How Do I Manage My Fear of Public Speaking?
February 18, 2010 6:06 AM   Subscribe

Tomorrow I have to deliver a 2-hour training presentation in front of 80 employees. I loathe speaking in front of large crowds and suffer from crippling stage fright. Chances are I will be awake all night fretting the occasion and replaying worst case scenarios in my head. Any tips on how to relax and keep my anxiety at a minimum?
posted by Tenacious.Me.Tokyo to Human Relations (28 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I used to get the worst nerves when playing music for people.

The thing which helped me the most was changing my perception of the ideal scenario. Before, it was "to not make an idiot of myself". The key was changing it to "to have fun".

Once I'd decided I was going to have fun doing it, mistakes became less worrying, fear of humiliation turned into taking myself less seriously.

My friends said it looked very different from an audience point of view. Because you can tell when someone is enjoying themselves.
posted by greenish at 6:12 AM on February 18, 2010

If you know someone in the crowd, a friend or work mate focus on speaking to them. Tell them ahead of time to be your speech buddy. Hopefully they'll nod, smile and look at you in rapturuous attention. Also, have very detailed notes, listing what slide/chart you're on, what you should be motioning to and what you should say, maybe even verbatim. If you fill your time up there with lots of things to do you'll be too busy concentrating on doing everything in your notes to be overwhelmed by the people there.

This was my technique in college when I would guest teach my prof's classes, a room full of 200 people and I was petrified. So I told a friend to sit in the class with me and basically I spoke to him directly and even though I didn't read the notes completely, the confidence that I had them made me secure enough to make the speech.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 6:15 AM on February 18, 2010

Self-Conscious Guy.

Yeah, it's one of those cheesy social hygiene classroom films from the 1950s. If you can put aside the aesthetic, it's makes some very good points.
posted by griphus at 6:16 AM on February 18, 2010

If you're doing training, pause every five minutes or so and ask the audience if they have any questions about what you just covered. It interrupts the speech and takes the focus off you for a while.

Plus your audience will be more sympathetic to you if they understand that you're trying to make sure that they understand what you're talking about.
posted by dfriedman at 6:16 AM on February 18, 2010

When I did standup a few years back, the best piece of advice I got was from a booker who told me that it helps to consider that these people just plain won't remember you. You could kill and they will get in the car and say, "Hey, that guy, what's his name, was pretty funny ... where do you want to eat?" They'll generally recall they had training and somebody played the role of trainer, but two minutes after the session, your audience will be wondering what the cafeteria is serving. So, yeah, have fun, and just remember, they won't remember.
posted by lpsguy at 6:22 AM on February 18, 2010

If you know someone in the crowd, a friend or work mate focus on speaking to them.

This, this, a thousand times this. This trick has gotten me through some fairly major public speaking engagements. Find someone (or a couple of someones) in the crowd who looks like they're paying attention to you, and make eye contact with that person. It reduces the whole event to just having a chat with that one engaged person, and the nerves will dissipate.
posted by deadmessenger at 6:27 AM on February 18, 2010

Remember that an audience is predisposed to perceive a performance/presentation as running smoothly and being coherent. This is part of why live peformances and presentations are so common and effective. Why do we tolerate people speaking or performing live in front of a crowd, when this runs a huge risk that the speaker/performer will make mistakes? Why not just record everything in advance? Is it that everyone who does things live in front of an audience has practiced so much that they'll definitely do everything perfectly? No, they make little mistakes all over the place, but any given mistake is very unlikely to catch the audience's attention. What does catch an audience's attention is if you apologize or act like you've made a mistake. There are two main possibilities with your presentation: either everything will be perfect, which would obviously be great, or you'll make some mistakes, but that will also be fine as long as you keep up your momentum. Don't mentally edit yourself while you're in front of the audience; save the self-feedback for afterwards. While you're in front of the audience, act like you're doing a fine job, as this is pretty close to actually doing a fine job.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:33 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've done a good amount of public speaking, and even though I've never had "stage fright" I still experience restlessness leading up to the event, including some sleeplessness, so I know what you mean. Here's a few tips that might help:

-When you find yourself imagining the worst scenario, change it into a mental rehearsal of how you want it go instead. Picture a positive outcome. The reality is that it will almost certainly go just fine. Since this is training, I assume it's a subject you are an expert on. You are sharing information, not trying to entertain a paying crowd at Carnegie Hall. Keep it in perspective. No one expects an employee training session to be "a show" so even the worst case won't be that bad.

