From the American Psychological Association to Jerry Seinfeld, it’s unanimous: Most people fear public speaking more than they fear death.
Most people have a fear of public speaking, but to varying degrees. It’s often relative to the situation. Someone may be comfortable speaking in one setting and not in another.
So you’re in good company if you suffer from what’s technically known as glossophobia, a common social anxiety disorder that’s also relatively easy to overcome or at least learn to live with, say experts.
Why it happens
The number of people in the room is often a key factor in how comfortable you’ll feel speaking in public. For some, it takes an entire auditorium to bring on nervousness, while others begin feeling anxiety the minute there are more than four or five in the audience.
In addition, a fear of public speaking is not necessarily something you’re born with. People often develop it with changed circumstances or in very specific situations.
Sometimes, when people have a new job, or they have a tough new boss, it can make them feel very insecure all of a sudden. Then, once they stumble or have a case of nerves in one presentation or meeting, it can make them even more nervous for the next time.
Practice makes perfect
No matter what brings on a fear of public speaking, the cure is the same: good preparation ahead of time.
A big problem is that people have this idea that they’re supposed to wing it, and that only naturally good speakers are comfortable in front of crowds, but that’s not true. Good speakers are absolutely meticulous in their preparation.
Here are some strategies for feeling more comfortable when you speak in public:
Examine your content. Be careful of too much jargon, or of trying to cram every single thing you know into your talk. You are telling a story, and that story should be colorful and have a strong theme. Even if you’re not speaking from a prepared text, it can be effective to write out your speech ahead of time and then collapse it into bullet points to which you can refer.
Think of yourself as a conduit. People are there to listen because they want something from you. They are not there to judge. Instead of stewing over what you are going to say and what they will think of you, think about what your audience needs to hear. Approach your presentation as a gift to your audience, and shift your focus from you to them.
Desensitize yourself. Don’t try to give the keynote talk at a huge meeting when you’re new to public speaking. Instead, start by practicing with two or three people with whom you are comfortable. Ask them not to speak or critique, but to take a step toward you when they’re feeling engaged, and a step back when they feel themselves drifting. You’ll get instant, visceral feedback that tells you where your talk is working and where it is failing.
Rehearse and imagine. It’s ideal to rehearse while walking, swimming or showering because the vestibular (inner ear) stimulation enables you to practice in a way that’s very effective. Also, spend some time imagining that you’re making your speech, with the audience receiving it positively and people coming up afterwards to tell you how much they enjoyed it.
Find a story you can tell well and that is relevant and meaningful, and step out of your own skin and into your audience’s. You’ll find what’s interesting to them.