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How to overcome your fear of public speaking

Why are many people afraid of public speaking, and what can be done about it? Ros and Neil Johnson, speech and drama specialists at Theatresaurus, explain in response to our Facebook fans’ request.

The fear of public speaking is known as glossophobia. According to one estimate, about 75 per cent of people suffer from various forms of this phobia and ten per cent of people are genuinely terrified. The fear of public speaking is the number one phobia in America and is more common than the fear of heights or the fear of snakes, which rank two and three respectively.

The symptoms of glossophobia

Symptoms of glossophobia range from knots in the stomach, sweaty palms, dry mouth, shaky legs and tightness in the throat. In extreme cases, sufferers experience nausea, panic attacks and excessive anxiety. Glossophobics will therefore go to great lengths to avoid speaking in public.

Most of these symptoms are due to the increase in adrenaline produced by our bodies because we are experiencing the flight-or-fight reaction. This primitive response still exists in us despite the fact that we no longer have to fight or run away from wild animals. The concerns we have before a speech or presentation – worrying what people will think of us, worrying that we will stumble over the words or forget what to say – are enough to trigger the natural or instinctive reaction to run away.

Once we can learn to control these feelings and conquer the urge to flee the perceived danger, we can begin to enjoy the process of public speaking.

Many famous people have had a fear of public speaking

Many famous people have suffered from glossophobia, including actors, politicians and even presidents. Some notable examples are Renée Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Sigmund Freud and Thomas Jefferson. At some point, they all mention actually going out of their way to avoid speaking in public. One extreme case was Gandhi. According to an article in The Atlantic, Gandhi was due to be speaking in a court and only managed to say the first sentence of his speech before he dried up and an assistant stepped in and finished the speech for him. They have all had to devise strategies for overcoming this fear.

In the video clip below, the well-respected actor, Emma Watson, is giving a speech to the United Nations. It is interesting to see how nervous she is at the beginning – she speaks a little too fast, for example – but as the speech goes on, she appears more and more confident. If you watch and listen carefully, you can observe some of the techniques she uses to overcome the nerves. These include trying to control her breathing, taking pauses, speaking more slowly and using well-rehearsed emphasis on particular words.

Breathing is a very important factor in overcoming the nervousness caused by the increase of adrenaline. Excess adrenaline makes us breathe shallowly, i.e., in the top part of our lungs, and too rapidly.

How to help yourself relax and control your breathing

Relaxation and breathing techniques are invaluable when trying to calm your nerves. When we are nervous, we often take shallow breaths. This leads to added anxiety, so slowing down our breathing and learning to relax are invaluable.

Exercise 1 – Learning to relax

Find a comfortable place and lie on the floor. Close your eyes and concentrate on relaxing every part of your body, starting with your feet and legs and working upwards to your shoulders, neck and head. Now bring your attention to your breathing. To begin with, just be aware of breathing in and out.

Now try to imagine a place that you can associate with calmness. Picture this place and hear the sounds, smell the smells.

Once you have become familiar with recalling this special place, it can be somewhere to go whenever you are feeling nervous – such as just before you go on stage to make a speech.

Learning to relax takes time but it will really help, especially if you do this exercise regularly. After a while, you’ll be able to recall the feelings of relaxation anywhere.

Exercise 2 – Centering yourself

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, your hands hanging loose, shoulders down and head relaxed on your neck.

First, try to collect your thoughts and think in your head. Feel yourself become lighter.

Now try to think in your stomach, and start to feel yourself getting rooted in the ground. You are effectively ‘thinking your centre of gravity’ down through your body. This process is called ‘centering’ and it may take a little practice.

Now breathe in, and feel the breath going right down into your centre, i.e., to the bottom of your lungs and into your stomach. Breathe out allowing your diaphragm to control the outward breath, as described in our previous article.

Exercise 3 – Get to know your space

Nerves often come from the unknown, so go to the room or hall where you will be speaking, and walk around it, rehearsing your speech out loud. Now sing parts of your speech and move around allowing your voice to fill the space.

Make sure you know your subject

This may sound obvious, but it is important that you are confident in your subject. Plan your speech, practise it, say it out loud. Imagine a positive outcome of the speech. This will help you get into the right frame of mind for the speech you are about to make.

Practise again and again, and learn the points where you need to use emphasis or pauses. Mark them on your speech in a clear and precise way.

Take the stage like an actor

Actors will spend a few minutes before going on stage working out where they have just come from as a character and what they have been doing. This distraction takes their minds off their concerns about their performance.

The same habit can work for someone just about to speak in public. By spending a few minutes before your speech thinking about the positive aspects of what you are about to do, you can take your mind off worrying about your performance. So you might ask: What will be the outcome of my speech for my audience? What will I have achieved by giving it? You can then take the positive emotions these questions evoke onto the stage. The emotion may be excitement or a sense of fulfilment, but the effect is the same in that it will create a distraction and provide an outlet for your adrenaline.

Exercise 4 – Breathing a few minutes before you go on to make your speech

Just before you start your speech, breathe in, counting up to seven, and breathe out when you reach 11. Do this three or four times. It helps slow the build-up of adrenaline and reduces your heart rate, thereby diminishing feelings of nervousness or anxiety.

Do some gentle exercise

A short burst of physical exercise is another good way of countering the effect of the adrenaline that our bodies are expecting to use in our muscles.

Exercise 5 – Warming up

Stand in a comfortable position, knees shoulder-width apart. Stretch up to the ceiling, extending your arms and legs as far as possible. Slowly squat down putting your hands on the floor. Repeat this two or three times.

Back in your standing position, rotate your shoulders and then extend your arms out to the side and repeat the rotation. This will also help relieve any tension.

Now jog gently on the spot for a minute or so, ensuring that you are moving your arms. Finally shake out your arms and legs. Remember, you are not trying to exhaust yourself, so don’t overdo it.

Make adrenaline your friend

A final thought from an article in Forbes from 2011: ‘Make adrenaline your friend because it makes your body and brain work better’. Once you get used to controlling your adrenaline, you can then make sure you always have enough to give your speech or performance that extra boost, but not so much that it makes you feel like running away.


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