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You're Nervous About Public Speaking

Here are four things you can control.

Key points

  • Every presenter and public speaker has moments of stress or nervousness.
  • When nervous, we aim to reduce our fear, instead of improving our speaking effectiveness.
  • Lower stress feels better, but it's not the same thing as performing better. Research can help you focus on what matters more.
Izusek/Istockphoto
Some level of fear is common.
Source: Izusek/Istockphoto

Studies from around the world indicate that anxiety related to public speaking occurs in more than 75 percent of the adult population[1, 2]. Although the level of experienced fear may not always be high, the incidence of some level of fear is very common.

It’s not surprising then that sites and columns dedicated to public speaking frequently contain tips on how to reduce that fear, and surveys suggest that people are far more concerned about reducing their fear than improving their effectiveness.[3] However, improving your effectiveness as a public speaker will have a greater beneficial effect on your career than reducing your own nervousness. What is more, experimental studies confirm that interventions that enable public speakers to improve their speaking effectiveness also work to reduce their anxiety.[4,5,6]

If you are nervous ahead of your next presentation, here are four things you can control that will dramatically improve your effectiveness as a public speaker.

1. Rehearse the first 5 minutes, a lot

There is a reason that fire safety drills involve actively rehearsing an evacuation. Research has determined that physically rehearsing a sequence of behaviour under neutral conditions increases our ability to correctly execute that same behaviour, even when the conditions are much more stressful than they would be during an actual fire.[7,8]. You have probably found that your nervousness is at its worst in the first few minutes after you stand up in front of an audience. You may have also noticed that anxious presenters tend to ramble at the start of their talks, as they get their nerves under control.

Help yourself to speak effectively by rehearsing the first five to ten minutes of your talk. Repeat it over and over until you are comfortable with the delivery. If you can say it out loud while in the shower, on a walk, and waiting at the traffic lights, you have a much higher likelihood of being able to say the same thing even when a large audience is looking at you.

2. Practice projecting your voice before the presentation

Step one (above) will enable you to develop capability in what you are going to say. After achieving that goal, turn your attention to how you use your voice. Research shows that specific aspects of your vocal delivery have a significant effect on how you are perceived, as well as what your audience takes from your talk. A louder voice results in your content being perceived as more interesting, compared to the same content spoken in a softer voice (which appears more boring).[9] Speaking clearly, with pauses that emphasise the end of important sentences, results in an audience having a better understanding and memory of what was said, as well as a more favourable impression of the speaker.[10] Finally, varying vocal intonation so that your emotion and expression match the content of your message increases the perceived charisma of the speaker.[11]

The vocal elements that drive these positive effects are significantly different from the default volume, pace, and intonation that you use in normal conversations. When you give a presentation, use your vocal delivery to improve the impact of what you say. Just as an actor would bring a script to life, practice using your voice in this way ahead of time. It’s close to impossible to focus on both what you want to say (content) and how you are saying it (delivery) at the same time.

3. Choose simple words that are familiar to you and your audience

People who feel they need to make a good impression can be tempted to use intellectual expressions or introduce complex ideas. Don’t. In fact, when an argument is expressed in simple terms, the audience perceives the author to be more competent and trustworthy than when the same argument is expressed in complex or technical terms.[12] Also, choosing simple words will help you deliver better because you are less likely to trip over words or lose your train of thought.

4. Open with messages that will make your audience feel good

The effectiveness of your presentation comes down to what your audience remembers and how your talk made them feel, not how giving the talk made you feel. Experiments in the classroom show that people pay more attention to a subject and remember it better when they are in a positive mood, compared to when they feel negative, or even neutral.[13] The best place to inject that positive feeling is at the beginning of your talk.

Consider what two or three key messages you could start with to actively induce positive sentiment in your audience. Simply thanking them for being there, or complimenting the meeting room, is not going to cut it. Think in terms of lighting up the reward centres in their brains. If your audience is hungry for a solution and you have that solution, let them know straight away. If your audience is anxious and you have a message that will relieve that anxiety, do the same. If you have never before read such intelligent answers to the pre-talk survey they just completed, let them know that. Start your talk with messages that are about your audience (not you), and that will actively cause their moods to improve.

Feeling confident and being competent are not the same things

Most of us believe we are pretty good at reading body language or facial expressions and thus classifying other people as nervous or confident. In fact, people in a whole variety of contexts perform barely better than chance when having to guess how another person is feeling. The most likely way for your audience to know you are nervous is for you to tell them, out of nervousness. Instead of doing that, do these four things instead, and you will improve your effectiveness as a public speaker.

References

[1] Crome, E., & Baillie, A. (2014). Mild to severe social fears: Ranking types of feared social situations using item response theory. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28(5), 471–479. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.05.002

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008, October 23). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of results methodology, 2007. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.abs.gov.au/methodologies/national-study-mental-health-and-w…

[3] Bippus, A. M., & Daly, J. A. (1999). What do people think causes stage fright?: Naïve attributions about the reasons for public speaking anxiety. Communication Education, 48(1), 63–72. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634529909379153

[4] Daly, J. A., Vangelisti, A. L., & Weber, D. J. (1995). Speech anxiety affects how people prepare speeches: A protocol analysis of the preparation processes of Speakers. Communication Monographs, 62(4), 383–397. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637759509376368

[5] Pribyl, C. B., Keaten, J., & Sakamoto, M. (2001). The effectiveness of a skills-based program in reducing public speaking anxiety. Japanese Psychological Research, 43(3), 148–155. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5884.t01-1-00171

[6] Tsang, A. (2020). The relationship between Tertiary-level students’ self-perceived presentation delivery and public speaking anxiety: A mixed-methods study. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(7), 1060–1072. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2020.1718601

[7] Garcia, D., Dukes, C., Brady, M. P., Scott, J., & Wilson, C. L. (2016). Using modeling and rehearsal to teach fire safety to children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 49(3), 699–704. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaba.331

[8] Jones, R. T., & Randall, J. (1994). Rehearsal-plus: Coping with fire emergencies and reducing fire-related fears. Fire Technology, 30(4), 432–444. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf01039942

[9] Nimon, S. M. (2001). An Investigation into the Influence of Non-linguistic Vocal Elements on Readings of Theatrical Character (dissertation). Doctoral dissertation, Flinders University of South Australia, Department of Drama

[10] Hahn, L. D. (2004). Primary stress and intelligibility: Research to motivate the teaching of suprasegmentals. TESOL Quarterly, 38(2), 201. https://doi.org/10.2307/3588378

[11] Hincks, R., & Edlund, J. (2009). Promoting increased pitch variation in oral presentations with transient visual feedback. Language Learning & Technology, 13(3), 32–50.

[12] Elsbach, K. D., & Elofson, G. (2000). How the packaging of decision explanations affects perceptions of trustworthiness. Academy of Management Journal, 43(1), 80–89. https://doi.org/10.5465/1556387

[13] Urquhart, A., Wake, N. and Nimon-Peters, A.J. (2017). The effects of teaching style on student recall. In: Proceedings of EurOMA 2017. Retrieved from: http://euroma2017.eiasm.org/userfiles/HKIGIKI_GDFJMK_JT7XY0WS.pdf

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