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Public Speaking Anxiety: 8 Steps for Controlling the Fear

It often begins with butterflies

In the pit of your stomach.

Then, your heart begins to race. Your head starts to swim. Your palms start to sweat.

Not the first-blush of love. Not the excruciating climb to the top of a roller-coaster.

The fear of public speaking. Public speaking anxiety.

For near 30% of Americans, it doesn’t get worse than public speaking. In fact according to the Chapman University’s Survey on American Fears, Public Speaking is America’s number one fear. (Note 1)

I read a thing that actually says that speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person.

I found that amazing – number two was death!

That means to the average person if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Jerry Seinfeld, Comedian

The fear of public speaking is real. Speech anxiety, as it is otherwise known, is so well known as a psychological fear that it has its own scientific term:

Wikepedia (Note 2)


Glossophobia or speech anxiety is the fear of public speaking or of speaking in general. The word glossophobia comes from the Greek γλῶσσα glōssa, meaning tongue, and φόβος phobos, meaning fear or dread. Many people only have this fear, while others may also have social phobia or social anxiety disorder.

The Lizard Brain

Public speaking anxiety is a natural, human reaction. Everyone feels some level of anxiety when standing in front of a crowd to give a speech. Even if the thought of speaking in public doesn’t terrify you, you can understand the fear. You can probably feel the beginnings of that fear in your stomach right now.

Having said that, it seems odd that we are so afraid. It is unlikely we will be killed giving a speech. Impaled by the microphone. Lynched by a dissatisfied audience…

What do we think will happen to us? The answer, according to Dr. Glenn Croston, author of The Real Story of Risk, seems to lie in our past, in our evolution as a social species. In our lizard brain.

Humans were not the largest, fastest, or fiercest animal — early humans survived by their wits and their ability to collaborate.

Those that worked together well, helping others in their group, probably survived and passed on traits that contributed to social behavior.

Failure to be a part of the social group, getting kicked out, probably spelled doom for early humans.

Anything that threatens our status in our social group, like the threat of ostracism, feels like a very great risk to us.

Dr. Glenn Croston, PhD Biology, Author
'The Thing We Fear More Than Death', Psychology Today(Note 2)

According to Dr. Corston, speaking in public triggers heart palpitations, anxiety and dread because we are afraid of rejection. This fear of public speaking is not simply a fear of embarrassment or judgment, it is a fear of rejection from the group, fear of being ostracized and left to defend for ourselves.

PowerPoint could be the most powerful tool on your computer. But it’s not.

Countless innovations fail because their champions use PowerPoint the way Microsoft wants them to, instead of the right way.

Seth Godin, Best-selling Author

A Little Stress is a Good Thing

Physiological arousal refers to the physical changes that occur when someone is aroused (stressed). These changes include things such as an increased pulse rate, greater alertness, and more energy.

Arousal is necessary for everything from scoring goals in hockey and kicking field goals in football to performing well on a test.

And it is necessary for delivering a great speech.

The adrenaline kick from moderate arousal makes you more motivated, more alert and energized, and ready to perform.

Too much arousal can be counter-productive, however.

‘Practice Helps Relieve Anxiety about Public Speaking‘, McGraw Hill (Note 3)

The trick then, is simple (to describe). We should not focus on eliminating the feelings of arousal (low levels of nervousness and anxiety), but, instead, work on keeping these feelings in check so that they do not interfere with our ability to speak effectively.

The body does what the brain tells it to do. The key to overcoming the fear of speaking in public (overcoming our undesirable and illogical reactions to the idea of public speaking) is to find a way to change our mindset and our physical response.

This is not necessarily easy. But it is possible.

In fact, thousands of people each year are able to give a speech because they have learned coping skills that help them to control their public speaking anxiety.

There are two types of speakers.

Those who get nervous and those who are liars.

Mark Twain, Author and Humorist

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Coping With Public Speaking Anxiety & Stress

The reasons non-academics give for why the prospect of giving a speech gives them anxiety are, roughly, the same as those confirmed via academic research.

The major sources or triggers of speech anxiety are (Note 4):

  •   Lack of preparation
  •   The fear of making mistakes
  •   Concerns about appearance
  •   Projections about a lack of audience interest, and
  •   Lack of previous experience speaking in public

Speech anxiety triggers

There are really two ways to cope with the stress of speaking in public:

  •   Avoidance: Convert speeches to sit-down style presentations
  •   Stress management: Manage your Mind

Avoidance: Convert speeches to sit-down style presentations

Let’s be honest.

