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How I (sort of) conquered my fear of public speaking

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In lots of surveys, public speaking comes out as people’s number one fear. Death often comes in at number two. Take that in; people are more afraid of public speaking than dying.

And for a very long time, I was one of those people.

It was a very familiar feeling. Palms sweating, heart racing, throat drying up, ears ringing. I look at the door a few times. If I ran off would anyone realise? Someone else would step up and do the presentation, right?

And it wasn’t just public speaking in large groups. Small morning stand-ups of five people and one-to-one meetings with senior members of staff would make my voice shake and my cheeks flush red.

But why?

It’s a good question. On a netball court I’ll shout encouragement at teammates without a second thought. In certain situations, I could be the life and soul of the party. So why not at work, in a professional environment? The answer is…I still don’t know.

Disclaimer: I'm far from an expert in this matter. But I want to share a few little things I've done to make sure public speaking doesn’t leave me hiding in a corner.

1. Exposure

People always say: "The more you do it, the less scary it is."

I used to ignore/despise those people. Doing it in the first place was terrifying. I couldn’t wait around for it to become less scary.

What you’ve got to do is start off small.

No one with a fear of public speaking is going to begin with a TED talk, or a speech to hundreds of people. So, take the small wins, one at a time. Whether it’s offering an idea in a meeting, introducing yourself to someone new at work, or asking questions.

2. Ask questions

Ever had a burning question but stayed quiet in the fear that it might be stupid? Join the club.

However, asking questions in other people’s presentations is a great starting point for presenting.

Your heart might still race, and when someone walks over and hands you a microphone you might regret ever sticking your hand up, but it replicates on a smaller scale what it feels like to stand in front of 100 people. The difference is, eyes are only on you for about 20 seconds (I’d advise starting out with short questions).

At DLG we have events called Thrive, which are mostly aimed at women, and it's always a really friendly and empowering atmosphere. The topics can be on anything from tackling negative thought patterns to personal development plans. I found this was a great platform to ask questions, as it felt encouraging and relaxed.

Just don’t be the person that asks questions for the sake of it - no one likes that guy. But the more relevant and interesting questions you ask, the easier it gets to speak up.

3. Be yourself

As cheesy as it sounds, try to be yourself and let your personality shine through.

I’ve been told in the past to put on an act, which works for some. And I agree to some extent. A few deep breaths before walking onto stage helps you to fake it until you make it.

But when you’re up there, don’t turn into a robot version of yourself. Reading from slides, looking down at pieces of paper and keeping all emotion out of your voice is a bit boring for your audience.

If you’ve got a personality, show it.

4. Know your stuff

You’re only as interesting as your slides.

Lots of text is a big no-no. It’s tempting to put loads of information up for people to look at, as you think it takes the attention away from you. Often, the opposite happens. People give up trying to read all the information and either turn all their focus to the speaker, or to what they’re having for dinner.

And it’s not just the slides that have to be engaging; you have to be interesting too.

Talk about something you're passionate about. If you don’t care about the monthly sales figures, there’s a solid chance that your audience won’t either. So how can you spice things up and present it all in a better way?

Also, a little tip someone told me: know your opening off by heart. It takes the pressure off and gets you into the flow.

5. Fail. And fail again.

I always have moments where my mind goes blank. Sometimes clickers don’t work, and slides fail to load. Maybe you forgot a critical point, or a question at the end completely stumped you.

That’s okay.

I admire people so much more when they get up and present, fluff it up a bit in places, but keep going. I respect them even more when they get up again. And again.

The people that aren’t 100% comfortable are the people you listen to and get behind. Hating something and doing it anyway doesn’t just make you human, it makes you a hero.

Finally…

Mark Twain once said: “There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.”

It’s true. Everyone gets butterflies before a big event, but that shouldn’t stop you. Even the people who appear fearless at presenting, who get up without a sweat, might not be as confident as we think.

I’ll never like public speaking. I’ll never jump for joy at the thought of doing a presentation in front of lots of people. And I’m certainly not the best among my peers.

However, if I stopped doing it, I know I'd slip straight back into old habits - hiding in the corners and never raising my hand.

So, I do it. And so should you.