How To Stay Cool In Public Speaking

by Joan Curtis | February 10, 2009

Does the thought of speaking in public make you tremble inside? Are you one of those people who would rather die than speak before a group?

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then fear not, you are not alone. The majority of people would prefer to turn tail and run than to rise up and speak before others. Most of these people will tell you they have no trouble speaking one-on-one, but when asked to stand and speak before groups, they cringe with fear.

This article will put that universal fear of public speaking in the proper perspective and give you some tips for turning the fear into positive energy.

The Paradox of Fear

Most people do not realize that fear is a good thing. In fact, if you are too relaxed you will not perform as well on the podium. Seasoned speakers know this. It's a big secret we like to keep to ourselves. If everyone knew that fear was a good thing, everyone would confidently walk up to the podium, knowing that the fear would soon disappear. Others would not be so impressed with our prowess on stage.

Let's look at what happens to effectiveness in relation to fear.

When you first walk on the stage, your fear factor is very high. This is called the red zone, when all of us, even the very best speakers experience the greatest fear. In the red zone when our fear is highest, we are most alert. Blood is really pumping through our veins. Our effectiveness as a speaker rises. As the speech progresses, our effectiveness continues to go up, side-by-side with our nervousness. After about 2-4 minutes into the presentation, we all hit what is called the comfort zone. This is where you begin to sense some relaxation. What you hope as a speaker is that you remain in your comfort zone through the remainder of your talk.

Very nervous speakers do not allow themselves to hit the comfort zone. They stay in the red zone throughout the talk, causing their fear to take over. This phenomenon causes fear not to propel but to paralyze.

If, on the other hand, you become even more relaxed past your comfort zone, guess what happens to your effectiveness as a speaker? It goes down! In fact, the more relaxed you get after your comfort zone the less effective you are on the stage. That little edge that brought you to the podium is now gone. Have you ever seen a speaker whom you thought was so good in first few minutes and then he/she began telling off-color stories or rambled on about something irrelevant to the topic? These are people who surpassed their comfort levels.

Knowing this paradox about fear and effectiveness, we as speakers embrace our fear and use it to propel us, rather than paralyze us. Fear then becomes the energy, the enthusiasm, the spark, our friend.

Tips to Manage Your Fear:

Identify the fear. What are you afraid of? What specifically do you fear? Are you afraid of what the other people will think of you? Are you afraid of losing your train of thought? Are you afraid you'll fall off the stage? Write down everything you fear. Make the list as long as you need to.

Isolate Each Fear. Once you've identified your fears, list the things you can do to prevent that dreaded event from happening. For example, if you are afraid you will lose your train of thought, prepare clear, precise notes. If you fear what others will think of you, imagine what they are thinking. How can you turn their thoughts from negative energy to positive energy?

Take Baby Steps. Instead of making your first speech to the local Rotary Club, ask a question in a Sunday School class. When you feel comfortable asking questions in public, then teach a Sunday School class or volunteer to give a little talk in your public schools. You might consider joining Toastmasters International. This organization offers many opportunities for practice and feedback.

Practice, practice, practice. I wrote another paper on How to Write a Speech without Notes. In that paper I outlined a practice model. Take a look at that model. If you practice your speech to the point that you are absolutely sick of hearing it, you will be prepared for your speech.

Make the Unknown Known. One of our biggest fears of speaking is the unknown. We do not know the audience. We do not know the location. We do not know what will happen when we open our mouths. This list is endless. Of course you cannot make all the unknowns known, but the more you make known the more control you will get on this fear. For example, how can you make the audience known? Here are some tips:

  • Research your audience. Find out the kinds of people who usually attend this session. What are their ages, sex, socio-economic background and likely interests?
  • Greet people as they walk in. Shake hands and make eye contact. If possible, ask people their names. With a large audience you cannot meet everyone, but each person you greet becomes your new friend.

Engage Your Audience. Look out into the audience no matter how large and get them involved in your talk. Bring them along with you. Don't just talk to them and please, do not read your notes or your PowerPoint presentation. When your eyes point down to read, you do not engage! Ask open questions that make the audience think. Challenge them to become part of your presentation. In another article, How to Engage Your Audience I shared some tips. Take a look at those tips and apply what you can.

Remember, fear is not something to fear. It is something to embrace. No matter how cool a speaker appears, he/she is shaking in his/her boots. We all have that little edge of nervousness when we walk onto the stage. We're all in this together. You are not alone in your fear. What seasoned speakers have done is to learn how to make fear their friend. You can, too!

About the Author

Joan Curtis, EdD is founder of Total Communications Coaching where she specializes in helping smart, capable professionals move ahead in their careers by becoming skilled communicators. Sign up at her website and get the free mini e-course "10 Tips for Saying It Just Right."

Related Links:

View More Products