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Overcoming Anxiety, Building Confidence in Public Speaking

by Ian Price(more info)

listed in anxiety, originally published in issue 159 - June 2009

Once upon a time, a few people spoke often to many audiences, and were revered for their abilities. Professors in university, clerics on a Sunday, and head teachers on speech day, all took their place at the lectern and spoke to a captive audience.  For mere mortals, the very idea of standing before an audience was unthinkable. The art of public speaking, the clever rhetoric and construction of the verbal masterpiece became out of reach and something therefore to be feared. The joy of speaking became a fear. A fear of ridicule, of ineptitude and of embarrassment.

Woman giving a presentation

Over time, several things have begun to change that. Organizations began to use PowerPoint (very badly in most cases), began to realize that you learnt a lot more from a potential employee if they were asked to 'present' something, and that knowledge could be shared with groups from not only the academics of the world but by ordinary people.  If this was not a convincing enough reason for the resurrection of the art, then the media frenzy that resulted from the speeches of Barack Obama ignited the interest in what could be said to originate from well over 2000 years ago. Aristotle was not only a great orator, but one of the founding fathers of persuasive speech.

All this might put public speaking into context, but what can be done for the many people for whom the thought of standing up and giving a speech is the number one fear?  This article will begin to address the fears and anxieties that prevent people from enjoying a natural and wonderful activity.

For the purposes of this article, let me take four key aspects:
  • Physical preparation;
  • First impressions;
  • Mental preparation;
  • Content preparation.
When I train groups of potential speakers, we identify a list of their fears.  These include feeling sick, sweating, dry mouth, butterflies in the stomach, forgetting their words, stumbling over words, heart beating too fast, breathlessness and the fear of the audience looking at them, not liking them or falling asleep!  Recognize any of these feelings yet? I then consider top opera singers, actors, speakers and athletes with my course attendees. What do they do that my candidates do not do? The answer lies in considering the last five minutes. I guess that Pavarotti used to warm up his voice, and do breathing exercises. Athletes stretch the muscles they are about to use, visualize their success and breathe deeply. When we consider what the inexperienced speaker does, an interesting picture emerges. My course attendees are often rushing around, driven by panic, arranging seating, reading the notes one more time and generally doing anything but helpful activities.

Lesson one is obvious then. If top speakers and performers need to prepare, then the need for lesser mortals to do so is paramount. A simple warm up routine to put yourself into a 'fit condition to speak' will help you control your nerves, reduce the anxiety and therefore increase confidence.

Take a few minutes before you need to speak. Preferably find somewhere peaceful and concentrate on your relaxation. Breath in slowly, hold the breath and allow yourself to breathe out slowly.  Practise this until you get used to quickly establishing a normal breathing rate. Gently stretch or tense every major muscle group from head to toe. Gently, but firmly. A physiotherapist will tell you that the quickest way to relax a muscle is to tense or stretch it.  You may even be used to this from sports, yoga or some other activities. Do it, whilst maintaining that easy gentle breathing rate.  Do not let the last five minutes get frantic; instead concentrate on ensuring that they are calming. Your notes are prepared, so you must prepare yourself.  If you are dashing to the venue still writing your notes when there is only five minutes to go, then you must expect to feel stressed. Learn to allow time for this important part of the speaking routine.  Use the need for a rest room visit if you must, but spend 5 minutes preparing yourself – it will pay off.

The moment arrives, and you are called to speak. People confuse starting to speak with starting to give that first impression.  You can easily win or lose an audience before you even say your first word. Imagine you are in a room with 25 other people awaiting my arrival to deliver a lecture on speaking in public.  I arrive slightly dishevelled, maybe with a partially un-tucked shirt, and shuffle to the stage, hand in pocket, eyes to the floor, considering my opening words. At the designated spot, I stand on one hip, glance at the audience and start to speak. Let me stop there. If that were a real situation, it is not unreasonable that the audience's first impression is poor. I am starting from behind, having already lost ground.

Replace that start with a confident walk to the front, looking appropriately neatly groomed, standing tall. I take a moment to look around the room; I smile and then begin to speak.  So far, no words and yet already doing so much better.  However nervous you are, walk with confidence, stand tall and look as if you thoroughly enjoy speaking.  After a while you will, and of course it gives such a different picture to the audience members.

If I then contrast a stumbling, mumbling few incoherent words, with a clear strongly voiced and suitable greeting to the audience, and you can see for yourself how easy it is to make a good impression even before your content is delivered. None of this is rocket science of course, but basic easy techniques that help you to help yourself.  Remember when you learnt to drive? Getting the clutch, gears, steering and accelerator to all work smoothly was a problem that seemed insurmountable. Yet with practice and a set routine, suddenly everything dropped into place.

We have looked at the physical preparation, now let me turn to your mental preparation – and for that I want to visit the world of hypnosis and NLP. Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is the study of communication, thinking patterns and words.  Well that is a loose definition, but let me offer that for now.  Imagine two people, equally qualified and experienced, waiting to be interviewed for the same job. One is wondering where her desk will be, what her new colleagues will be like. The other is thinking that she will not get the job, the other candidate looks more professional and anyway the interview questions will be too hard.

