3 Strategies For Managing Public Speaking Anxiety

It doesn’t matter if you’re presenting to two people or to two thousand people: When presentation anxiety strikes, you need some strategies to get you out of your own head and on to the stage with confidence, polish, and professionalism.

Mark Twain once said, "There are two kinds of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars." In other words, no matter how seasoned or "under-seasoned" you are when it comes to making presentations, there is going to be some particular audience, some particular topic, some particularly poor timing or something else in particular that is going to give you some sleepless nights and a queasy stomach in the morning.

I know this firsthand. I've been a professional speaker and communications coach for over 20 years, so when a client of mine offered me the incredible opportunity to present a keynote address on customer service to more than 2,000 financial-service professionals, nobody was more surprised than I was to hear these words leak out of my mouth, "Uh, no thanks."

Was it the topic? Nope—I know customer service in my sleep. Was it the audience? No, I had plenty of experience working with financial service professionals. Was it the prep time? Hardly. I had six months' advance notice.

What was it? It was the fact that I was used to speaking to groups of a few dozen to a few hundred people, and the idea of speaking to thousands felt overwhelming. Impossible. Nauseating.

Of course, I ended up accepting the assignment ("I was just joking with you," I lied). And the feedback was excellent (she added, humbly). But the most important takeaway I got from that experience is that Mark Twain had it right: Everyone has his or her own special source of stress when it comes to speaking in public.

It doesn’t matter if you’re presenting to two people or to 2,000 people: When presentation anxiety strikes, you need some strategies to get you out of your own head and on to the stage with confidence, polish, and professionalism. And I don’t know about you, but the old adage "picture them in their underwear" doesn’t cut it for me. In fact, I can’t think of too many things that would make me more nervous than imagining the human resources director crashing our "underwear only" meeting.

In James L. Brooks’ Oscar-nominated film Broadcast News, Albert Brooks’s neurotic newscaster (who suffered from a drenching case of on-air flop sweat) asked, "Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?"

Until that happens, here are three better strategies for managing your anxiety when it’s time for you to take the stage:

1. Exercise that morning.
For those people who consider public speaking a stressful activity, you’re in luck: According to Michael Hopkins, a graduate student at Dartmouth’s Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory, "the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms." Rather than use the morning of your big presentation to ruminate and freak yourself out, spend at least a half hour working out. Whether you go for a brisk walk, do Crossfit, or take a Zumba class, the release of serotonin (aka the "happy hormone") that results from exercise will flood you with positive feelings for your presentation.

But what if the only thing you hate more than speaking in public is going to the gym? Then try other forms of exertion—anything that raises your heart rate, and gets you flushed and sweaty. You can even "exert yourself" with a partner. Wink wink.

2. Memorize your first three lines.
The hardest part for most public speakers is actually getting started. You’re now trying to manage your anticipatory anxiety (planning what could go wrong in the future) with your situational anxiety (experiencing what may going wrong right now). Short-circuit your monkey mind by memorizing the first three lines of your presentation. This will shift your brain out of panic mode and into memory-retrieval mode. And so that you don’t add memory anxiety to your list of concerns, make sure that you have practiced saying your first three lines out loud several times.

And what about "Hello everyone—thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here" as an intro? It doesn’t work. In order for you to use your introductory sentences to strategically catapult yourself over your opening jitters, you need to prepare something that brings energy to yourself, to the audience, and to the presentation. Share a short personal story, a brief commentary on a recent, relevant headline, or a potent quotation. (I often begin my presentation skills training with my favorite Mark Twain one!)

Worried about politeness? Save your greetings and thank-you’s for your second paragraph. At that point, you will be warmed up, in your groove and will have the audience impressed with an opening (and a speaker) who is more interesting than they expected.

3. Plan a dialogue rather than a monologue.
Which would you rather do: make a presentation in front of a group of people or engage in a conversation with a group of people? Unless you struggle with social anxiety in general (a topic for another time), chances are, you would prefer the latter. And guess what? So would your audience. Most of us would rather be engaged with the topic and the speaker rather than be expected to keep our opinions and contributions to ourselves. Rather than worrying how you will memorize all of your content, deliver it flawlessly and remember to breathe. Build in breaks for yourself that also allow your audience to share a role in the presentation. Plan to speak for the first 30 seconds to one minute on your own, and then ask the audience a question that requires a response, take an informal opinion poll, or show a quick, relevant video and get some feedback.

