About 10% of the U.S. population enjoys public speaking, and another 10% are so terrified of speaking in front of people, they qualify for glossophobia. This leaves the majority of the population who don't quite experience chronic anxiety, but still get those stomach butterflies when thinking about their next presentation.
Although public speaking is not the average person’s number-one fear, it still ranks highly among other scary things like heights or in-laws. It might help to know that even the most experienced presenters get nervous before taking the podium or mic.
It pays off personally and professionally to be skilled at public speaking, even if it makes you nervous. Once you understand what causes your fear, you can learn effective strategies to reduce your nervousness and know when you might benefit from professional therapy.
What Causes Public Speaking Anxiety
Why does public speaking scare so many people? According to a University of Manitoba study, people who dreaded public speaking were most afraid of:
- Shaking or trembling so much that it would show (80%)
- Having their minds go blank (74%)
- Doing something embarrassing (64%)
- Not being able to talk (63%)
- Not making sense or saying something stupid (59%)
For some people, public speaking anxiety stems from a fear of judgment from others. Being in front of an audience might leave you feeling defenseless and exposed, which might make you worry about rejection. However, building your self-confidence and sense of self-worth might help alleviate these feelings.
Some people’s fears can be debilitating and even affect their personal and professional lives. These individuals might be diagnosed with public speaking anxiety (PSA), a social anxiety disorder that causes significant distress and impairment at the thought of giving a speech. Some research has linked self-reported PSA with low self-perspective skills and a lack of openness to new experiences.
How do you know whether you need professional help to combat public speaking anxiety? According to Dr. Alex Alvarado, a licensed clinical psychologist at Thriving Center of Psychology, it “becomes an issue when people find themselves feeling so anxious that they avoid tasks that are important to them.” Dr. Alvarado adds that people suffering from this level of anxiety might "skip a meeting that could help them get ahead in their company or their best friend’s wedding to avoid giving a speech.”
Whether you suffer severe speech anxiety or just get the occasional jitters, you can do several things to conquer your fears. Even if you don’t think you possess any natural abilities, you can become a polished speaker with practice and improvement.
What You Can Do to Conquer Public Speaking Fear
Don’t expect to get rid of your fear completely. Facing your speech anxiety usually requires channeling your nervousness, not removing it altogether. Singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen observes that when he feels completely calm before a performance, he doesn’t perform as well as when he feels a little tense beforehand. Nervousness is just your body producing adrenaline, which can help you appear energetic and passionate instead of anxious. When you turn fear into energy, your audience will probably just think you’re having fun.
It’s not just about you. Think about the next speech you’re going to give. What will be your purpose? How will the audience benefit, or what will they learn? Shifting some of the focus away from you and to your audience will help you make the topic understandable and engaging. Just remember why you’re there and what you want your audience to take away.
Watch other presentations. One of the best ways to improve your public speaking is to watch others who do it well. Search YouTube for your favorite TED talks. Pay attention to what a colleague does when they give an address—eye contact, vocal tone, use of PowerPoint slides—and learn from their examples.
Be prepared and find time to practice. Gathering and organizing your main points will go far to help you feel confident and organized. Dr. Shawn Wahl, professor of communication and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Missouri State University, suggests preparing “an outline of two or three main points on a card that will help you keep your thoughts organized and to manage your time—there’s nothing better than a presentation that is both meaningful and not too long.”
Rehearsing your speech can also boost your confidence and help you feel more prepared. If possible, run through it once or twice in the actual room you’ll be presenting in. Practice in front of a close friend, roommate, or family member.
Be technologically prepared. A projector that won’t turn on or a missing power cord can throw you off. If possible, go to your presentation room and check the equipment to know that it works. On presentation day, bring any backup cords, thumb drives, or other gear you have, just in case.
Seek supportive feedback. Look to reassuring colleagues, friends, or family to provide helpful advice on your speech. Although familiar folks might induce more anxiety than a room full of strangers, remember that your trusted friends want you to succeed.
Look to specific audience members for encouragement. There’ll probably be a few people in the audience who smile or nod while you’re speaking. Make eye contact with them when your confidence falters. You can also learn things about your audience in advance, such as what they value or where they’re from, to help you feel more connected to them.
Don’t forget to breathe. Breathing can help unclutter your mind, calm your nerves, and lower your heart rate. Write “BREATHE” several times throughout your speaking notes.
Use positive self-talk. Be your own champion, not your worst critic! Rely on positive self-talk by telling yourself, “I’m not nervous; I’m just excited!” or “It’ll be over before I know it.” Dr. Wahl points out that “your audience wants you to be successful—try not to be too hard on yourself.” Also, don’t let a desire for perfection paralyze your ability to give a great speech. Even if you do mess up, just pause and pick up where you left off without apologizing.
How Thriving Center of Psychology Can Help
Public speaking anxiety is real, and some people need professional help to overcome it. Thriving Center of Psychology provides life coaching, peak performance training, and therapy to help you conquer your public speaking fear. According to Dr. Alvarado, “Fear of public speaking is a highly treatable difficulty. When people are willing to put in the work, they can successfully do things, such as give presentations.
Your licensed psychologist or therapist might recommend medication if treating your anxiety requires more than individual or group therapy. Dr. Alvarado advises that “beta-blockers might offer relief, but that’s more for a psychiatrist to recommend. Prescription drugs alone aren’t enough without treatment.”
“The anxiety always has the possibility of creeping up, but those who complete treatment know what to do in the face of that anxiety. Instead of resorting to avoiding behaviors, people can persevere and efficiently speak publicly,” says Dr. Alvarado. Thriving Center of Psychology can provide significant relief from speech anxiety. You can call the office directly or use the online scheduler to book an in-person or teletherapy session.