A Few Tips for Handling a Fear of Public Speaking

A systematic and actionable list that can help take you from stage fright to stage bright.

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A lot of “fear of public speaking” articles I’ve read are frankly worthless. And I’ve read a ton of them. The advice essentially boils down to telling you to just “psyche” yourself out of the fear of talking to a room full of strangers. Or some variation of “believe in yourself,” and the confidence will come.

That’s all nonsense. The fact is, it’s normal and natural to have a fear of public speaking. It’s the exceptionally rare personality that truly thrives off stepping into the spotlight. Even professional speakers like Tony Robbins get stage fright.

However, there are a variety of ways for handling the fear itself, and becoming more effective at speaking to a group.

The first step is understanding that it’s a problem like anything else. A clogged toilet. A stalled engine. There’s nothing special about being afraid of speaking in public. Learning to handle the fear is a process like learning how to throw a football or swing a baseball bat.

It’s something you must train your brain to handle. In fact, you have to somewhat reprogram your mind to deal with it in a constructive way. No, I’m not talking about praying or speaking daily affirmations to juice yourself up before a big board meeting. I’m talking about simple activities you can take that can retrain your brain.

Handling a fear of public speaking is not a psychological problem. It’s a biochemical one. It’s like overcoming a drug withdrawal.

It can only be accomplished by incremental exposure and physical confrontation. Meaning that you put yourself into smaller, more manageable situations that gradually build up your tolerance over time. Here are a few steps that have helped me, that I hope will help you.

1. Sit in the Front Row

I used to be someone who was terrified of even introducing myself in a classrom or group. If the speaker started off with that ol’ “Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves” bit, my pulse went from 72 to 115 almost instantly. I wear a FitBit, so I know that’s accurate.

However, I realized one day that the main reason I felt unnerving dread just saying my name was because I was unconsciously sabotaging myself by always sitting in the back of the room. It’s like I was telling myself I had nothing to contribute to the group, nothing of value to say, and that I didn’t even want to be there. I was making it 10x harder on myself by positioning my body in a way to simulate hiding from the group.

Now, I’m someone who does have mild claustrophobia. I hate sitting in small rooms with the door closed, or any physical spaces where I feel trapped. So anytime I would go into a room, I would try to find a spot near the door or in the back, as that fed my lizard brain the sense that escape was possible should things get hairy. But acquiesing to that mild irrational phobia in turn made speaking up way more difficult, because I was already grappling with the fear of merely being in the room.

So, the way I dealt with that was by forcing myself to sit in the front row whenever possible. This accomplishes a few things. One, it puts you closer to the action. Being close to the speaker helps you see and become more comfortable with the mechanics of a public presentation.

Two, it helps you become more comfortable with everyone’s eyes being on you, even if they’re only staring at the back of your head. Unlike sitting in the back or on the side, when you’re sitting in the front everyone will likely be looking at you if you ask a question or make a statement, because they’re obviously already facing that way anyway. This will help you become more comfortable with what I call the “spotlight effect.” If you can handle fifty people looking at you for thirty seconds while you respond to a speaker inquiry, the idea of speaking in front of those people for five minutes, ten minutes, or more, starts to become more managable.

Three, by sitting in the front row you are unconsciously validating your presence in the group. You’re telling yourself that your opinions and thoughts matter. That you’re worth listening to. I’m not saying that by sitting in the back or middle it means you don’t think those things. I’m saying that forcing yourself up front can give you an unconscious edge if you’re lacking one. I find that when I sit up front I feel way more involved and “ready to jump in” if the speaker asks questions or wants participation.

Fourth, sitting in the front row has a strategic benefit. If the speaker cruelly does do the go around the room and introduce yourselves trick, you’ll likely be among the first to go. So you can get that out of the way sooner. This is where sitting in the back has its major downside. There’s nothing worse than sitting there for ten minutes with the fear compounding, as you are forced to wait your turn to say your name and your favorite hobby, or something. If you sit up front you meet the challenge head-on, rather than letting it come to you on its own terms.

I still get nervous introducing myself, by the way. But I’m way better now than I was before.

