You may have heard the adage that people fear public speaking more than death. In their 2012 study,¹ Karen Kangas Dwyer and Marlina M. Davidson proved that this is true. More than sickness, financial problems, or, yes, even death, we really don’t want to get up in front of our peers to speak.
Nervous speakers often develop coping behaviors that are ultimately self-defeating. One woman I coached will schedule meetings in rooms that are too small for the audience to ensure fewer people attend. Others will memorize their content, which actually increases nervousness because they then become afraid of not being letter perfect rather than focusing on engaging with their content. Identifying and replacing these behaviors is central to the coaching experience.
Unlike other workplace issues where performance improvement is a matter of working on skills and making a commitment to get the work done, nervousness when speaking in public is often rooted in much deeper issues. Let’s look at where it comes from, how nervousness manifests itself, and how to begin mastering it.
Where Nervousness Comes From
The first step in mastering nervousness is for the individual to figure out where that fear originates. All of us, even experienced presenters who love doing it, feel a little bit of adrenaline before we speak. But for those who cite fear of public speaking as a major obstacle, there’s usually something else lurking. A few common things we’ve heard over the years include:
- “A teacher (or other authority figure) told me I’m not a good speaker.”
- “I had a speech impediment or other physical issue as a child, and it made me really self-conscious.”
- “I had a traumatic experience once when I was speaking or performing in public, and I’m still scarred by it.”
- “My father often complained that mine was the loudest voice in the room. Eventually, I learned to stay silent, and that lingers today.”
- “I’m in the minority in my workplace, and my co-workers scare me.” We often hear this from women, recent young grads in their first jobs, people of color, and people with different training than the rest of their team: a person with a bachelor’s degree on a team of PhDs, for example.
Breaking these negative feedback loops in your head can be achieved—more on that below.
As you can see, solving the issue may go much deeper than professional coaching in public speaking. In some cases, people aren’t experiencing nervousness; they’re experiencing anxiety, which is to say, out-of-proportion and excessive anticipation in the face of uncertainty. Individual therapy to overcome the anxiety, the traumatic event, and/or boost self-esteem might be needed, especially if public speaking is an essential part of a career.
For most people, though, anxiety isn’t the issue. So, let’s look at common nervousness.
Nervousness Isn’t Always Noticeable
From my perspective, as someone who’s coached hundreds of people over the last couple of decades, learners who say they experience extreme nervousness often don’t show it. I’ve heard stories of people crying, throwing up in their mouth, feeling their heart race, and feeling dizzy before or during a presentation, but as chaotic as they felt inside, it didn’t show nearly as dramatically on the outside. Still, literally getting sick before a presentation is pretty awful, especially if presenting is part of one’s job.
With other learners, it’s been easy to tell that they’re nervous. They speak softly and/or very rapidly. They lose their place in their presentation because most of their energy is spent managing nerves rather than engaging with their audience or content. Sometimes physical symptoms like sweating or turning red are visible. The effect of nervousness on the success of the presentation—whether it’s obvious to the audience or not—varies. Extremely nervous presenters can still be successful in delivering their content and getting their points across. However, no one should have to go through that much physical and emotional distress for such a common type of communication.
So, let’s focus on some ways to manage it. But first, we need to deal with some bad advice we hear, and there is no shortage of it.
Advice to Ignore
In almost every interaction we have with nervous presenters, they’ve been given bad advice that has made the situation worse. “Practice makes perfect” tops the list. Presentations cannot, by their very nature, be perfected, so no amount of practice will make them so.
Other advice to ignore:
- Looking over the audience’s heads or the back wall
- Holding your thumb and index finger together
- Memorizing the beginning of your presentation
- Knowing your topic inside and out
- Visualizing your success
- Joining Toastmasters
No doubt these ideas come from a good place. They just aren’t appropriate and can really do some damage to nervous presenters and their presentations.
What Can Be Done About Nervousness
Here are some of the approaches that have worked for us when helping people master their fear. Keep in mind that everyone is different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy. You have to tinker. Try things out until you land on a solution that works for you. It could be a small shift in thinking that does the trick.
- Think of your presentations and meetings as conversations. A business presentation isn’t public speaking in the same way as a wedding toast, eulogy, or public comment at a city council meeting, and nobody (unless it’s a truly toxic work situation) is looking for you to fail. Meetings and presentations are just slightly different kinds of work tasks where the goal is getting work done. People have conversations every day, and most of the time, they don’t even break a sweat. Making the business interaction analogous to a conversation in someone’s office, rather than a TED Talk, puts these events in a much less intense context.
- Prepare for a conversation. Focus on clarity, relevance, and engagement rather than perfection. This will help you frame the conversation you want to have. We write about how to prepare for a conversation here.
- Take a look at yourself on video. You will probably look a lot better than you thought you would. Seeing yourself appearing competent and effective can be enough to break the pattern of nervous anticipation. What feels like a tornado of emotions and compensatory behaviors actually looks just fine on the outside. Knowing you’re doing okay visibly goes a long way to changing the narrative in your head.
- Focus on engaging your audience. Do this through eye contact. When you’re working face-to-face, look at individuals in your audience. Look at them longer than you want to. This will help you connect with them, and connecting with them will reduce your nervousness. The advice I mentioned above about looking at the back wall is the opposite of what should be happening.
- Pause and breathe. Give your brain time to think about what’s coming next.
Fear of public speaking is common, but it doesn’t have to be a fixed personality trait. With the right help, people can learn to manage their nerves and expend a lot less energy worrying about next week’s team update or even next month’s presentation to the board.
 Dwyer K, Davidson M. (2010). Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death? Communication Research Reports, Vol 29, Number 2, 99-107. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08824096.2012.667772.