The most effective way to eliminate the stress of speaking in public is to not speak in public.

(You should bookmark this article now so you will be able to reference that little tidbit later.)

In all seriousness, for many, many people, this is exactly the strategy they adopt. It works.

If you MUST give a presentation, you can still use this strategy (but with a twist).

Not all presentations are alike. There are State of the Union addresses to the entire nation. TED Talks seen by millions on the web. And then there is the ‘presentation’ you need to give at your team meeting.

Sit-down, McKinsey-style presentations often get lumped into the category of presentations and public speaking. And they are a different breed entirely. They are made sitting down, around a table, updating a project team, or presenting our thinking to our boss.

The context of these types of ‘sit-down’ meetings has a profound effect on the stress they generate.

These types of meetings and presentations:

  •   Consist of small groups, in a more intimate setting, seated
  •   Will be more detail oriented
  •   Are more likely to result in discussion, with other people contributing and asking questions
  •   Likely to have the participants holding a hard-copy of the presentation in their hand

They can be, for many, considerably less stressful. You can learn to become very good at writing these types of presentations through presentation training.

Where possible, a useful avoidance mechanism is to convert a ‘public speaking’ style presentation into a sit-down style presentation. It will have smaller groups, seated around a table, with supporting material that can be referenced. And it will be less stressful.

Stress management: Manage your Mind via Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Stress (physiological arousal) is neither inherently positive, nor negative. Positive or negative emotional reactions to stress are a result of how we interpret or react to being aroused.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy. It works to change unhelpful thinking and behavior.

Put simply, re-framing how we think about stress helps reduce stress and anxiety.

Some fascinating research on stress in public speaking conducted by Dr. Jeremy Jamieson, concluded that “changing cognitions produces downstream benefits”. Participants of the study who were placed in stressful public speaking situations, but prepped about the benefits of stress beforehand, exhibited better outcomes than control participants. (Note 5)

Simply understanding stress and how it can be helpful helps us reduce and manage speaking anxiety

A second important finding came out of this research.

People who experience “good stress” (think excitement) perform better in acute stress situations than those who are calm.

As expected, clam individuals outperform those who experience “bad stress” (think fear or threat).

The key take away of this is:

Advice on relaxation, while helpful, is probably best for speeches that do not require peak performance

For an important presentation or speech, re-framing how we think about stress may be a better strategy.

8 Steps to Reducing Stress Before Public Speaking

Stage One: Managing Public Speaking Anxiety before you Speak

1: ADOPT RIGHT MINDSET: Re-frame a Pessimistic Attitude

  •   Understand how stress works. Work to accept the need for some stress to perform optimally
  •   Re-frame how you perceive the symptoms of stress (nervousness, butterflies etc.): stress, and its symptoms, are needed for peak performance
  •   Give up the belief that you have to be perfect. None of us are
  •   Remind yourself: when you speak in public, nothing ‘bad’ can happen
  •   Regulate any negative ‘self-talk’. No more ‘What if I forget what I want to say?’. Instead ask yourself ‘What if they give me a standing ovation?’. seriously. (Source 6)

2: CREATE CONTENT: Develop your Material, Write your Speech

Some people are able to deliver great presentations by ‘winging-it’. They improvise.

A less stressful approach is to develop your content in advance. After you have spent enough time thinking about, developing, and practicing your presentation you will find you know the content of the deck in-side and out.

Some people manage to do an acceptable job just off the back of the preparation in writing the deck.

But we recommend developing a script. Practice the script, and then throw it away.

  •   Write your presentation. For most speeches you really only need two or three main ideas
  •   Develop a script

3: PRACTICE: Rehearse and Gain Experience

Practice is important.

Some people will recommend not practicing as a way of limiting stress. As we spoke of early, avoidance is a viable strategy. But if you can’t avoid giving the speech, don’t avoid the practice. Practice, in clinical terms, is a form of exposure therapy. Exposure therapy works.