2. Speak Up More in Smaller Groups

The fear of public speaking is generally a function of shyness. So if you’re already introverted, or someone who doesn’t like to talk much to begin with, getting in front of a crowd is going to be a challenge. Your brain will chemically repel from that, because your brain interprets the activity as a threat to your well-being.

Human beings, even shy ones, are still tribal, by nature. We want to feel that we are contributing to the group in some way. We want to feel involved and validated. Well, it’s much harder to do that if you are constantly avoiding even just talking to people in the first place. The more you are able to speak up in front of of several people, the better you’ll work up the nerve to speak in front of dozens, or even hundreds.

This is easy to do if you are in college, and you’re in several classrooms everyday. Groups tend to form based on seating proximity, or if the teacher hands out a group assignment. When that happens, be the initiator, or at least help facilitate conversation in some way.

If you’re a working adult, this can be accomplished during meetings at work, or by joining an organization like Toastmasters. While I was in college years ago, I joined a Toastmasters group that met at a Microsoft facility. They were a great group of people. Toastmasters has structured meetings, formal scheduled presentations, and offers feedback for you on a speech. Generally they meet once a week, and are always welcoming to new members. Toastmasters ia great training ground for learning to communicate more effectively period, much less public speaking. They can also be beneficial for people who are trying to improve their English-speaking skills. The group I went to had several individuals from other countries who were there to help improve their diction and pronunciation.

Nowadays, I work a job that has plenty of meetings. So whenever I can, I try to take advantage of that and participate reasonably. I make it a goal to participate with an observation or respond to a question at least once. This has helped to delegitamize the fear I used to have of being in groups, and cut back on my natural shyness.

Additionally, you can help knock the fear of public speaking by talking to strangers. Even if it’s something as simple as asking the time, or complimenting a retail worker. The idea here is to help break out of the “shyness shell,” so that your brain does not interpret other people automatically as threats that causes your ability to speak effectively to get shut down. The goal is social fluidity. The ability to effortlessly mingle in a comfortable and confident manner. Not an easy task for a shy person like myself. I’ve always envied those that are socially graceful outgoing friend-makers by nature. But the reality is those types are actually pretty rare. Most people don’t operate too well outside their usual group of friends or associates. So the more you place yourself outside of your social comfort zones, the more you’ll be equipped to handle the big Power Point speech, or the best man’s speech at your next wedding, and so forth.

Believe it or not, you can also help break out of that shyness shell by doing activities like commenting online, posting on social media, or writing a blog post or article. Any little way that helps break the negative feedback loop of non-participation can help, even if you’re just sitting behind a computer screen. Even though I’ve been writing articles for either newspapers or the web since I was 12, I didn’t feel comfortable writing on Medium when I first discovered it. I lurked for awhile. Now I write freely, and that’s had a positive effect on me feeling more confident when speaking to people in real life.

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3. Improve Your Diet, Exercise, and Stop Drinking

Like I mentioned at the top, the fear of public speaking is not psychological, it’s more biochemical. That means it’s not something you can just trick yourself out of having. “Mind over matter” only goes so far. It’s a naturally-occurring phobia because it’s rooted in a fear of exposure and shame and loss of status within the tribe. That means your body is doing its job by reacting with nerves, elevated heart rate, sweating, etc. That’s all perfectly normal. Your body is a machine to some degree, and it will respond to things automatically.

And therein lies an opportuntity. The stronger and better nourished your body is, the better it and your brain will be able to handle fearful situations. I don’t mean you have to have a full stomach before a speech or presentation. Personally, I usually skip lunch or breakfast as I never have much of an appetite before one anyway. I’m talking about improving your diet so your body is healthy overall. That means cutting out junk food, fast food, foods loaded with sugar and carbs, and focusing on healthy, nutritional foods that will give your mind and body all the vitamins it needs.

Some foods, like sweet potatoes, can help lower blood pressure. And that can have a big effect on feeling “chill” when you have to give a speech. I have naturally low blood pressure already. Usually I’m around 100/60 at rest. But I’ve found that staying hydrated with water, cutting down on caffeine, and eating a balanced diet regularly helps immensely. But there are many dangerous foods that can elevate blood pressure or cause a spike in your mood, only for it to crash later. You don’t want to be on a chemical rollercoaster the day of a speech. You want to be as cool and in control as possible.