This will give your audience the opportunity to engage with and better retain the information, and will give you a chance to breathe, have a sip of water, look at your notes, and gather your thoughts for the next chunk of information you need to deliver until the next audience-oriented break.

It will even give you just enough time to celebrate the fact that you made it through the first minute without passing out.

Related: The Problem With Your Elevator Pitch—And How To Fix It

—Deborah Grayson Riegel is a communication and behavior expert, and is the president of Elevated Training Inc. and MyJewishCoach.com. She is the author of "Oy Vey! Isn't a Strategy: 25 Solutions for Personal and Professional Success."

[Image: Flickr user Mc-Q]

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  • Tom Woods

    Thank you Deborah, there are some great tips here! I especially agree woth memorising your first few lines. This can certinaly help to make you feel more relaxed and comfortable during the start if your speech. I remember reading a blog post from Tom Woods on http://curefearofpublicspeaking.com/ and he also spoke for the importance of this.

  • Darius Lahoutifard

    Great article!
    Being a frequent speaker, mainly Virtually with sometimes hundreds of attendees in video conference or 3D virtual conferences, my 2 cents advice is the following: 
    Think of people who have come to learn something, not criticizing you. So focus on your message, your content, and be passionate about it. That passion will overcome any stress and actually you'll love your own presentation if you deliver your message as if you are sharing a belief, a passion.

  • Daniel_kingsley

    I like your 3 strategies.  I'd like to add one more from my experience as a public speaking coach - that's using soft eye contact with your audience.

    Research by Dr Stephen Porges suggests that this activates the Social Nervous System, which allows us to be more relational and feel safer.  It's certainly been my experience.

    If you'd like to read further I've written a blog piece about it, which you can find here: http://presencetraining.co.uk/...

  • 1Noa1

    Congratulations on a great article. You are so talented with your writing skills! Did you watch the inauguration ceremony on Monday? I thought Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce can be perfect examples for how to handle extreme high intensity public performances.They both did a marvelous job...hit the high notes and dealt with the cold weather. However, if you watch it again and look for body language cues (I have it on my DVR), Kelly sang most of her song with her eyes closed. Beyonce...walked in..and as nervous as she may have been singing to the thousands and thousands of people, the entire cabinet, press from all over the world..next to the President of the United States, and she totally soaked in the entire experience...you could really tell how she balanced her emotions, kept herself calm and took her time in looking around and connecting with the audience (and cameras) and was determined to enjoy this experience no matter what...she also experienced a technical challenge with her ear piece (as we speakers experience too from time to time...freezing laptops, LCD projectors that work perfectly until the moment you really need them to), but she just dealt with it with no sweat.  Make it a great day! Noa

  • Jwrunning

    Fabulous, Deborah - I share your experiences, your attitude and your anxieties :-)

  • Ryan Connors

    Best part of the article- You can even “exert yourself” with a partner. Wink wink.

  • Rebecca Einstein Schorr

    Some really solid advice And perfect timing as I'm working on a program that I'll be sharing in a few weeks. I look forward to putting these into play.

  • Paul H. Burton

    I am often asked why I'm so comfortable speaking to audiences. The simple truth comes from the old advice: Trust in your preparation. Never memorize a speech, you're not performing in a play. Prepare by practicing over and over until the fundamental outline is in your head. That way, you're just talking with the audience while you're on stage.

  • LillyMay

    I don't agree with this.  No amount of preparation can overcome the anxiety from public speaking.

  • From my experience when this is the case, you are dealing with phobic behavior. The average person can get confident and overcome anxieties with sufficient practice. The person with a strong fear of public speaking doesn't believe he/she can speak at all with the anxieties present. This person needs to desensitize their fears of being the center of attention before they can start feeling confident with their preparation. -@thenakedspeaker

  • Sherman Ellen

    I find that if I anticipate the adrenaline surge that accompanies that initial contact moment in public speaking and welcome it, then it doesn't have the effect that anxiety does, rather it has the effect that winning the lottery would. (I imagine).