience not to go off the rails completely.
Here's what I do:

• I learn the material I'm presenting inside-out. I don't think anything can be more important than this. You really need to know exactly what you're talking about. Learn it all and anticipate the sorts of questions you may be asked. Become an expert. I don't think there is ever any faking it, and being aware that there are holes in your knowlege will only make you nervous.

• Once I know the material, perhaps through having made notes and such, I throw the notes out. I really do throw them out. In my expereince, having notes in hand is a sure-fire way to fail, because the minute I look down, and take a pause to check the notes, the awkward silence in the room as everyone waits for you to speak makes me want to wet my pants. The approach I take is just to talk about what I know. I have a basic structure in my head and know what I want to cover, then I look out into the audience and I just talk to everyone.

• Reject the temptation to use Powerpoint presentations. Personally, I think they are over-used, not very interesting or effective, and they have something even worse going for them: They prevent me from thinking. My theory, is that I am just talking about what I know, the minute I stop thinking and read something off a Powerpoint preso, is when I stumble, encounter that awful silence or coughing in the room as people wait for me to re-commence which I interpret (incorrectly) as pity/judgement/horror from the audience then that makes me more nervous, which makes me stumble further... it all goes downhill from here. I think awkwardness just sort of snowballs, so I would rather just keep moving forward to avoid that every happening in the first place. So yeah... don't use Powerpoint unless you have some really great visuals to punctuate your speach or to talk through. There's really nothing more boring anyway than watching someone read off a screen. Yawn.;

• Same for handouts. You want all eyes on you. If you hand out something people will begin talking, rummaging, reading. Bad news.

• If you hear someone laugh, snort, chortle or yawn, just ignore. Sometimes people are just talking among themselves. It may not be at you, just keep on trucking. Don't let things like that distract o you or throw you off course. I think you can achieve this by just anticipating it, and deciding when it happens you will ignore.

• Start slowly, a joke doesn't hurt, project your voice into every part of the room. As much as possible I turn down the use of a mic unless I'm in a really huge room, and I start out by saying "Hey, can everyone hear me? I'm going to try and project like I'm a theatre actor or something... wish me luck". If you're a woman, lower your voice. When women get nervous, they talk faster and faster and their voices get higher and squeakier until they become like chipmunks on helium and speed. At least, I do. Just decide to always speak slowly, and lower your voice, prejecting loudly as much as you can.

• It may just be my personal style, but I use a lot of self-deprecating humour, mainly for the classic reason that I feel that I got ahead of anyone wanting to criticise me. Sometimes I say things like "I'm standing up here like a big dork because I may be the only person in the world who finds _____ more thrilling than anything else on earth." If this gets a laugh, I'm on a roll, and the put downs end there. Anyway, it makes me feel more relaxed.

• Open the floor to questions, if possible or permitted. I find that once it becomes like an open forum, and people begin asking questions the whole thing just flows.

• Hold something in your hands if you really don't know what to do with them - a pen for example.

• Take the attitude that the audience wants to hear what you have to say, and can empathise with how hard it is. They are not the enemy. Find friendly faces in the crowd and don't be afraid to look around at everyone. You are en expert, and they hope to gain something from what you want to tell them.

I'm really not saying it's easy. I still feel a bit sick right before I have to talk, I just try to harness that feeling and turn it to my advantage, and think to my self "I'm ready". A lot of people say to me afterwards "You were so good, so natural, I wish I could speak in public like that", and I always think to myself that I had them totally fooled, because I'm still the same person. I feel like I've learned a neat trick.

I really hope this helps.
posted by lottie at 5:40 PM on September 1, 2008

Vacuum your lungs?
posted by kindall at 8:43 PM on September 1, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. Im going to take bits of advice from many of your answers, and hope for the best. I really like that quote from Gloria Steinem, it may help because my problem seems to be a sudden lack of confidence. I forget who I am, how smart I am, and what Im worth. When I approach a speech suddenly I feel like that awkward lanky teenager again. So I really need to 1) be ultra-prepared and 2) look at it from a different, more confident, perspective.
But if I do black out, be on the lookout for my "whats the deal with beta blockers?" post sometime soon..