It is not hard to see who will get the job, all things being equal.  We all suffer from what I call ANTs. Automatic Negative Thoughts.  Believe that your presentation will go wrong, that the audience will not understand the material, that you will stutter and forget your words and you begin to set up a state of mind that will only prove yourself correct. Sitting calmly, thinking what a golden opportunity to impress the audience, demonstrate your knowledge and to enjoy passing on information, will be a much more effective approach. Henry Ford is attributed as saying "If you think you can, or you think you cannot, you are absolutely correct." You need to believe in yourself, your ability and work towards that positive outcome. Remember the athlete. Not only physically preparing, but also visualizing success.  There will be occasions when something does not go perfectly, but so what!  Adapt, correct, move on and forget it.  The audience did not come to see you fail, but to hear you, and to receive a presentation positively.

You do not need to give yourself an arrogant, perfectionist viewpoint – just enough confidence to know that you can speak, can deliver, and can enjoy doing so. Confident, assured, well groomed, easy style – noticed the Barack approach to speaking yet? It is not about total preparation of content. In a social setting you may not know where the conversation will head. However, you don't stop and ask people to wait as you think and prepare an answer, you go with the flow, within the knowledge and 'content' that you already have.  Do not underestimate your abilities to draw on knowledge and skills that you have.

Believe in yourself, your abilities and strengths and that each and every time you can build upon last time, and quickly realize that you are developing skills and pushing aside concerns and anxieties.

Of course physical, mental preparation and first impressions will take you only so far. You do need to have some suitable content. Let me suggest to you that you consider three short words: Why, Who, and What

'Why' is the question you should ask yourself in relation to why are you standing up to speak. What is the aim, the purpose of speaking.  Maybe it is to educate, inform, instruct, sell or some other reason. But knowing why you are speaking helps you formulate a clear structure.

'Who' relates to the audience. Who are they, at what level of understanding are they at, and maybe who makes decisions.  A talk that is too simple in a room of experts is as poor as an expert talk in a room of novices. Neither will get much from the content. Pitch your content to suit the audience. If you are unsure, try and find out, gauge from questions or directly ask people. Interaction with your audience is a good thing.

Finally, consider the 'What'. Ensure that you understand what it is you want your audience to hear. This is different from what you want to say! The 'What' relates to the key points.  It is important that the key points are clear, unambiguous and relevant.  At the end of your presentation the audience should be able to know what it is they have heard.  They should not be wondering why they bothered to sit through it, but instead be crystal clear on the key elements.

You are ready to speak both physically and mentally. You have prepared your content and it flows in a logical order. The world is perfect? Well not quite. There are other issues to consider. The use and abuse of PowerPoint and other visual aids. There is always the possibility of an awkward person, a difficult question, a sudden venue disaster or unexpected event. You can never plan for the every possibility and thank the stars for that.  Little hiccups here and there are what makes life interesting, give the chance to demonstrate confidence and keep just a small edge on every presentation.

A few golden rules help you to deal with any situation

  • Be honest. People know things can go wrong – never waffle or bluff. Be honest and gain respect.
  • Never compete. You hold the focus. Stop if phones, conversations or other events start to distract you or the audience;
  • Be in control. People feel 'safe' when the presenter is in control. This means dealing acting confidently even if you are not feeling it.  Be definite, positive and let others feel that too;
  • Protect your reputation.  Very rarely it is better to stop, or not attempt a presentation rather than allow it to become a talking point for years to come.  Don't be pushed into 'helping out' if you are not sufficiently prepared or knowledgeable.  Make your own slides and present them your way;
  • Enjoy it every time.  I mean this. Enjoy every speaking opportunity and see it as just that – an opportunity. It is likely to go well, and even if there are moments of uncertainty – you can learn, enjoy and smile.  Life is too short to worry unduly. 
I hope you found something useful in my words, and that you feel inspired to find out more.  Standing up in front of an audience is a wonderful honour, a great deal of fun and something that you can easily and quickly become skilled at doing. Therefore – go speak and go enjoy!


  1. Ricky said..

    Great post! Some people feel anxious when placed in a certain situation, while others may handle it well. If you’re a person who easily gets anxious, you might have noticed that your anxiety can interfere with work, daily activities. Here are a few steady steps

  2. Lineker Arreneke said..

    I have enjoyed reading this guidance and will like to be mentored more because speaking to an audience is a big nightmare for me.

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About Ian Price

Ian Price is the Director of Business Training Direct, which specializes in Presentations Skills Training. After 25 years working in the caring professions, Ian set up his own company that focuses on achieving confidence in public speaking. Whilst his main focus was in developing communication and speaking skills for presentations and public events, he also undertook extensive training in Hypnotherapy. These skills and his previous professional background and management experience, means Ian is well equipped to gently and appropriately discuss issues with clients in an easy and relaxed style that encourages openness and change. Unleashing the ability to stand up and speak empowers individuals and enables them to open doors that would otherwise be closed.He may be contacted on Tel: 0845 838 1812;

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