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49 quick tips for overcoming the fear of public speaking.
Last week, I told you the behind-the-scenes story of the best keynote I’ve ever delivered. It’s now two weeks later, and people are still asking me about that crockpot.
What I didn’t tell you about was the anxiety attack I had 5 minutes before I went on stage.
I’m afraid of speaking in public. I’ve had glossophobia my entire life.
I remember crying in front of a school assembly in third grade because I was too scared to read my part. I had to video record assignments for high school speech class at home because I was too afraid to stand up in front of 12 other students I’d known for years. I almost rejected a college scholarship because it required me to accept the award at a banquet dinner.
Then something magical happened during my first semester in college. You can read the entire story at LearnGeek.co. TL;DR - I was thrust into a situation that helped me vanquish my fear. I spent the next 10 years improving my speaking skills. I went from being afraid to speak in front of people I knew to pretending to be a cowboy in front of complete strangers at Disney. Eventually, I started speaking at professional events in the L&D and HR communities.
The fear was gone … or so I thought.
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I was asked to introduce the closing keynote at an industry event 8 years ago. Sure! No problem, right? After all, I was a master at speaking in front of large crowds by that point. This would be easy. I took the stage in front of 2000 people as “The Boys Are Back In Town” by Thin Lizzy blared. The meltdown began before I even said a word.
I started sweating. I struggled to find my words. My voice was shaking. I was suddenly that kid in grade school all over again. I muscled my way through the introduction and got off stage as fast as I could - before people could figure out what was going on.
What just happened? I hadn’t felt like that in forever. It was as if all my progress - the thousands of hours I spent voraciously developing my speaking ability - vanished in an instant. I was shook to say the least. I spent the next few weeks replaying the moment in my head, trying to figure out what went wrong.
I eventually figured it out. That life-changing moment in college - my proudest hour - hadn’t killed the fear. The memories, the feelings, they were all still there. So was the fear, lurking, waiting to surface when least expected.
Instead of eliminating the fear, that moment in college had provided me with a weapon to fight it. It gave me a newfound confidence, something I sorely lacked growing up. This confidence kept the fear at bay all of those years. And it only grew as I developed my speaking skills and progressed my career.
That’s what went wrong on that stage 8 years ago. I got ahead of myself. I was ready, but I wasn’t prepared. The fear seized on that weakness and took me down hard. That day changed how I approach public speaking. I embraced the fear instead of denying it. I finally accepted it as an important part of who I am instead of dismissing it as a flaw. I doubled down on my preparation and found new ways to secure my professional confidence.
Now, on the odd occasion when the fear does resurface (like it did in Miami a few weeks ago), I’m ready for it.
Here are 49 practices (some big, some small, all in no particular order) I’ve applied over the years to overcome my fear, fuel my confidence and build a career as a professional speaker.
Breathe. You have to take care of yourself before you can provide value for your audience. Think > Breathe > Speak.
Find your story. Why you? This is the first question you must answer before submitting a conference proposal or building a presentation. Why are you the right person to tell this story to this audience at this time?
Know your sh*t. The audience is there to learn and take inspiration from you. Do your homework. Be the expert. But you must also acknowledge your limits and be open to new ideas provided by participants.
Write down every word. When I’m preparing to deliver a brand new session, I script every word, every key point, every movement and every inflection. I then refine the script over and over again until I don’t need it anymore.
Solve a familiar problem. Don’t just talk about ideas. Show the audience practical ways to apply your ideas to solve problems in real life.
Leave space for discussion. Do as little talking as necessary to get your key points across. Build in space for discussion, debate, questions, etc. so the weight of the session isn’t entirely on you.
Avoid text on slides. First, people can’t read the slides and listen to you at the same time. Second, text anchors you to make specific points while images allow you to flex your talk track in any direction required.
Know your audience. What do they do? Why are they here? What do they hope to get from this session? The more you know, the better value you can deliver.
Research the other speakers. I try to figure out how my presentation fits within the larger narrative of the event, especially if there are opportunities for me to build off of what’s already been discussed.
Wear comfy clothes. People don’t care what you’re wearing if you deliver an engaging, insightful session. Follow the event dress code but lean into what makes you comfortable.
Eat beforehand. Settle your stomach with something hearty and reliable.
Bring notes if needed. There’s nothing wrong with referring to notes during the session. The audience just wants value. They don’t care if you don’t have every point memorized - as long as you don’t live in your notes.
Hook them early. Starting with a story or a meaningful question gets the audience engaged ASAP. It also reduces my anxiety and sets me up for the rest of the session.
Don’t worry if people leave. There’s nothing wrong with people opting out of your session if they determine it’s not a good fit. Just do your thing.
Set a timer on your watch. I set my watch to vibrate at specific moments during my session to keep me on-time without having to look at it and do mental math.
