11 Habits to Quash that Fear of Public Speaking (on a live stage or video conference)
Updated: Oct 22, 2021
I was inspired to write this blog as I incidentally witnessed a CEO presenting to his company. I had seen this person come across like this before – a bit frazzled for a relatively confident person, reading the digital cue cards, slurring with nervousness. I wondered what may have been going on for him that day – but the reality was, as much as he had hoped to make an impact, as a leader he just wasn’t connecting with his audience. And when given the opportunity to captivate an audience, it is up to us as leaders to make the most of it.
I happen to be one of the lucky ones who truly enjoys public speaking. No matter the audience size, I am at my best when I get the opportunity to connect with people in any sort of forum. It fuels me. But I am a minority in this category. I am sure most of us have heard before that the fear of public speaking is at the forefront of all fears. In fact, according to The National Institute of Mental Health, the fear of speaking in public affects 73% of the population, and even surpasses death, spiders, and heights as the greatest of all fears! Ultimately, this fear is about the underlying threat of being judged or getting a negative evaluation from others. But don’t fret if you’re in this category – none of us don’t like to admit to it, but it’s human!
Now it’s not to say I don’t get anxious before I give a speech or a talk in front of an audience. I absolutely do (and on that note, my first tip is – DO make a trip or 10 to the bathroom before you speak)! But there are several pre-session tools I’ve turned into habits over the years, and whether you’re speaking in front of an auditorium or a Zoom camera, they can help you too!
I know it sounds obvious – but DO practice. And you DON’T have to practice the same way it works for someone else. Do what works for you. If recording yourself and playing it back works for you, do it. Similar to role playing at a sales training, that never worked for me. What worked for me was writing out what I was going to say, the way I would say it (even writing the word PAUSE when I needed to PAUSE). Then I would read my notes out loud - standing, sitting, and before I went to bed. I always like to think, ‘I’m brainwashing myself when I read my notes before bed – much like I did before a test in college!’
Give yourself enough days or hours in advance to be able to internalize the general points you want to make and, most importantly, why they matter to this audience. Then trust the process. Remember, your audience has no idea that you wanted to construct the sentence a certain way over another! One other thing to consider doing while practicing is, as you type out your notes, underline, highlight, or bold the words you want to emphasize in your tone. As you practice, you’ll start to deliver the tone just as you had planned.
Get there Early/Acclimate to Your Surroundings
Whether you’re doing a Zoom meeting from your home office, standing on a stage in a venue, or you’re presenting from a conference room at your company, arrive earlier than everyone else (including the producers). It helps to feel out your space and acclimate yourself to the surroundings. If this is in-person, use this time to become comfortable with the stage, your ability to look your audience in the eye, points of reference in the room that will help you feel comfortable. If there are cameras, get to know where they will be. Walk around and make yourself at home in the space. If you are presenting on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or another cloud service, feel your way around the chat box, make sure you know how to navigate the digital space, look into your camera eye and envision who you will be engaging. Remember, when you look directly into the eye of a camera your audience sees you as looking THEM in the eye! Tip: when you want to emphasize a point, look directly into the camera together with tone of voice.
Turn Nervous Energy into Enthusiasm (music, coffee, exercise)
When I delivered sessions at Sales Kickoffs, large conferences, Executive Briefings or even on Zoom calls that began at the crack of dawn, I had a few habits that would help to ensure I was ready to bring the energy to my audiences. First things first: if my session was early and I knew I wouldn’t be quite in my own zone yet, I planned-ahead. I dropped and did a set of pushups, and I knew exactly where I would get my zap of caffeine. I knew myself enough to recognize I needed to proactively turn my dial to ON. As the speaker, the energy I bring creates the energy in the room. In some instances, I would make sure the technician turned on music that got me going in the room. One time, I found myself dancing on stage as my audience entered the room. While it was fun (or funny) for them, it was really a mechanism I used to turn nervous energy into positive and enthusiastic energy that would come through in my session. In other scenarios, play your favorite upbeat music in the car as you drive to your session, or put on your headset like an athlete does before a game.
