Stage Fright

3 Essential Tips for Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety

Don't emulate others; Discover your own path.

Posted Feb 26, 2017

Circe Denyer/PublicDomainPictures
Source: Circe Denyer/PublicDomainPictures

I know some people who love public speaking––who relish any opportunity to flap their gums in front of a crowd. But for the rest of us (I’m guessing most of us) it’s much more challenging, and for some, perhaps terrifying.

But public speaking is something you can learn to do – and actually learn to do well. Here are three tips I’ve found indispensable in my own quest to master (or at least tolerate) speaking in public.

Tip 1: Don’t listen to any of the advice out there about public speaking.

Well, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but what I mean is to look for the advice “behind” the advice as opposed to the advice itself. If someone tells you, for example, to imagine the audience naked – which is a classic piece of advice for jittery public speakers – what they’re really telling you is to do what you can to make the audience feel less intimidating and more human. And while imagining them naked might work for some (it definitely doesn’t work for me), there are many other strategies to humanize an audience. For example, whenever I give talks now, I try to arrive a bit early to actually meet some of the people in the audience. I find that if I can make these connections, it eases my nerves and also makes the audience a bit more “known” – which helps me a lot.

Tip 2: Don’t watch TED talks for inspiration.

When I first started giving talks I was told to look the very best TED speakers and to copy them. But for me, it was so intimidating to watch these professionals in their minimalist garb glide across the stage as they wowed an audience of millions. What was worse was that there seemed to be a very specific style that each one of them was using – very few slides, a provocative or counter-intuitive introduction, and a dramatic, often deeply personal story. At least initially, watching these talks was more deflating than inspiring.

But what I discovered was that the key to learning to speak in public isn’t to become the best public speaker (or in the case of TED talks, to mimic the best speakers). Instead, it’s to do what you can to bring your own best self to public speaking. And that will be very different for everyone. For example, in contrast to traditional TED talk advice, you might actually not like to tell personal stories. Or you might actually like to use lots of slides – as I do – to help quickly tell a visual story as you proceed with your talk. The point is that you can craft a version of public speaking that fits who you are and what you do best.

Tip 3: Focus more on wowing yourself than on wowing the crowd.

The great preponderance of public speaking advice is focused outward, on the impression you’re creating on others, but my advice is to spend more of your time focused inward on developing your own personal sense of purpose for why public speaking is meaningful for you – in other words, why it’s worth the stress and pressure for you to go stand up there and deliver your words. What’s in it for you? For me, it’s always about making a difference. I’m very proud of my new book Reach, which is focused on helping people stretch outside their comfort zones, and so every time I go up there on stage I very explicitly think about – and embrace – that sense of purpose. And it really helps me fight through the anxiety.

In the end, you may never love public speaking – but, then again, if you do it enough and learn to cultivate your own style, you might very well surprise yourself.

If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in my new book: Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin Random House, January 2017). For more information visit

Another version of this piece appeared at Signature.