By the way, I’ve also heard that some people take beta blockers, prescription pills, and even things like Tylenol or Advil before giving a speech, as it helps to calm them down and can lower heart rate/pressure and such. I don’t advocate taking any chemical supplements like that. I’m not a doctor or health/nutrition expert. I believe in fighting a public speaking phobia naturally. But if it’s something that works for you, and the supplements are healthy and ethical to take, then that’s your prerogative.

Another good way to protect your nerves is to cut out drinking, or stop altogether. I used to drink regularly, and often heavily, until I finally quit and have only rarely drank since. Drinking dehydrates you, even if you try to offset alcohol with regular glasses of water. Alcohol obviously distorts your ability to think clearly. It makes it harder to function at your best. A hangover can kill any ability to be productive. And that can make giving a speech a more difficult and terrifying event than it ordinarily would.

One of the reasons I quit drinking years ago is because the aftereffects of a nightly binge made my nerves completely shot the next day. So this only compounded my fear of public spaces, speaking, or being in rooms filled with people. It got so bad that if I was in a meeting, I would suddenly get hit with a jolt of fear. And this jolt would escalate. I’d get dizzy. The walls would start to close in on me. Until finally I had to get up and leave. Then I’d have to come up with some excuse later, like feeling sick, or having to use the bathroom. That is no way to live, and it’s totally unacceptable if you’re trying to succeed in the workplace.

The human body is a vast chemical ecosystem. While it’s nice to pretend that you can just will yourself through anything, the fact is we are very susceptible to chemical manipulation. So the better you treat your body, the better prepared it will be to handle challenges.

Lastly, I found that working out right before a meeting or speech can do wonders, as it can help increase the sense of well-being and improve my mood overall. I always feel confident (albeit maybe tired) after a good pump, but certainly in better condition to handle a social engagement. Ask yourself, will you feel better walking into a room full of strangers if you’re in good shape or bad shape? I’m not saying you’ve got to be jacked and tan like a bodybuilder. But again, it’s all about unconsciously validating yourself. When you exercise and take care of your body, you are telling yourself that you matter, and that can pay huge dividends in the social arena.

You can enhance the exercise benefit if you join a gym, too. That way you’re putting yourself in a social environment, and giving yourself a chance to interact with strangers outside of your comfort zone. No matter what, exercise will make you feel better and healthier overall.

4. Record Yourself Talking on Camera

This is a neat trick I’ve recently learned while developing my own YouTube channel. In fact, one of the main reasons I decided to start a channel is to work on my communication skills. I am not a good “on the spot” talker, either in an informal conversation, or when delivering a presentation. I need a written speech, or prepared remarks. I’d carry around a teleprompter if I could, even for a five minute talk.

But if you want to really improve speaking on front of others fluidly, you have to learn to do it without notes. Which can really amp up the pressure. I tend to freeze up in those situations. I’m a writer, not a talker. But both activities involve bridging your unconcious with your conscious mind. And there’s no downside to being a more effective communicator.

Well, one way I’ve found that helps is simply by putting your smartphone camera on yourself, and just talking about whatever comes to mind, for however long you want. You don’t have to upload these recordings to YouTube, of course. I still read a script when making my videos. However, I have found that talking while the red light is on helps to simulate what it’s like to talk in front of a group. And that can do wonders to alleviating the stress invovled with having to give an actual speech.

I think this is because when you hit record, you have to be “on.” And there’s pressure there, even if it’s just you sitting in your car by yourself talking to your steering wheel. But it helps to see yourself talking. It helps make you more self-aware. And it gives your unconscious the impression that you can not only communicate, but maybe even do so quite well. Again, it’s all about overcoming this negative self-image. Replacing the unconsciously-held version of you that can’t talk with one that can.