Set Boundaries for Yourself with Others Before Start Time
I’m a big fan of learning to set boundaries in our lives, and the same goes for public speaking. When it’s time to speak, our energy should be 100% focused outward, connecting with our audience. And to prepare ourselves for being the absolute best we can be, we need to establish boundaries beforehand. I want a certain number of minutes before a speaking session to be ME time. This is my time to focus, to do what it takes to be comfortable in my space, to review the first things that will come out of my mouth (like pre-drafting the first few plays in a football game). If other people want to chat about logistics and unrelated topics, I usually ask them to figure it out, or to save it until after the session. This is my time before everything becomes focused on making sure the audience has the best experience possible. And here are a few things I do with that ‘me time’:
I don’t care where I am, and it does look silly – but who really cares? I am not kidding – this is ALL about my audience experience. I always recommend doing mouth exercises before a session to be sure my voice is agile. I open my mouth wide and overexaggerate the pronunciation of A-E-I-O-U several times, as though I am singing ‘Ohm’ from my belly at the start of a yoga class. This helps me become ready to use tone to keep my audience engaged, and to use my voice as a tool for underscoring key points as I look into the eyes of my audience. And on that note:
Be sure to have that water ready, and hydrate beforehand. When we are nervous or speaking for a while, our mouths can get very dry. I remember a time when I was leading 3 x 90-minute sessions in front of live audiences in one afternoon! By the third session, my mouth was so dry it was starting to stick – it was like gymnastics for my mouth to annunciate my words and finish the session!
Get Great at Breathing
Breath is an amazing tool, and while we all know how to breathe, practicing deep breathing can be an amazingly effective way to calm and center ourselves before a speaking session. To build a habit of this, I recommend finding 5 quiet minutes every day for 15 days, taking advantage of the 4-7-8 technique: breathe in through the nose and into your belly (not into your chest) for 4 counts, hold at the top of your breath for 7, and then exhale through the nose for a slow 8. If you’re not used to doing this, it may take a week to get going, but I promise – if you do this for 15 days, you will understand how useful this can be in any situation where you need to be calm and centered.
Use Positive Visualization
Another great tool we can leverage before public speaking is visualization. This is best paired with deep breathing. If you’re looking for added confidence before speaking, find a quiet place to close your eyes and breathe deeply. Imagine a time in your life when you felt on top of the world, when you felt accomplished, nobody could stop you! This is best accessed if you visualize this before the day of your speaking engagement, and then go back there right before you speak. Be thorough: What did that time feel like? What were your surroundings? What smells were in the air? What sounds did you hear? Really be with that sensation. This is a place you can go anytime you want to spike confidence – because it confirms that you absolutely CAN do this!
Incidentally, you can also use this as a tool for centering and calming down before a speaking session. In this case, think about a time when you experienced the most beautiful and peaceful vacation you have ever experienced, or place you have visited. I used this exercise almost daily when I was going through chemotherapy for cancer, and it was incredibly helpful in reducing my stress as I internally took myself to the sounds and smells and azure blues of kayaking in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Meet and Greet (people as they enter the room)
Something else I love to do when I am speaking in front of a live audience: as people are entering the room, I come down from the stage and walk up to people to introduce myself and ask them where they’re from; or from the stage I look them in the eye and welcome them. It’s amazing because it magically takes the edge off me, and it also makes audience members feel connected to me as a speaker, as well as making me feel connected to them. This can also open up opportunities for interaction during the session since I now have people to call on!
Stand (or Sit) in a Power Position
These days many of us are speaking through Zoom or other digital platforms in home offices. If we’re leading a session, I recommend that you work with your space, to determine what position makes you feel most powerful. Do you have a standing desk? If not, and this is what you prefer, is there somewhere else in your home where you can create a standing space - especially if the session you’re delivering is customer-facing? If you’re sitting, is there a way to sit in your chair without slumping over? Is there a way you can sit that feels most connected outward with your audience? If you’re speaking in person, stand with feet hip width, stretch your hands up to the sky in a deep breathe, and then drop shoulders and hands at your side - instead of folded or stiff. Body language matters.
You Be You & Make a Connection
I think it’s great to observe others you admire in an effort to pick up on what speaking styles work, especially when it comes to truly connecting with audiences. But in the end, remember this: YOU were asked to speak for a reason. Someone believes in you – no matter if you are a CEO, or a manager, or an engineer. Practice these habits but be yourself. Only you can be the best version of you, and you are never going to be the best version of someone else. If you’re confident in the attributes you bring to the table, and you focus on caring about your audience getting something meaningful, that’s all you need to be a really good public speaker.