Five Steps to Overcoming Public Speaking Nerves

by Shari Graydon

Yes, that is a scotch & soda in my right hand, but I don’t actually recommend liquid courage as a means of calming nerves. (In my defence, the glass is clearly full; I didn’t consume it until after I’d spoken at the Women in Nuclear conference. And the fork makes clear that I was holding it in order to induce the assembled audience of minglers to stop talking. Dinging a utensil against a glass is the most reliable means of arresting conversation (even if — or because — it sounds like someone is about to kiss.)

Brilliance, without the capacity to communicate it, is wasted.

I learned this in grade 10 chemistry from the intellectually-gifted, but communicationally-impaired Mr. Philipps.

Sadly, that’s about all I learned (and it wasn’t the lesson he was intending to teach).

Although my parents may have been disappointed that I dropped sciences in grade 11, I’ve never regretted the training I received in telling stories and engaging audiences.

Because the capacity to capture people’s attention and persuade from the front of a room are critical tools in changing the world. And they’re widely recognized as key career skills. Failure to master presentations – or at least develop some degree of comfort – can limit opportunities in many fields.

And yet many incredibly intelligent and accomplished people find public speaking deeply terrifying, even after they’ve done it for years.

What I hear often in workshops is that even thinking about the prospect can make hearts race, palms sweat and mouths go dry.

1. Start with your head. 

Here’s what I know to make a difference: You can’t treat the symptoms without addressing the cause. And the cause is all in your head.

This is not to minimize the palpitations or over-active sweat glands. Those fight or flight symptoms are real. But they’re triggered by a manufactured fear, not the imminence of a genuine threat to your life. (An approaching grizzly bear and a disinterested audience of your peers really should elicit different responses.)

Apocalyptic self-talk is behind why some of us experience those symptoms and some don’t. So if you’re afflicted, ask yourself if the mental chatter in the days, hours or minutes leading up to a presentation sounds anything like this:

  • These people know way more than I do; they’ll recognize me as a fraud.

  • They’re going to ask me challenging questions, and I don’t have all the answers.

  • My presentation is boring, they’ll be checking their phones within five minutes.

  • The chances of me losing my train of thought or otherwise humiliating myself are very high.

These are extremely common fears. But giving them air time constitutes exactly the kind of internal reinforcement almost guaranteed to inspire shaky hands.

So – and I know this is going to sound obnoxiously simplistic – you need to consciously substitute specific alternative chatter, appropriate to your context, because…

2. Positive self-talk is more powerful than you imagine.

Consider the following alternatives:

  • No one knows more about my project or research than I do.

  • I was asked to speak because I have something of value to share.

  • All questions are welcome; they demonstrate engagement and curiosity; I don’t need to know the answer to every one.

  • I’ve thought about what aspects of my topic will be of most interest to these people, and incorporated vivid language, telling images, relevant stories and surprising data to engage and enlighten them. 

But please note: you can’t overcome the physical symptoms – the racing heart, the sweaty palms, the dry mouth – in the 20 minutes before you speak.

You’ll want to begin your alternative self-talk as far in advance of the presentation as you can.

3. Start early; repeat often.

If you’ve spent 20 years running repetitive audio tapes in your head about how scary public speaking is, how ill-equipped you are for the task, and how badly you’re going to fail, you’ll want to take a running start at re-programming your poor brain. You don’t need the equivalent of two decades, but a month or two of chanting a new mantra every time you drive to work, step on the treadmill, or walk the dog, is probably necessary.

And while you’re doing so, it helps if you can vividly imagine yourself in the room, confident and relaxed, holding the audience spellbound.

Audience members at Rotman School of Business enjoying a debate on whether journalists should be forced to quote more women. I think the smiles were induced by my contention that we would all benefit from “a little more Lang, and a lot less O’Leary.” (And this was years before the man’s short-lived political career.)  


4. Vividly imagining your success will significantly enhance its likelihood.

Serious athletes who are too injured to train don’t log onto Netflix for the six weeks it takes them to recuperate; they do the work mentally, instead. Because research has found that our brains often can’t tell the difference between a real and vividly imagined event.

Monitors attached to athletes’ legs have found that mentally putting yourself in the starting block, hearing the gun go off and sprinting down the track to the finish line, can create an astonishing level of muscle activity that helps to speed up recovery and maintain athleticism.

My own mental rehearsal also involves imagining an engaged audience who listen attentively, appreciate my sense of humour, and leave feeling both enlightened and motivated.

5. Repetition enhances performance.

Whether you’re an aspiring Olympic skater or a high-tech titan, actual practice is also necessary. Steve Jobs rehearsed out loud, and you should, too. The first time you tell a story, describe your research or deliver your pitch won’t be nearly as clear, concise or compelling as the fifth time.

As American thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed,

“All good speakers were bad speakers first.”

Practicing your delivery in front of a supportive but candid friend (or even your smart phone on audio record) can be revelatory. The feedback helps you condense, polish and clarify. And the repetition reinforces the flow of ideas, making you more confident about your ability to deliver with the aid of a few bullets, rather than depend on an entire text.