I’ve recorded hours of myself in my car just rambling. After every session, I always feel better and more confident. It’s great practice for the real thing. And when you get really good at it, then you can think about making full-fledged YouTube videos. My goal is to get to the point where I can talk fluidly in front of the camera without needing any notes, or having to read a paper. Extemporaneous talk has never come easy for me, so to me this a challenge. But it’s one I hope to overcome with time. And it’s way better than just talking in front of a mirror.

If you want to take things an additional step, you could even make Youtube Shorts or TikTok videos. Personally, my style of content creation tends more formalistic and structured. Freestyle, randomized stuff is not really my thing. But for someone else it might be a great way to break out of the shyness spell.

5. Stop Using Past Trauma as an Excuse

It’s very challenging to break out of a personal identity mold or a reoccurring negative feedback loop. But it’s a necessary and important step toward personal development and self-improvement.

I theorize that a fear of public speaking is more about genetics than past trauma, or bad childhood experiences. This is why public speaking is such a universal fear. Most people have it to some degree.

That doesn’t mean past events can’t have a big impact that cripple your ability to communicate to crowds. I can think of two episodes that happened during my formative years. In fact, one happens to be one of my very first memories. When I was four or five I was running around the hallway of a church when I tripped and smacked my forehead into a corner. It must have been a serious injury, because I was taken to the hospital next. But what I mostly remember is hospital staff trying to hold me down, and then putting me in some kind of child restraint system to prevent me from moving. I vaguely recall squirming and fighting hard to get away, and then being coccooned and immobile in the straps or straight jacket, or whatever was used to tie me up. I think this is what may have triggered my claustrophobia and fear of physical entrapment that I mentioned earlier. It’s a very unpleasant memory, to say the least, and it no doubt left a negative impression on me. Whether that had anything to do with triggering a fear of public speaking I’m not sure. But it certainly gave me an aversion to being the center of attention, and a nagging sense of insecurity. Or at least it exacerbated a fear of being in the spotlight that might have already been present.

The second episode involved an invitation to give a speech to a group of second or third graders when I was twelve or thirteen about writing. It was a hot spring day. For some stupid reason, I wore a sweater and long pants that day. The meeting was held in a stuffy room with little ventilation. So by the time it was my turn to talk, I was sweating and ready to pass out. On top of that, my nerves were already shot just having to give a speech. So I froze up. It was a terrible, embarrassing situation that I wasn’t prepared for. Looking back, that moment undoubtedly cemented a lifelong fear of giving speeches. It made presentations for school assignments dreaded events. No matter how much I’d try to prepare, I’d always always end up bombing, because I couldn’t get past the nerves. It’s like my confidence had been shattered permanently. Making matters worse, I moved around a lot as a kid. So I rarely had friends or allies in the classroom. It was always strangers. I had severe acne, which itself can ruin any natural proclivities to socialize, robbing you of the chance to learn at a crucial stage in life. So it’s fair to say I was set up poorly from the start.

But none of that matters. One of the things I’ve learned as I get older is that a big part of life is fixing problems in yourself that you didn’t think you could, because you have to. Your survival in some ways depends on it. You can’t live life hiding under a rock. At some point you have to confront your fears. Just because bad childhood events hurt you, or put you in a negative feedback loop, doesn’t mean you can’t break out of them. It doesn’t mean you can’t redefine yourself as an adult, on your own terms. I know it may sound like pointless idealism, but understanding that you have the ability to reprogram yourself, is a vital mindset shift toward self-improvement.

I’m by no means a master public speaker, or some great stage performer. Overcoming the fear of public speaking is still an ongoing struggle for me. But I’ve found that the above steps have helped me immensely. I hope they help you as well. 🙂

3 thoughts on “A Few Tips for Handling a Fear of Public Speaking

  1. Number 4 reminds me of my best prep and fear-management tool: practice talking OUT LOUD. Get used to the sound of your own voice and cadence before you hear it in a crowd. And audio record yourself. Our brains are wired for sound – like music – and hearing ourselves in our own words and voice helps us remember our message and deliver it with the ease you sing “Happy Birthday!” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dean Brooks

      That’s a good idea, too. Talking itself takes practice, so anything to oil up the communication machinery will help with a presentation. Thanks for reading.


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