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How to overcome a fear of public speaking

5 minute read
Person giving a presentation

It can be scary to speak in front of a group. But there are ways to deal with your anxiety and stay calm when you’re the center of attention. 

Kate Rockwood

By Kate Rockwood

It’s the day of your big presentation and you’re a mess. Your palms are sweaty, your heart is racing and you’ve got a pit in your stomach. You absolutely hate public speaking — and you’re not the only one.

Even practiced speakers get nervous before speaking to a group. But for some, that nervousness is more severe. It’s estimated that between 21% and 33% of people have public speaking anxiety, says Simon Rego, PsyD. He’s the chief of psychology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Also known as glossophia, it is a type of social anxiety disorder.

The symptoms of a fear of public speaking are the same as the symptoms of other anxiety disorders. They include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Flushing of the face or neck
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Muscle tension
  • Trouble concentrating, or a feeling of “going blank”

What causes a fear of public speaking?

Much of the anxiety around public speaking is thought to be based in a fear of failure or a fear of rejection, says Carma Spence, author of Public Speaking Super Powers. You might worry that you’ll be judged by others in a way that will be humiliating or embarrassing.

A fear of public speaking usually starts early in life. Think back to the times you scrunched down in your chair, hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on you in class. A negative experience at that age can leave a bad taste in your mouth about public speaking later in life.

If you don’t do something to get over it, that fear can stay with you into adulthood.

The anxiety you feel causes a real physical response. Your body releases hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, that can make your muscles tense up and increase your breathing and heart rate. This response is helpful in truly dangerous situations, such as if you need to get out of the way of a speeding car. But it isn’t helpful in situations that are merely stressful, such as public speaking.

Tips to battle your anxiety

Getting nervous before you have to speak in public is perfectly normal — partly because public speaking isn’t all that normal.

“Standing on stage alone and doing anything is not natural,” says Spence. “Even pros who speak regularly will be nervous now and again.”

The good news: There are steps you can take to ease your fear of public speaking. Get started here.

1. Face your fears head-on
It can be tempting to simply dodge situations in which you’ll have to speak in front of a crowd. But while avoidance can feel good in the short term, it makes your anxiety worse over time, Rego says.

The better solution is to do the thing that scares you. That doesn’t mean you should sign up to be a keynote speaker for a crowd of thousands. Slow, gradual exposure is best. “Stretch yourself by doing something just outside your comfort zone until you’re comfortable, and then do it again,” Spence says.

If you’re nervous speaking to a group, start with your mirror. Then work your way up to friends and family.

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2. Practice, practice, practice
In this case, practice doesn’t make perfect — but it does make you more confident. When you feel more comfortable, the situation feels more familiar. Practice what you need to say out loud. And know that you don’t have to memorize every word of your speech. Just get familiar with the main points ahead of time.

If possible, visit the space where you’ll be speaking to familiarize yourself with the room and better envision what it will be like to speak on that day.

3. Challenge your worries
Just as gradually exposing yourself to public speaking can help you get over your fear, facing your fears head-on can make them seem smaller. Part of dealing with anxiety is “learning to catch, challenge and change your negative thoughts,” Rego says.

Ask yourself: “What’s the worst that could happen?” Then think about likely outcomes and potential solutions. For example, if you’re worried you might freeze during a speech, walk through what you would do in that situation to get yourself back on track.

4. Take deep breaths
Numerous studies have shown that doing some deep breathing before you speak can calm your body and mind.

Here’s how to do it: Get comfortable in a chair. Relax the muscles of your shoulders, head and neck. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other below your rib cage. Breathe in slowly through your nose, and feel your stomach moving against your hand. Next, tighten your stomach muscles and exhale so that your belly moves back in, breathing out through your mouth, through pursed lips. (Learn more about mindful breathing.)

5. Speak slowly
When we’re nervous, we tend to speak faster. Slow down and give yourself time for short silences in which you can take a breath.

6. Get some support
You may be able to get over your fear of public speaking all on your own. But there’s nothing wrong with needing some extra support. If public speaking is something you need to do regularly, you might consider joining an organization such as Toastmasters International, a group that teaches public speaking and leadership skills.

You could also talk to a therapist about your fears. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common method used to ease public speaking fears, Rego says. This type of talk therapy helps you focus on the present (instead of the past), and it helps you learn to recognize and challenge negative thoughts. Your healthcare provider can refer you to a therapist.

Public speaking might come more naturally to some people, but remember that it’s also a skill. And like other skills, it can be practiced and improved.

Do you need to see a doctor? You can schedule a virtual visit today — no insurance required. Start here.

Additional sources
Study on the benefits of deep breathing: Frontiers in Psychology (2017). “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults”
Deep breathing exercises: Cleveland Clinic (2022): "Diaphragmatic Breathing”