Is the fear of.............greater than the fear of death?

According to that wonderful place called the internet and the amazingly vague resource of ‘a study somewhere said’, I learned that death isn’t so bad. Or, more correctly, the fear of death isn’t so bad. Instead people are more terrified of public speaking.

What?

People are more afraid of standing up to talk to people on stage than they are of dying? That’s pretty intense. Since reading that I’ve been asking around among my friends, colleagues and clients. My not particularly scientific or statistically significant results from this suggest that the initial statement is a touch overblown. If given the choice, most people would be less afraid to face some kind of public speech or presentation than they would to face death.

Phew, good news.

Except that people are still really scared of speaking in public.

Picture yourself getting up to deliver a speech or presentation to an audience of ten, twenty or fifty people. You walk out on the stage and everyone is looking at you. This is a big deal in your job, or it's an important university presentation, or your speech for someone's wedding, or a eulogy at a funeral. This is the last place you want to mess something up. 

  • Your mind goes blank...

  • Your mouth is dry...

  • Your legs are shaking...

  • You'd really like to go to the toilet...

  • Your palms start sweating...

  • Your underarms start sweating even more...

  • You cant keep eye contact with the audience..

  • You're convinced they can see your fear...

  • You know you shouldn't be there. It was a mistake to agree to speak...

  • You're terrified it'll all go wrong...

That's a list of nervous reactions that many people have experienced and struggle against each time they step on a stage. In every training course I've run regarding public speaking, people ask me how to deal with their nerves. How can they stop feeling that stomach rumbling? Why do their palms sweat and how can they stay dry? What lets experienced presenters avoid the stress and fear? 

There are a variety of things that can help with nerves. Most of these are obvious, a few are less common. Try them all out and see which ones are best for you. Then make it your mission to implement them into your speaking. 

1 - Make sure you know your topic and material. If you were asked to talk about your favorite hobby it would probably be easy because you know it well. Ideally your presentation topic should be equally familiar to you. Do your research, check your content and then read it all again. Get everything in your head and it'll be that much easier to bring it out later. 

2 - Practice giving the presentation/speech multiple times before you go on stage. One of the biggest causes of fear is people not knowing what they'll really talk about because they only have the outline in their mind. By speaking out loud, even to an empty room at home, you will start to get a proper feel for the presentation. One great speaker, Patricia Fripp (here's a great video on writing a keynote speech), suggests a ratio of 6:1 i.e. For a 10-minute presentation you should practice 60 minutes. After implementing this kind of preparation, my ability to speak well grew rapidly. Think about how many times a singer practices before they perform live. If you're worried that you lack the time, please understand you don't need to do it all in one sitting. I frequently practice when waiting for a bus, walking on the street, waiting for dinner to cook, in the shower and to the baby when he's busy playing with his cars (he's rarely impressed though). You can find the time, even if it's spread out. 

3 - Get to the room early and make sure it's set the way you like it. Each room has a different size, shape and feel. The more comfortable you are with this, the less nervous you'll be. Stand on the stage and imagine the audience. Picture yourself looking at them and then smiling back at you. Speak to the empty room and think about how much voice projection you'll need. Knowing that everyone can hear you and will feel the confidence in your voice can bring positive feelings that make you perform better. 

4 - Connected to the point above, check all your materials ahead of time. For PowerPoint, test run the presentation through the projector. If you need handouts, make sure they're printed and you have spare ones. Should you be presenting in a serious professional context, I suggest you have a backup laptop with you as well as everything on a USB drive just in case. You'd also do well to have paper printouts of your key slides, just in case all the technology fails. That way, at least you can make some photocopies for your audience members. 

 

Hopefully the points above were reminders to you rather than revelations. Most people know these tips, even if they don't always apply them as consistently as they should.

Getting to some less common ones:

 

5 - Amy Cuddy is well known for delivering an excellent TED talk on body language and confidence, which I highly recommend that you watch and take lessons from. In particular, power posing starts to become something fun that you can do anywhere. For example, you might find yourself on a boat cruise in Norwegian fjords writing a blog post about nerves and public speaking then BAM, pose time...