-Memorize your first couple sentences. The best way to be confident is to step up and know exactly what you are going to say. No lame jokes, or anything "clever." Just a short couple sentences: "Hi, I'm John, and I'm in charge of widget design and marketing. Today we're going to talk about the history of doo-dads." Then go into your presentation. Knowing exactly what you're going to say at the very beginning will prevent you from freezing up and wondering how to start.

-Memorize your last couple sentences. This will help you end strong without you or anyone else wondering if you are done. After you've recapped, or had your Q&A or whatever, just say something simple like "I hope I gave you something you can use. I appreciate your attention. Feel free to contact me if I can be of any help. Thank you." If you know the host is coming back up, turn it over to him/her. Then, step away.

-Don't be afraid of silence. I still sometimes feel like I need to catch my breath during a talk. My adrenelin is going, and my heart rate is higher than normal, and I feel myself running out of air when talking. This is absolutely normal for the situation. To help avoid this, don't be afraid to just stay quiet for a few seconds at times. This gives you time to breath, and the audience time to absorb what you've said. If you are using a Powerpoint presentation (or something similar), a perfect time to pause and breath might be when you go to a new slide. Give people time to see it, read it, and absorb it. Then you can talk about it. Or, after a particularly important point, just pause for several seconds. It stresses the importance of the point, and allows your audience to time to think about it. Again: you don't need to fill every gap. Silence is fine.

Good luck and try to have fun.
posted by The Deej at 6:34 AM on February 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

The advice so far is solid, especially, the speaking to a friend in the crowd. Support from someone who is definitely on your side can help.

I'd also say this: practice, practice, practice your presentation today. Problems with public speaking are mostly related to confidence, and knowing the core elements of your presentation builds your confidence. If you know the material cold, it'll help you have less to be nervous about.

I also find it helps to exercise the night before, so I work out the anticipatory stress and get a good night's rest. And cliche as it sounds, taking deep breaths before the event itself can be calming too.

Good luck!
posted by jeffmshaw at 6:37 AM on February 18, 2010

If you are also looking for ways of managing the anxiety tonight, I would suggest trying to arrange an engaging and enjoyable activity (ideally with someone else) tonight. That way you can at least relax (physically and emotionally), and you might even tire yourself out in a way that helps you to sleep.
posted by sueinnyc at 6:39 AM on February 18, 2010

Everyone's different and I used to have the same issue, but I found 2 things helps me a lot:
1) Know what I'm talking about. When I had to give a presentaion on software usage to the staff last month, I was fine because I knew it in and out. That have me a lot of comfort in regard to you issue of worse case scenerio. If I know the product or topic well enough to handle potential questions and issues, I'm much more at ease- it is things coming up that I cannot solve that give me the sweats.

2) Along the same line, practice practice practice. The better I know the material I'm going to present, the more I can relate to topic 1. And when I get to those points where I freak out, I at least know the material well enough to still talk through it.
posted by jmd82 at 6:44 AM on February 18, 2010

Address the superiority/inferiority ratio.

You're scared because you either feel you're inferior (I can't present well, I don't know enough) or because you feel they're superior (they'll judge me, they'll know more than me).

Deal with these perceptions individuallly, and remember by getting it absolutely clear in your mind that at worst you're dealing with a group of peers and at best these people actually have something important to learn from you, you've cracked half the battle.

A neat way I train my people to think about it is to look at at a large audience and think "gee, it's nice that x more people have turned up to the small presentation I am giving." It's nice. They care. Get it in your mind that more people is always a good thing.

Most people are fine presenting one to one, or to a group of three, or a group of five, or a group of eight. Anyone over that number is window dressing - rationally speaking there is no meaningful difference. Remind yourself of that if you're fixating on the size of the venue or the size of the audience.

Worst case scenario: your trousers fall down and Mr Winky pops out. Make sure you fasten your trousers properly. Anything else is retrievable by pausing, scanning the audience meaninfully as if you've said something of great importance and then carrying on. In fact, pausing is pretty much the answer to all problems. They're at the presentation to hear you. They'll wait 5 seconds.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:48 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

This won't help you much in advance, but might do you some good on the day. When you're standing up to go and speak, breathe _out_. Instinctively when we stand up, we breathe in - try it and see. It feels a bit weird to breathe out instead at first. But if you breathe in and start speaking almost immediately, you get the tight air-at-the-top-of-your-lungs feeling, rather than good, controlled breathing. By breathing out as you stand up, then breathing in deeply, then starting to speak, you're in a much better place.