  •   Practice makes perfect. Presenting is a sport that needs training.
  •   Practice your speech delivery out loud, verbalize the complete presentation
  •   Practice clarity, pace of speaking, engaging with audience, making eye-contact
  •   Practice until you memorize your script, then use the script as a safety net
  •   Confidence comes with experience. Public speaking experience will reduce the stress you feel the next time around

4: PREPARE: Attend to the details

These small little techniques can play a huge role in controlling the build up of emotions in the lead-up to your speech.

  •   Avoid common presentation mistakes in this article on presentation tips
  •   Set the right tone in advance by sending a thoughtfully written agenda
  •   Exercise
  •   Get some rest
  •   Eat lightly or not at all an hour before the presentation
  •   Avoid too much coffee, too many cigarettes or other mood-altering substances. While they can work, in the short term – regulating the dosage is impossible.
  •   Look your best, dress for success
  •   Prepare a ‘flight-check’ to ensure you have everything you need 1 hour before your speech

5: RELAX: Stay Calm and Visualize Success

In her book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, the Wall Street Journal’s science columnist Sharon Begley’s walks readers through experiments showing that, contrary to conventional scientific theory, new neurons are created in the brain every day. Experiments with Buddhist monks suggest it is possible to train the brain to be better at feeling certain emotions.

One of the techniques at the center of this neuroplasticity movement is visualization. It works.

To help your performance and to establish the right mindset, visualize delivering a successful presentation (the outcome you want).

People who suffer from public speaking anxiety tend to fret, and spend their time visualizing the ‘worst-case’ outcomes and abysmal failures. Without realizing it, they adopt the exact opposite visualization approach needed for optimal performance!

  •   Quite your mind
  •   Breathe
  •   Laugh
  •   Warm up your voice
  •   Visualize your optimal outcome (a successful presentation)

Stage Two: Managing Anxiety during your Speech

6: HUMANIZE THE AUDIENCE: Remember your Audience’s Flaws

Your audience is human. They are not perfect. And they want you to succeed.

  •   Remind yourself that your audience has flaws just like you
  •   Assume your audience is friendly (they are)
  •   Assume your audience is there because they are interested in what you have to say (they are)
  •   Love your audience and assume they love you (they do)

7: SET THE RIGHT TONE: Be Yourself

Establish the right tone and mood for your speech. Approach your audience and the presentation with an open heart.

  •   Adopt the right disposition
  •   Have conviction
  •   Be yourself
  •   Do not perform, instead think of your presentation as a private, one-on-one conversation
  •   Smile

Stage Three: Managing Anxiety after your Speech

8: UNWIND: Relax and Debrief

Even very experienced public speakers and presenters can find themselves in a bit of a mental fog following their speech. It can be hard to concentrate or stay focused afterwards. Critically, what takes place after your presentation will have an important influence on the way you approach and deliver your next speech.

  •   Breathe deeply. This will help to reduce your heart rate.
  •   Minimize self-talk. You can mentally review your presentation later.
  •   Write down any comments, outstanding to-do’s or feedback for review later.


  •   Anxiety before a presentation or speech is normal. Everyone experiences it.
  •   This physiological response is an inheritance from our caveman ancestors. It is part of our lizard brain.
  •   A little stress is a good thing. It is necessary for peak performance
  •   We can deal with speech anxiety via avoidance or stress management
  •   When possible, convert ‘public speaking’ style presentations into a sit-down style presentation
  •   We recommend eight steps before, during and after the speech to help manage stress
  •   Smile

Footnotes & Sources


1  Chapman University Survey on American Fears

2  Wikipedia on Glossophobia

3  ‘Practice Helps Relieve Anxiety about Public Speaking‘, McGraw Hill

4  Amy M. Bippus and John A. Daly, “What Do People Think Causes Stage Fright? Naïve Attributions About the Reasons for Public Speaking Anxiety,” Communication Education, 48 (1999): 63–72.

5  ‘The Many Sides of Stress‘, Dr. Jeremy Jamieson, Psychology Today

6  ‘Why Saying is Believing‘, NPR

7  ‘Neuroscientists Determine How Treatment for Anxiety Disorders Silences Fear Neurons‘,

8  ‘Does Visualization Really Work? Here’s Evidence That It Does‘, Expert Enough


HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations‘, Nancy Duarte

America’s Top fears: Public Speaking, heights and bugs‘, Washington Post

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Start improving your presentations skills immediately with our free trail of the Decks for Decision Makers course.