I know the feeling all too well now. My chest tightens up with panic and my head starts to spin. I begin to focus on the thoughts racing through my head and forget what is supposed to be coming out of my mouth. Sometimes I even forget to breathe, causing my voice to crack.
That’s how bad my fear of public speaking used to be. Each time I would stand in front of an audience, the ball of tension would start to form deep in my chest, and I knew all was lost.
So, one day, I decided to do something about it.
Before I get into the details, I want to clarify that I’m not convinced it’s possible to ever completely get over a fear of public speaking. In fact, I think a little bit a nervous energy is healthy; it keeps you on your toes, and you can even channel it positively. As a friend of mine who is an amazing public speaker said to me, “If you don’t get nervous when speaking to an audience, it probably means you’re dead.”
I do, however, think it’s possible to learn to bring your fear down to a manageable level. Here’s how I did it, and how you can, too.
Do a Bit of Soul Searching
Sometimes, we get stuck on an idea we have of ourselves that is left over from when we were younger or less experienced, and this idea inhibits us from realizing how awesome we’ve become. In other words, when you start to tell yourself that you can’t do something, or that you are bad at X or Y (like public speaking), check whether you’re basing this on who you actually are now—or who you were five years ago.
Ramit Sethi, founder of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, talks a lot about how invisible scripts—deeply-held notions that affect the way we make decisions on a daily basis—shape our lives. Problem is, these scripts are often outdated and misguided.
One of the scripts that was running through my mind each time I got up to speak in front of an audience was that I didn’t know enough to be interesting. And, sure, that was probably true when I was 20—but now that I’ve worked in several countries, built a marketing department from the ground up, founded a successful community of professional women, and written for several publications? Not so much. I had a hugely outdated idea of myself in my head, and it was preventing me from moving forward.
So, consider whether you might be doing the same thing to yourself with public speaking (or anything else that scares you, for that matter).
Find a Safe Place to Practice
I had a hunch that the quickest way to get better at speaking in front of an audience was to practice, so I decided to sign up for Toastmasters. The great thing about Toastmasters is that it provides a safe space to practice your public speaking (everyone is there because they want to get better, too!), and you get constructive feedback on your presentations from people who have been studying with the program for a while. It’s as close as you’ll get to taking a class on public speaking without paying a lot of money.
Whether you choose Toastmasters, a public speaking meet-up, or a more formal public speaking course, finding a place where you can practice presenting in front of an audience without the pressure of a high-stakes spotlight is really the first big step to becoming more comfortable with public speaking.
Put Yourself Out There
While I was practicing public speaking on a weekly basis at Toastmasters meetings, I also started to take every speaking opportunity that came my way and prep for it rigorously, no matter how insignificant it might have seemed. For example, I volunteered to give the short welcome speech at a workshop my company offered, and when my company was contacted about speaking at a social media marketing seminar, I quickly suggested I give the talk. I prepped for this talk by presenting it to my team a few days before.
And you know what? The more I practiced, the more comfortable I became with speaking in front of an audience. The lesson here is: Even if you feel you’re not entirely ready, actively seek out speaking opportunities and take each one that comes your way, whether it’s simply presenting to a few colleagues or giving a talk to a room of 30 people.
Learn From the Experts
I also spent a lot of time watching experts talk about public speaking and body language. One of the best sources of inspiration I came across is a well-known talk by Olivia Fox Cabane, a leadership coach who specializes in teaching charisma.
The video is long, but worth every minute you spend watching it; not only does Cabane give excellent advice on how to be more charismatic, she also sets a great example for how to give a riveting speech. From the moment I hit play, I was glued to the screen.
Another video that had a big impact on me was Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on how body language shapes who you are internally. In other words, your body language impacts your psychology, which in turn impacts your behavior, which in turn impacts final outcomes.
For example, explains Cuddy, if you sit or stand in a “low-power pose” for just two minutes, such as with your arms crossed in front of you, your stress levels will rise. Take on an expansive pose with your legs and arms outstretched (a “high-power pose”), and you will feel more confident, at ease, and in control. I decided to test this out before a talk I gave at a social media marketing seminar. About five minutes before the talk, I went into a bathroom stall and proceeded to strike a “high-power pose” for a couple of minutes. It worked: In fact, this was the very first talk I gave during which I felt calm and collected.
Fake it Until You Become It
Let’s say there are still a few holes in your knowledge or experience—then take Cuddy’s advice and fake it until you become it: Through subtle shifts in your body language, power posing, a few weekends spent studying up on a topic, pretending you’re someone else for a moment, or whatever else works for you, fake being an amazing public speaker until one day you are one.
The truth is, I still have a ways to go before I can consider myself a great public speaker. In fact, a few weeks ago, someone I used to date came to an event I was speaking at, making what was already a high-stakes situation (there was a panel of judges!) decidedly nerve-wracking. As I presented my project, that familiar ball of tension, which I thought I had nixed for good, rose up in my chest, and when I finished my talk I was convinced it had been the worst thing in the world.
But by finding a safe place to practice, taking cues from the experts, seeking out opportunities to get up in front of audiences, and re-thinking certain ideas I held true about who I am and what I’m good at, I’ve made a huge amount of progress in getting over what used to be a debilitating fear of public speaking.
Hey, even that terrifying speech that I thought I had bombed was good enough to win my team third place.
I call that progress.