Other things that might help: if you're very nervous a short period before you start, go to a private place and shake your hands out hard, as if you're trying to shake off something very sticky. (Honey was the example given to me.) That'll get blood flowing better. Do the same for our feet. And take deep, controlled breaths, slowly in and out.

Finally, remember nobody _wants_ you to fail. They just want to get through the presentation, and they'll want you to do well. The audience is not your enemy.

Good luck!
posted by StephenF at 7:07 AM on February 18, 2010

Things which have helped me:

1) Be overprepared. Know your material stone cold so that even if you blank for a moment (and here the notes recommended by ExitPursuedByBear are useful), it's in long-term memory where you can access it. The more confident I am in my material, the less nervous I am after the first few minutes.

2) On the same note, be prepared for contingencies. Using Powerpoint? Have slide handouts so that if the projector doesn't work or the power goes out you're covered.

3) On the other hand, once you've overprepared, scripting will make you sound..scripted and more nervous because what if you lose your place? So go for just an outline.

4) Look at people's foreheads rather than their eyes. They can't tell and it feels less intense.

Good luck!
posted by eleanna at 7:08 AM on February 18, 2010

I'm with jmd82 - remind yourself that you know more about your topic than everyone else in the room.

Two hours is a long time but remember that the worst of your nerves will be over by the time you start talking. The hardest part is getting good rest the night before, getting to the venue, doing the small talk with the facilitators, making sure the technology is working and watching everyone come into the room. Whatever helps you go to sleep - such as half a Diazepam, a meditation tape, a bath, bonking etc - is a good idea.

If you are prepared, know your stuff and have planned the time well, the actual presenting goes quickly. Don't rush things - remember to pause and invite questions. Having a hand out or an overview of your programme on a powerpoint helps a lot as your audience won't be solely focused on you or noticing any nerves until you 'warm up'.

And since it's probably already morning in your time zone as I write this - good luck already!
posted by honey-barbara at 7:13 AM on February 18, 2010

Everything above helped out a lot, but in addition to those, aren't you just tired of being afraid? I was. In the middle of a speech my arm was shaking so badly it looked like a stroke and I just said: "Screw it, I'm sick of this!" And that was that. They're people, just like your friends. Is it a big deal if you're all out having dinner and everyone tunes into your conversation for a sec? No. That's all this is.

Yeah, there's lights and a stage and crap but it's all smoke and mirrors. Converse with the crowd. They're a very quite friend, of course, so you'll have to carry the conversation, but you can do it. Find a few who are emotive and watch them for cues on how the conversation is going. Bring some water so you can take a drink occasionally and catch your breath. Straw polls ("Raise a hand if...") help too and you get feedback from your friend. Keep a *detailed* list of points to go over so you don't drift but it's okay if you miss a thing or two - they have brains and it's easy to mention the points in passing. Don't be afraid to work a personal story or two in so they can relate to you. After all, it's just a good conversation with a friend. That's all.
posted by jwells at 7:16 AM on February 18, 2010

Rehearse as much as you can, and have clear notes. Not so much that it won't make you nervous, but if you do space out, you might just keep on going on autopilot, and no-one will be the wiser.
posted by monocultured at 7:38 AM on February 18, 2010

Best answer: I'm the same, really not a big fan of doing this but once you get going it's a lot easier than your imagination tells you it will be beforehand. Trust me by this time tomorrow night you'll feel a great sense of achievement and that beer will taste good!

Things that I try to remind myself of beforehand

- Do one thing everyday that scares you - this preso is something that will help you grow as a person
- Nerves are good for getting you focused
- No-one (except a prick- and who cares what they think anyway) wants you to fail.
- Expect that you'll trip over your tongue on a few words, it's no big deal and no-one will notice
- 75% of the people in the audience will be thinking of what they will be doing that evening, why they hate their job etc rather than listening to you!
- You have been asked to do it because your knowledge is good, be confident in this
- Might be a bit weird but it always helps me to think of crazy shit going on in the world, think Haiti earthquake, Tsunamis, people losing their families. Think about all those people and then ask yourself is this ordeal of giving a presentation really that bad in the grand scheme of things?
- Be yourself and use your own voice and style - really key!

Good luck bud, you'll be fine
posted by woodenfloored at 7:54 AM on February 18, 2010

Practice in front of the mirror. A lot. When you flub, smile, correct, then continue. Keep doing it until you haven't tripped over a word or blanked a slide at least three times in a row. Check out what your hands and body are doing as you go and work on those, too. Feel free to play around with it as you practice, like throwing in some jazz hands or basketball turns. The more you loosen up during practice, the more comfortable you'll be in delivery.

