Deal with the Fear, or You Won’t Progress in Your Career

Fear of public speaking is a social phobia. Scientists and behaviorists call it social anxiety disorder.  The medical  term is glossophobia; from the Greek words glossa (tongue) and phobos (fear).  Believe it or not, the fear of speaking in front of other people is #1 on the top ten list of social phobias, higher than death even.  Which means that most people would rather die than do a presentation.

Some facts regarding public speaking:

  • Three out of four people suffer from anxiety about public speaking.
  • Doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, although some stats shows that women tend to be more afraid of public speaking than men.
  • The fear often begins with shyness in childhood and progresses from there.
  • People develop specific phobias as a result of learning.  This has been studied in psychology as fear conditioning.  But fears can also be unlearned as well.

Let me tell you; I was that shy kid.  It took me YEARS before I was comfortable in front of an audience.  I had to suffer through several public speaking courses, a tour through Dale Carnegie sales training courtesy of a previous employer (which I detested, BTW – the training, not the employer), and lots of practice.  I  knew my career would go nowhere unless I could deliver effective presentations.  Now, I’m at the point where I don’t even lose sleep, never mind my lunch, anymore.

If I can get this way, so can you.

The first thing to remember is that the presentation is about your audience, not YOU.  The easiest way to undermine your presentation is to communicate your nervousness to the audience.  They’re going to spend so much time feeling bad for you they won’t be able to focus on what you’ve got to say.  Just because you feel nervous doesn’t mean you have to look nervous.  Here’s some tips to help you get through the phobia.

Have something to say.

Think about the goal of your communication.  What is the main purpose of the presentation?  What do you hope to achieve with this audience?  Focusing on what you’re going to do and say, rather than what you are feeling is a great distraction.  Plan what you are going to say and then practice it – and practice out loud.  This way your mouth will know what to do when you’re nervous.  Take deep breaths to slow your heart and help you calm down.

Know your stuff, but don’t memorize.

Knowing your material will help you decide what information is important and what can be left out.  You don’t want to memorize it  though, as reciting by rote will sap the energy out of the presentation and you.  And you’ll lose your audience to boredom, which will make it more stressful for you.

Focus on making everyone else comfortable. 

Your job is to focus on the needs of the audience and facilitate their experience.  Remember, it’s not about you.  If you focus on making the audience feel comfortable, you’ll worry less about yourself.  Think about this question: How can I phrase my presentation so that it is focused on my audience needs, not mine?

Wear the right clothes.

Yes, wear the right clothes.  You don’t want people wondering if your belly ring is going to hook on your pants.  You don’t want people staring at your cleavage.  You don’t want people wondering where you got that I’d Rather Be Fishing t-shirt and why you chose to wear it today.  No matter what your age or gender, conservative clothes are best. Remember, you want the focus on your presentation, not on you.

Use the appropriate tools.

There are a lot of different tools you can use to help the audience.  Pick things that will help you keep the presentation moving along.  PowerPoint is always a biggie and we talked in my last blog about how you need to make sure that the PP is crisp, clean, and not loaded with words.  Handouts are good as they help the audience move with you through the presentation and keep them focused on the content.  I also like to use other “show and tells,” such as books or other things to pass through the audience.  When people answer a question I’ve asked, I sometimes will walk over and give that person a small prize.  It encourages participation and the more participation you have, the less you have to do the speaking.  I also like to use a remote, so that I don’t have to keep hanging by the computer to click “next” when I’m using PowerPoint.

Keep your face to the audience.

Nobody wants to see the back of the presenter.  It also can give the appearance that you don’t care and would just rather read the PowerPoint than deal with the audience.  You need the eye contact and it’s easier for people to hear you when you are facing them.  Use notes to help you stay forward facing.  I like to hold my notes so that I can glance down when I need to, to help keep me on track.  I also walk around when I make a presentation.  Some people may find this distracting, but I do it to get rid of excess nervous energy and to get down into the audience for that personal touch.  You don’t have to do it though, if it makes you feel uncomfortable.  It’s a personal choice.

Practice – and then practice some more.

The old saying practice makes perfect is true.  Not only does practice ensure you know your material (and thus are not reading off your PP), but it also will help you not be so nervous because you know your stuff.

Now, go get ’em, tiger!



  1. I have one suggestion and one anecdote:

    If you are really, really nervous about speaking in public, start out by speaking several times at church. As you stand in front of your congregation, remind yourself that all those people out there really love you and will never criticize you or think badly of you. That way, you can practice in a totally safe environment.

    Now the anecdote: In college I took a public speaking course in which I had to deliver one speech per week to the class, each one along a different theme. When it came time to do a speech that included statistics, I was at a loss. This was in the mid-1980s, before computers and the Internet, and I couldn’t find any books or magazines in my house that had any statistics in them, except for one magazine article about tampons and Toxic Shock Syndrome, and there was NO way I was going to talk about that with all those guys in the class. On the other hand, the weather was really crappy and I didn’t want to go out either, and the darn thing was due the next day. Hmm, it was quite a dilemma. I finally decided to write my speech about the connection between tampons and Toxic Shock Syndrome, and it was a pretty good speech, if I do say so myself. It was also the most uncomfortable experience of my life, and clearly, my classmates, both male and female, were uncomfortable too. But you know what? Now when I need to speak in front of a group, I remind myself that I once talked to a mixed group about tampons, and if I could do THAT, then I could stand up in front of anyone and talk about practically anything. And I can.

  2. Heather,
    Great tips! I must be in the minority as I loved my speech/presentation class in college. I agree though practice practice practice!

  3. Another great post Heather. I was also nervous as a youngster about speaking in front of others. So I decided to do it every chance I could get. It worked. Now my colleagues can’t keep me quiet!

    • Heather Vogel says:

      I know what you mean, Jay – dealing with it probably was the best thing for our careers; you can’t shut me up either! 🙂

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