Attend earlier sessions. This helps you get a sense of the audience’s energy and interests. Plus you can find ways to stand out from past speakers.
Talk to past speakers. Find out what it’s like to speak at this event from people who’ve done it before.
Get familiar with the space. Visit the room early and determine how you’ll use the space during your session. Adjust the lighting, sound, chairs, etc. to your benefit.
Borrow from great speakers. Analyze how your favorite speakers do what they do. Lift tricks that mesh with your personal style.
Bring your own clicker. There’s just something comforting about always having the same clicker in my hand for every presentation.
Record it. I know. This is a tough one for people who don’t like to watch themselves. But it’s the only way to spot opportunities for improvement as you get more comfortable.
Get off the stage. Somehow being two feet above the audience makes it feel like they’re staring at me that much more intently.
Avoid using slides as a crutch. Practice without the slides so you know the flow of your presentation without looking at them. They’re for the audience, not you.
Bring lots of connectors. HDMI, VGA, USB-A, USB-C. There isn’t an AV setup on the planet that can defeat me!
Anchor in your session description. People decided to attend your session based on the description in the agenda. Deliver on that promise.
Put marks on the ground. I carry gaffer tape with me in case my session is being recorded and I must limit my movement to a specific area.
Get comfy speaking online. Staring down a camera lens reduces your reliance on reading slides and improves your ability to make eye contact in real life.
Look to familiar faces. Know where your friends are in the audience in case you need a moment of visual reassurance. Plant friends in the room for added comfort.
Anticipate questions. Run through any possible questions or objections so you’re less likely to get caught flat-footed during the session.
Build a shared version of your slides. I build two slide decks for every presentation: the one I use in the room and the one I post online. The shared version has a lot more text, eliminates proprietary material and makes sense without me talking over it.
Tell a story instead of presenting. People like engaging, relatable stories. They don’t like boring, over-stuffed professional presentations.
Avoid handheld microphones. It’s just another thing to pay attention to while trying to convey your message to your audience.
Put the slides on your phone. This gives you quick access during prep in case you forget part of your story.
Be your own best critic. You know what you set out to do in that room. The audience doesn’t. Take this into consideration when reviewing feedback.
Take notice of cameras. When people hold up their cameras to take a picture of your slides, it’s an indication that you just made a really good point.
Wear clothing with belts and/or pockets. You’ll need a spot to attach a mic pack.
Avoid podiums. Unless you’re delivering a college commencement speech or currently serving as President of the United States.
Find relatable points. This is why I mention SharePoint in so many presentations. Everyone has struggled to find information in their company intranet at some point. Now I’m just like you instead of some guy trying to tell you how to do your job.
Do you. I know I sometimes come across as silly, but that’s my style - like it or not.
Choose your walk on music. Sometimes you get to pick your intro song, so it's good to have a shortlist. Linkin Park’s Papercut plays in my head when there’s no music.
Go with the audience. Lean into points that resonate instead of sticking to your plan.
Get a haircut. This always makes me feel more polished and prepared.
Ask for help. Don’t try to fix this yourself. Ask people you trust for support. Seek out professional help for anxiety if it makes sense.
Don’t obsess. Avoid rehearsing for the two hours prior to your session. Go for a walk instead.
Start small. Deliver a small lunch and learn session at your company. Co-facilitate a webinar with an experienced peer. Get comfortable in low-risk environments before taking the leap to a bigger stage.
Remind yourself why you’re there. “You’re the best speaker in this room, and they’re about to find out why.” Repeating this to myself over and over helped me calm down before my recent keynote.
Remember the audience wants you to succeed. Everyone in that audience wants to get value from your presentation. They’re silently rooting for you.
Figure out what helps you. This is just a list of practices I’ve found helpful over the past 20 years. Borrow what works, but find your own tips to fit your personal needs.
Practice. This is at the top of every public speaking tips list for a good reason. I put it at the bottom of mine to be different, but it’s still the most important thing on the list.
My Spring Event Calendar. I figured it would be fitting to follow up my story about public speaking fear with my schedule of upcoming speaking activities. Hope to see you out there!
March 21: AICPA & CIMA LEAD Symposium (Atlanta, GA | USA)
March 30: ATD Webinar (online)
April 13: Learning Solutions Conference (Orlando, FL | USA)
April 17: ATD Demo Day (online)
April 27: ATD Houston Virtual Technology Conference (online)
May 3: RILA Retail Talent Committee Meeting (Memphis, TN | USA)
May 23: ATD23 Conference & Expo (San Diego, CA | USA)
Check out my presentation materials at LearnGeek.co/presentations. Drop me an email if you think I’d be a fit for one of your upcoming events.
Until next week, be well. JD