Public Speaking: No Longer a Fate Worse Than Death

February 1, 2014

There’s a popular saying that people fear public speaking more than death. This claim is supported neither by statistics nor evolution (we’re hardwired to fear spiders and snakes and other critters that can kill us), but it feels true for a lot of people, myself once included.

Waiting to Launch!

Waiting to Launch!

I was bullied as a kid, so I spent a lot of my school career trying to fly under the radar. This plan went right out the window in junior high, when teachers suddenly decided that presentations and speeches were valuable teaching tools. Worst possible timing, because kids experiencing puberty are at the height of both self-conciousness and cruelty. I vividly recall my first speech – heart pounding so loud I could barely hear my voice, hands shaking so hard I dropped the cue cards, face so hot it could light a candle. I just about passed out from the combination of adrenaline and sweat-induced dehydration.

I’m over it now. Years of school presentations, teaching contracts, and writerly events gave me the experience I needed to conquer my fear.

And at my Fox Talk launch in November, something magical happened – for the first time, I felt the heady rush that stage actors must experience when the stars align and they’ve got their audience in the palms of their hands. Instead of simply pouring my energy into the presentation, I was actually drawing it from the crowd: amazing!

I can hardly believe how far I’ve come from that first terrified experience, and today I want to share some of the best strategies I’ve learned for making presentations, if not relaxing, at least easier:

  1. Practice. Like anything else, the more we speak, the better we get. If you’re really nervous, start in small, low-stakes situations, like sharing a story or opinion at a dinner party, and work your way up. The scariest speeches I’ve ever given were as a grad student at scientific conferences, with tenured professors in the room – not a good place to begin!
  2. Research. Do as much research as needed to feel confident with the material, and consider possible questions your audience might ask in advance, because answering questions on the fly can be the most nerve-wracking part of a speech.
  3. Rehearse. After you decide what you need to talk about, and build any visuals you’re going to need, practice, practice, practice. Give the speech out loud, in private or to your pets. Figure out where you stumble and repeat until smooth. Pay attention to when you need to click your slides, too.
  4. Breathe. Take a couple deep breaths right before you stand up to speak. If you lose your place or feel your nerves building, pause and take another deep breath. These pauses feel much longer to the speaker than the audience, so don’t worry about taking the time.
  5. Make eye contact. It sounds counterintuitive, but when I look people in the eye, I feel like I’m having a conversation with one person instead of a group, which is a lot less scary. Try to make eye contact with everyone in the room at least once while you’re talking. If this makes you really anxious, look people in the forehead instead of the eyes – they won’t be able to tell you’re cheating!
  6. Type your notes and staple the printouts – that way, if you drop them, you don’t have to spend 10 minutes in front of a crowd trying to put your speech back in order!
  7. Assume it’s going to go well! Smile and pretend you’re confident, and you’ll actually start to feel that way. I’m always amazed at how well this works.

100 Things Every Presenter Need to Know About PeopleFor more tips and strategies, I recommend 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, by Susan Weinschenk. It’s well-organized and broken into bite-sized chunks so you can pick and choose which bits you want to focus on.

Is public speaking one of your fears? What are some of the best strategies you’ve used to overcome your nerves? What’s your worst – or best! – public speaking story?  


4 Comments on ‘Public Speaking: No Longer a Fate Worse Than Death’

  1. Lindsey:

    Excellent strategies! I found that joining Toastmasters International and giving a lot of short speeches got me over my fears.

    My Joyful Public Speaking blog has a whole label category on Worst Moments. A post on January 13 discussed astronaut Chris Hadfield’s advice about fear (to visualize failure and then plan for success):

    I’ve also discussed to silly claim that public speaking is the number one fear:

    Actually there is some statistical support (from fear survey schedules) for the claim that people fear public speaking more than death, starting almost five decades ago.

    In a 1965 study of students, fear of public speaking ranked sixth for men and seventh for women. Death was twelfth.

    Back in 1974 there was a survey of anxieties for students at the University of Manitoba. Speaking in class or in public ranked 2nd, and death wasn’t in the top 21:

    But, a 1991 article about Canadians over 50 in metro Toronto found Death of a Loved One, and Untimely or Early Death both outranked Speaking Before a Group:

    There was a survey of social fears for general public in Alberta and Manitoba:

    There also was a survey of social fears in Canadian military:

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    1. Wow, great resources, Richard – thanks for sharing!

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  2. Good article and list of resources by Richard – I’ve also heard (and heard debunked) the myth about public speaking being feared more than death. Nice to have those links to inform people, especially those about to do a presentation, that this is simply not true. I’ve also done lots of public speaking and presentations to classrooms from Kindergarten to graduate students/faculty – one other thing that I have found and recommend is to really know who your audience is going to be – don’t give a highly technical scientific presentation to a room full of elders for whom your words are being translated into a local language. Then also to remember that the audience always wants you to succeed 🙂 The audience wants you to do good as well! Finally – if you’re using PowerPoint or other technology – make SURE you know how to set it up and use it and have it set up and ready to go before you start. How many presentations/conferences/meetings have we all sat through whilst one to six people work away at the laptop/projector/etc trying to make it work?!

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  3. Good point, Alasdair, about knowing your audience – that goes for any type of communication. And I think you’re right that the audience wants things to go well too, because it’s just as embarrassing watching someone crash and burn as it is burning yourself. I like the technology tip, too. I always arrive 15-20 minutes early so I can get my tech set up before a room full of people is staring at me!

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