Merci a vous!
posted by osloheart at 8:54 PM on September 1, 2008

Hope it's not too late, but I just found this awesome short video (more entertaining than useful, but hey...):

Things to avoid when speaking in public (1:49)
posted by meso at 1:19 PM on September 2, 2008

Every has given great advice! I personally suffered from huge speaking anxiety problems, and I had to do it for my job. After doing 5-6 big presentations, it didn't really get better (I performed fine, but the anxiety of the month leading up to it was pretty untolerable). I finally went to the doctor and told him my issue, and he prescribed a beta-blocker. It was all I needed to block my anxiety - so then I could really just be myself - not my insecure self. After one presentation using this (it doesn't change your mental thinking a bit), I finally had the security to do presentations without it and was all good. It just gave me that boost of confidence that I couldn't conjure up myself, because I couldn't control my anxiety. I still use them sometimes if there has been too much time between presentations and the anxiety rises up again. They are great! The pharmacist called it the "recital prescription," as it is very common with pianoists etc. It's amazing what adreneline will do to your body, and to shut it down makes you normal. But also practice, know the material, don't memorize, and give yourself a break if it isn't totally amazing - it's only 5 minutes of your life! You get so much better each one you do (why toastmaster is great if it's something you really want to conquer). Many jobs require public speaking once you rise up the ranks (to clients, or in-house) in some format - so it's really something to conquer in my opinion. You really can't avoid public speaking unless you truly have a job where you don't have to do it - but never let it hold you back from a job b/c of your fear of it. It's the #1 free of people supposedly, but not hard to overcome.
posted by Xmeit at 8:09 PM on September 2, 2008

My big trigger was having all eyes on me. So I got good, first, at making lots of nice visual aids. Put a new slide up every 30-60 seconds--your audience will be be busy focusing on the new shiny pictures, instead of looking at you. It's easier to say what you've practiced in the mirror, or heck, to even read verbatim from your notes if that's what it takes, when you can't feel those myriad eyes boring into you.

And, FWIW, I don't like beta blockers. Sure, they kept my hands steady, but I was still dying inside. A half a Xanax, though, actually made me chill out. Just a temporary solution to get you through to your mojo kicking in...which it will, once you soldier through a few of these.
posted by oceanmorning at 9:36 PM on September 2, 2008

While practice and preparation is probably the best thing, it is also useful to overcome the fear of failure. Maybe it would be good to fail miserably a few times.

OK, that's probably not a good thing, but it ties in to my actual advice. If you have any kind of personal issues at all, you can probably join a 12-step group somewhere that is tailor-made for you. I have found that giving my life story, with all of my failings, to a roomful of similarly-challenged and supportive people just about kills any fear of speaking in public. I mean, you can't continue to be anxious about speaking after making a daily practice of enumerating your failings to a bunch of people.

There's the additional benefit of drinking really stale coffee and breathing second hand smoke for a couple of hours every evening.

After a while, you can talk to a sarcastic, hostile crowd of authority figures without any fear. So what if they don't like what you say! They're supposed to concentrate on their own recovery first! Keep coming back, it works!
posted by DanYHKim at 11:45 AM on September 3, 2008

sounds as though you are worried because of sbad experiences speaking in front of class in high school. That used to terrify me; when I went to University we had to present our work publicly every week, I learned to love it, I showboated. Presenting to civilised adults is very different to presenting to hostile 15 year olds.
posted by daveydave at 11:57 AM on September 3, 2008

I agree with everyone that said preparation is key- practice, practice, practice. And if you are going to use powerpoint, put some time into it and do it right. This slideshow has some great tips, lots more are out there.
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 12:15 PM on September 3, 2008

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