Go with the advice to picture the room as your friend, the friend you need to get this information to, the friend who will clap you on the back afterward.

Speak slowly enough to be able to breathe normally - this will help more than you realise possible.

The advice to have clear notes on you is vital. Loads of experienced speakers hit gaps and check the notes, so it's no big deal.

Also heed the advice on getting your blood going. Do whatever you can before heading up to stimulate circulation in your head, too - massage the temples and back of your neck or even brush your hair a couple of times, if your hairstyle allows it. Roll your neck a few times to loosen up those muscles, as well.

Be hydrated - it's (actually not) weird how much this helps.

Don't be poker-faced during your delivery. Smiling and other positive facial cues will keep your audience engaged AND actively improves your feelings.

You can do it!
posted by batmonkey at 8:01 AM on February 18, 2010

I have done a little bit of public speaking. I can't promise you that what works for me will work for you but I can offer an alternative to some of what people here have listed (not that I think they are all depends on the person).

1. On memorization - I avoid it like the plague. I stutter, shake and really get thrown off when I feel as though my presentation is the performance of a script. For me, it is a noticeable addition to stress. I will agree that you should...

2. Know what you are going to start out saying - For me, this is always, always a public admission that I am nervous (I typically as mention this in a joking way, but I do mean it). I can't explain why, but just saying the words seems to drain my anxiety like I pulled the plug from the bathtub. I also think that it changes the way the audience sees me and not in a bad way, but that is a separate story. I recognize that this may seem unprofessional, but I accept that lapse because I...

3. Know the subject cold - I will recover from bringing my anxiety up (perhaps not to the eyes of the audience, but definitely to me) by remembering that I know what I am talking about. For me, I don't need to feel generally confident about myself, I just need to confidently know the subject. This will allow me to overcome any problems (like non-functioning projectors, etc.). Of course, you may need to...

4. Lay out a strategy for teaching the subject - Do I know the subject? Have I then organized the information in a logical fashion (ie outline)? If I have, then I know I have thought about the subject from the audience's perspective. I have tried to predict what is easy about the subject, what is tricky. I have thought about how concepts lead to real-world examples. For me, everything can go wrong (sometimes, many things have) but as long as I know my subject and have a clear strategy in how to transmit it I have survives (sometimes to accolades from the audience).

In my case, I am always trying to explicitly ratchet down the anxiety by trying to personalize the presentation and to make it more like a conversation than a presentation. I am not thinking posture, loudness (I'm lucky (?) to naturally have a big voice), or expression. To the extent that I can, I avoid "Presentation Etiquette", not because I think that it's without value (I think it has great value) but because I am not a Presenter. I am just a person giving a presentation. Therefore, I accept that I am nervous, communicate it to relieve some stress, and try to remember that the anxiety will diminish as the presentation moves along.

Obviously, this won't work in a courtroom or at the UN General Assembly. But in my role as a leader in training exercises and classroom presentations this has served me well.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 8:18 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Long-term: Learn yoga, read A Soprano on Her Head, practice, practice, practice, and if that's not enough talk to a doctor about beta blockers or more serious anti-anxiety meds.

Short-term: Do everything you can to get some sleep (Tylenol PM is sometimes a good bet), drink a lot of water, don't take any caffeine between now and then, but above all don't baby yourself -- sometimes I find that being overly careful reinforces the inner message "I'm weak and I need special protection," which is what you're trying to shut up.

The best advice I got from A Soprano on Her Head is to take control of your stage fright any way you can -- in particular, focus on the physical symptoms and try to make them worse. Clench your stomach, make your mouth drier, shake your hands more, etc. The worst part about stage fright isn't the symptoms, it's that the symptoms demonstrate that you're not in control of your own body. Trying to make the symptoms stop usually doesn't work and further demonstrates your lack of control -- but it's usually easy to intensify them, and even though it's in the wrong direction is still control. For me that almost instantly short-circuits the panic reaction.
posted by range at 8:43 AM on February 18, 2010

Think back to other presentations/training sessions you've had...I have to go to lots of professional development sessions as part of my job, and my memory of good ones vs bad ones is not linked to who presented it and how they did. It's always linked to what the session was about, and whether it was helpful. People are much less concerned with watching YOU do whatever you're doing than figuring out WHAT you're talking about and how it may or may not be useful. Like others have said, the material will stick with them, not whether or not you stuttered, if your hands shook, if you made too little eye contact, if you didn't have enough photocopies, etc etc.