Please note, the T-shirt is not required, but it may make you feel tougher ;-)

Please note, the T-shirt is not required, but it may make you feel tougher ;-)

Get used to power posing like the star presenter you can be. For those who haven't managed to go through the video linked above, the summary is simple. 

  • Powerful (i.e. big/confident) body language will actually make you feel more confident. Go somewhere private and stand like I did above or raise your arms like a champion, stand wide etc. and stay in that pose for two minutes. It'll boost your confidence, decrease your stress and help you hit more of your potential.

  • The opposite poses (crouched, folded arms, nervous, small etc.) will have a negative impact in the same way. Avoid them as much as you can.

  • This is not imaginary or a case of positive thinking. The research measured hormonal changes in the participants during an artificially stressful job interview as well as the reactions from third parties who didn't know about the pre-interview posing. 

6 - Shake it out. No, I'm not suggesting you get some Taylor Swift music into your presenting, but it refers to a technique used by actors. Before you go out to speak, find a chair. Put your hands on the back of it, lift one leg, shake it and imagine that you're shaking out the tension. Do the same with your other leg. Move your waist in circles a bit, roll your shoulders, shake out your arms and hands, then try a few exaggerated chewing motions. All of these serve simply to warm up your body and let some of the tension leave. You'll be feeling looser and more confident very quickly.  That looseness can easily let you feel more relaxed on stage, which will translate to a more natural performance. 

7 - Three breaths are what my mentor told me early on in the journey of public speaking. Over time, nerves tend to shrink for most people, but that moment when you're called to the stage is when a rush of adrenaline hits you and can bring the shakes. To mitigate this last minute impact, you need three breaths. 

  • Your name is called. Stand up and put your chair under the table (BREATH)

  • Walk calmly to the stage or speaking position (BREATH)

  • Find your starting point, look at the audience with a smile (BREATH)

After this, you'll be that much more ready to speak. Give yourself the time for three breaths and you'll give your body the chance to cut down the nerves.

8Sit at the back if you are not the first or only presenter in the session. It's a simple thing but when you're feeling nervous, you'll have easy access to the water fountain and to go to the toilet if you need to. I took advantage of this before my first big speaking experience and, even though I somehow felt I needed the bathroom again once on the stage, I knew it was in my head and could perform better than otherwise.

9 Go and shake hands. Would you feel nervous talking to a group of friends? Probably not. In large part because you're not presenting to an audience, you're presenting to Tom, Kristina Greg, Niki, Edina, Gabriel, Silvia etc. Talking to individuals, even as a presenter is nothing like talking to a "crowd". Take the time to meet a few of your audience members, introduce yourself and get their names at least. If you have time to small talk, that's even better. Once you have a few people that you know, the stress level will go way down, you'll be able to refer to them by name (where appropriate) and you might even be able to integrate a conversational point into your presentation: "As Mary told me this morning when we met (smile at her), owning up to your mistakes is a powerful relationship building tool."

10 - It's not the end of the world. One good thing, even if you're struggling is that one presentation isn't going to end anything. The worst case scenario is that you don't deliver something that good and the audience isn't very impressed. Nobody is going to die if you mess it up, your life won't be over and your family & friends will still love you. More than that, most people are scared of speaking and will give you the benefit of their fears too. Nobody wants to judge you for something they know will affect them as well. If it all goes wrong, go outside, enjoy the sunshine, spend time with those you love and keep smiling :-) 

 

Nerves are real and all speakers must face them. Over time they will grow less and you'll need a lot more pressure before they hit you. My first really big experience of speaking involved an improvised speech for a speech contest run by the Toastmasters club in my area. There were at least fifty people sitting in the auditorium and I swore that they could all see my shaking, even from the back. By the end of the day I had sweated through my shirt and even my very supportive wife leaned over to tell me that "I love you honey, but did you bring another shirt?". I spent the post contest networking event trying to shake hands without raising my arms at all. Sweaty armpits...how unpleasant. 

Fast forward a few years and now it would take a huge amount more pressure before the nerves hit me like that again. Part of that is experience (see the previous blog post), however a huge part is implementing and practicing the tips above. 

Get over your nerves. 

Be more naturally you. 

Be a good speaker.

Then be great.