Richard G. Jones, Jr.
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Practical Ways to Manage Your Fear of Public Speaking

Jun 9, 2013

This article is the first in a series on public speaking anxiety. Check back for more posts on the most recent public speaking anxiety research and more strategies for addressing this common problem.

If you feel fear, anxiety, or discomfort when confronted with the task of speaking in front of an audience, you are not alone. National polls consistently show that public speaking is among Americans’ top fears.[i] Yet, since we all have to engage in some form of public speaking, this is a fear that many people must face regularly.

Effectively managing speaking anxiety has many positive effects on your speaking. One major area that can improve with less anxiety is delivery. Although speaking anxiety is natural and normal, it can interfere with verbal and nonverbal delivery, which makes a speech less effective. In my book, Communication in the Real World, I address public speaking anxiety in more detail, but below are some tips for addressing public speaking anxiety.

What is Public Speaking Anxiety?

Public speaking anxiety is a type of communication apprehension that produces physiological, cognitive, and behavioral reactions in people when faced with a real or imagined presentation.[ii]

Physiological responses to public speaking anxiety include increased heart rate, flushing of the skin or face, and sweaty palms, among other things. These reactions are the result of natural chemical processes in the human body. The fight or flight instinct helped early humans survive threatening situations. When faced with a ferocious saber-toothed tiger, for example, the body releases adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones that increase heart rate and blood pressure to get more energy to the brain, organs, and muscles in order to respond to the threat. We can be thankful for this evolutionary advantage, but our physiology hasn’t caught up with our new ways of life. Our body doesn’t distinguish between the causes of stressful situations, so facing down an audience releases the same hormones as facing down a wild beast.

Cognitive reactions to public speaking anxiety often include intrusive thoughts that can increase anxiety: “People are judging me,” “I’m not going to do well,” and “I’m going to forget what to say.” These thoughts are reactions to the physiological changes in the body but also bring in the social/public aspect of public speaking in which speakers fear being negatively judged or evaluated because of their anxiety.

The physiological and cognitive responses to anxiety lead to behavioral changes. All these thoughts may lead someone to stop their speech and return to their seat or leave the room completely. Anticipating these reactions can also lead to avoidance behavior where people intentionally avoid situations where they will have to speak in public.

Since we can't always avoid public speaking, the tips below can help you address your fears of public speaking.

Click the infographic thumbnail below for a downloadable version of the list.

Top Ten Tips for Reducing and Managing Speaking Anxiety

10. Remember, you are not alone. Public speaking anxiety is common, so don’t ignore it— confront it.

9. Remember, you can’t literally “die of embarrassment.” Audiences are forgiving and understanding

8. Remember, it always feels worse than it looks.

7. Take deep breaths. It releases endorphins, which naturally fight the adrenaline that causes anxiety.

6. Look the part. Dress professionally to enhance confidence.

5. Channel your nervousness into positive energy and motivation.

4. Start your outline and research early. Better information = higher confidence.

3. Practice and get feedback from a trusted source. (Don’t just practice for your cat.)

2. Visualize success through positive thinking.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Practice is a speaker’s best friend.

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[i] Graham D. Bodie, “A Racing Heart, Rattling Knees, and Ruminative Thoughts: Defining, Explaining, and Treating Public Speaking Anxiety,” Communication Education 59, no. 1 (2010): 70.

[ii] Graham D. Bodie, “A Racing Heart, Rattling Knees, and Ruminative Thoughts: Defining, Explaining, and Treating Public Speaking Anxiety,” Communication Education 59, no. 1 (2010): 71.