How to Overcome Fear of Public Speaking

Overcome your fear of speaking or performing in front of an audience with these positive thoughts.

by Margaret Tang

I have spoken in public for years. For nine years, I guided groups of visitors ranging in size from one to sixty through a few museums: The Singapore Art Museum, The Asian Civilisations Museum, The Peranakan Museum and the now-defunct Singapore History Museum. I have delivered numerous training programs to colleagues and customers and made project presentations to managers. I have also emceed a conference of six hundred attendees, some dinner and dance functions and weddings. I’ve also read my short stories at literary events, among many other speaking engagements.

Even though speaking in front of an audience comes naturally to me now, there was a time when I when was afraid. I would not be able to sleep the night before. Before my presentation, my heart would thump in my chest so hard that I felt like I was going to pass out. My mouth would get dry. My hands would tremble.

What is behind the fear? Images of being laughed at and ridiculed? The gut-wrenching, face-burning feeling of humiliation? I even imagined people saying to each other: who does she think she is? How arrogant! Catastrophic thoughts like these would naturally make anyone fearful.

After all these years of speaking in front of thousands of people, I love it because I have consistently experienced my audiences’ appreciation of what I share with them. How did I get from being afraid to loving it? It begins in the mind. Replace your negative thoughts with the following positive thoughts:

1.  My audience is kind

I have spoken to thousands and I have yet to meet an unkind audience. The reality is that people are kind. Unless you at a political event or protest rally where the topic is controversial and emotions are running high, your audience is likely to be polite, even if you’re boring. Of course, if you’re going to speak in public, you should be prepared with a good presentation that’s worth listening to. Your audience would have no reason to be unkind. In fact, they would be appreciative. Think of all the times you’ve been in the audience and appreciated a talk. This brings me to my next point.

2.  I am giving value to my audience

For many years, my favourite speaking task was giving tours to visitors in the Singapore Art Museum. I am not an art expert. I made a living as an engineer but I volunteered as a docent on weekends because I love art.

At the start of each tour, I would notice that many in the group looked intimidated. (It’s a strange phenomenon: lots of people don’t understand expensive art and it seems to make them afraid to look like fools.) Some were dedicated parents who felt obligated to expose their children to art, even though they didn’t appreciate art themselves. Others were tourists who felt that visiting the museum was a necessary holiday to-do. At the end of each tour, there was always a smile on their faces, a sparkle in their eyes and enthusiastic applause. It was no longer an intimidating mystery to them. I knew that I had opened the door to the world of art for them and in doing so, introduced them to new possibilities.

When you speak or perform, you are putting value into the world. People benefit from that value.

3.  I don’t have to be an expert

That’s right. You don’t have to be an expert to make a public presentation. You just need to know what you’ve chosen to talk about. As long as your audience goes away with some new knowledge or experience, they’ll be happy. If you can’t answer a question, acknowledge the asker, admit you don’t know and learn the answer for your next talk. Even experts don’t know everything. Here’s some statements you can say:

  • That’s a good question. I’ll have to look it up/ think about it.
  • That’s very insightful of you. I did not think of it. That’s something that I will consider adding to my research/presentation.

Also, don’t be afraid of someone in your audience who does know more than you (I once had a Western Art professor on my tour of South-east Asian Art). Think of each encounter as a conversation of mutual benefit. You can say:

  • Thank you for telling me that. I learned something new today.

4.  My audience won’t know if I forget a point

It is necessary to rehearse your talk. It’s normal to worry that you’ll forget some part of it. And sometimes you really do forget. I have, more than once, actually. But my audience never knew what I was originally planning to say.

In fact, sometimes I deliberately reorganised my talking points while presenting. My audience didn’t know that either.

5.  I am excited

Fun fact: the physical symptoms of fear are the same as the symptoms of excitement. The adrenaline coursing through your body is getting you ready to perform at your best. It’s the “fight or flight” hormone.  It super-charges your mind too. So, tell yourself that you’re excited. Jump up and down. Smile. Visualise a smiling audience clapping loudly for you. Embrace that adrenaline because it makes you look more alive. I’ve read that Anthony Robbins uses a trampoline backstage to ‘rev’ himself up so that he can bring energy to his performances.

I hope these tips will help you overcome your fear of public speaking. Swop out those catastrophic thoughts for positive thoughts and you may discover the pleasure of public speaking. It’s really just a conversation with some nice people.

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