It also helps me, when I'm feeling very anxious about something when I'm trying to sleep, to get up, and make a list of the things I'm nervous about. So you can write down stuff like "What if my projector doesn't work?" and think of a solution. (And I bet in terms of having all your materials, getting there early and having a contingency plan will help a lot.) Then you'll be sure that when you get up in the morning, you'll know exactly what you need to do to avoid problems.
posted by violetish at 9:04 AM on February 18, 2010

Here's my speaking tips, although I don't necessarily have stage fright, it's still nerve-wracking -- I tell myself:

1) People cannot read minds. They do not know that you're nervous, unprepared, afraid, etc., and will not know it unless you do something extraordinarily obvious to express those negative feelings.

2) People's brains pause when you stop talking, and resume when you start talking again. Pauses do not exist to listeners. It takes a good 15, 20 seconds for their brain to catch up and go, "woah, it's been quiet a while". Stopping for a few seconds every so often is like stopping time, so you're free to collect your thoughts regularly without it registering with the audience. Filling those pauses with noises like "um" draws attention to pauses, however.

3) Do your entire presentation, out loud, to an empty room more than once. There's no other way to know ahead of time how the speech will go, and these "rehearsals" will give you confidence.

4) The audience wants you to do succeed. You really, really, really have to screw up for the audience to remember you did anything wrong. If you remotely follow your outline and cover your points, you will be a success despite those five million picky things that you noticed about yourself.

5) The audience is focused on the thing you're talking about, and not you. Your emotional state is nowhere on their radar. Even if your audience had been staring at you for an hour while you talked, few would be able to pick you out of a police lineup the next day. Your purpose as a speaker is to make sure that your topic and message are what they're focused on, so it's not hard to keep it that way.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:24 AM on February 18, 2010

tiny note: I'm not advocating memorisation by any means - just getting your "performance" down & your flow solid. memorisation can help in certain spots, but can also rob all the life from your presentation.
posted by batmonkey at 9:31 AM on February 18, 2010

I'm not only a trainer, I am also a singer. In my years of working and singing, I have had the same experiences as you, especially nights before big presentations and/or recitals or solos.

What works best for me is simple: Know the material inside and out, backwards and forwards. That way, it's most like you are just having a conversation with a bunch of people.

Anticipate the questions you'll get. Write them down ahead of time, and practice some answers to them.

Try and channel the adrenaline into excitement. Adrenaline does not have to equal scared, shaky presentation--it can mean an exciting, vibrant presentation. Remember, you're in control!

Have a few icebreaker questions to ask the audience, if you can work that into your presentation--just to get everyone laughing a little bit. Good ones are like "What are the 4 US state capitals named after US presidents." They make the audience think and everyone gets in a good mood because they are working together.
posted by FergieBelle at 9:37 AM on February 18, 2010

When I was being trained to teach in front of a classroom, a professor who studies public speaking shared this with us and it helped me tremendously. There was a study once of how nervous public speakers thought they were and how nervous they thought they appeared and they also asked the audience members a series of questions asking them to evaluate the public speaker and how nervous they seemed. It turns out audiences are really, really bad at noticing nerves and most often mistake nerves (bad) for excitement (good). So the advice of this professor is to not worry about appearing nervous and to just act up your excitement in the material and the audience won't know any better.

I was thinking of that study just last night while watching some athletes waiting for their events to begin in the Olympics. This has to be one of the most nervous and anxious times in their lives but most of them just looked pumped.

(Also, if anyone else has ever heard of this study or even better has a citation, I would love to know)
posted by Tallguy at 11:11 AM on February 18, 2010

Do these three things and you will be fine.

1. Speak very loudly. Imagine speaking so loudly that someone in the last row can hear you. Then speak twice as loudly as that. Drop your voice into a lower register, to help you project your voice. This will prevent your voice from shaking.

2. Pause every five words. Even if it sounds unnatural, the audience will find it easier to keep up. The natural tendency is to speak too rapidly, so forcing yourself to pause will prevent you from babbling.

3. Practice your speech out loud beforehand, as many times as possible, while speaking loudly and pausing every five words. Do not practice it in your head. Do not practice it under your breath, while looking at the mirror. Practice it bellowing loudly and pausing, as you will in real life.
posted by cheesecake at 7:04 PM on February 18, 2010

How'd it go?
posted by The Deej at 7:46 AM on February 22, 2010

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