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Michelle Bowden: how to overcome your fear of public speaking

Public speaking is something a lot of people fear. But it doesn't have to be. As Michelle Bowden explains, there are a few simple tips you can use to ace your next listing presentation, sales meeting address or even a big conference speaking engagement.

You know the feeling. Your body overloads with adrenaline, your skin feels like it’s on fire, your muscles deaden, and your heart thumps like you’ve been shocked with a mild electric current!

You can’t think straight, your mouth doesn’t work properly, and everyone is staring, expecting you to speak and say something useful.

Presenting nerves are not fun.  

Glossophobia is the term for a diagnosable fear or anxiety of public speaking.

And it’s very common.

Why does it happen?

In my experience, there are three main reasons people suffer from glossophobia or fear of public speaking. I can help with the first two, but the final reason requires medical intervention.

Reason 1. Embarrassment.

If I received a dollar for every person I’ve spoken with who recounts a story of the school teacher who humiliated them, the board member who shouted at them or the colleague who taunted them, I’d be a rich woman.

One of the most common causes of a deep-seated fear of public speaking is a negative experience.

Essentially it goes like this:

A few years ago, I worked with Sarah*.

Sarah explained she was terrified of public speaking.

When I asked her what she thought may have caused her fear, she explained, “When I was 10 and in Grade 4 at school, I was presenting to my class”.

“For no reason, my teacher started booing me, and the rest of the class joined in.”

Sarah developed an instant fear of public speaking that stayed with her until she was 32. 

After we worked together, Sarah spoke at a conference of 200 people and was given feedback that she was the best speaker of the day.

She has conquered her fear.

Another client, Meg* came to me after she started fainting in front of her corporate colleagues when presenting.

After fainting the first time, the fear of it happening again caused her to go into overload and faint again.

In other words, the fear of fainting made her faint.

Her boss explained the consequence of the fainting to me, “if you can’t fix her, I’ll have to sack her.”

Once she overcame her fear of public speaking, her career went from strength to strength. S

She is now an executive manager abroad and regularly speaks to great acclaim.

Reason 2: You don’t want to look foolish

There may not have been a particular ‘incident’ that led to your fear of public speaking.

In this case, you are afraid of something that might happen, such as saying the wrong word or not being prepared enough.

It’s a general fear of looking stupid or ‘unworthy’ to one’s colleagues, superiors or loved ones.

Reason 3: Chemical imbalance

Poor diet, alcohol, drugs, or a more complex chemical imbalance can cause unreasonable fear.

If you can relate to this, you should talk with your GP.

What to do to conquer your fear

There are five key things you can do to manage your fear of public speaking:

Prepare thoroughly

Rehearse out loud until you feel you know what you want to say.

Great speakers rehearse until they can’t get it wrong. A clever trick professional speakers use is to rehearse over the radio.

Put the radio on and ensure there is lots of annoying talk and nonsense.

If you can present over the radio without losing your train of thought, you can be confident you know your presentation well enough to remain focused on the day.

Rehearsing involves standing up and saying the presentation out loud, in various locations, and with different words each time.

Don’t aim to rote learn the speech – this is a recipe for going blank on the day!

Breathe

You must breathe diaphragmatically. This means into your diaphragm as opposed to breathing into your chest.

If you breathe diaphragmatically, it will circulate oxygen throughout your body, and you’ll retain your clarity of thought.

Use the power of your mind. 

If you tell yourself repeatedly, “I’m nervous, I’m nervous, I’m nervous,” then what are you? You’re nervous!

If you tell yourself that you can do it and it’s just another time when you are speaking with your fellow humans, it will help.

Telling yourself, “I hate public speaking!” is not helpful. Watch your self-talk.

Focus on your audience 

As simple as it sounds, this is the most important tactic you can use to manage your nerves. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about your audience.

Have a recovery strategy

Even the best presenters go blank from time to time.

Make sure you plan for what you’ll do if you lose your train of thought or go blank.

One idea is to have a drink ready, take a sip and compose yourself.

If you know there’s a backup plan, if you do happen to go blank, then there’s nothing to fear.

*Name changed for privacy.

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Michelle Bowden

Michelle Bowden is Australia's expert on presenting persuasively in business. She's a best-selling, internationally published author of How to Present: the ultimate guide to presenting your ideas and influencing people using techniques that actually work. For more information visit michellebowden.com.au