We've all been there: nervously awaiting your turn to get up and speak. Your mind is racing at a thousand miles an hour, your palms are clammy - and all of a sudden… you've forgotten your entire speech. If you can relate to this, chances are you've got glossophobia - the fear of public speaking.
Glossophobia - or speech anxiety - is one of our most common fears, with research suggesting it affects up to three quarters of the population. It can occur for a variety of reasons and is generally considered to be associated with social anxiety disorder.
When asking people why they are so scared of speaking in public, the most common responses tend to be 'I don't like being watched', 'so many things can go wrong' and 'I don't like being in the spotlight'.
While many believe these responses are the result of our environment or upbringing, it is often argued that glossophobia can be ascribed to our amygdala hijacking control, i.e. the part of the brain responsible for survival instincts. Prehistorically, humans perceived people watching them as danger or a threat - they were constantly terrified of being killed by a predator. This would trigger the amygdala, leaving people in states of extreme stress and anxiety. Public speaking works the same way: we see lots of eyes staring at us, which sends signals to the amygdala, causing us to panic and have a mental blank.
Having always been terrified of public speaking and acknowledging that it's an essential skill to master, I took it upon myself to practice every day to finally overcome my fear. This blog will share what I believe helped me overcome my fear - and hopefully provide top tips for how to succeed at public speaking.
What I have learnt
Practice and prepare
This may seem obvious, but it's the most important tip. If you don't know your material, you are setting yourself up for failure, as you are more likely to forget your words on delivery. Once you know the material inside out, it is time to start practicing on friends and family.
As you get more comfortable, you can gradually start to increase the size of the group you are speaking to. The best way to perform in a stressful situation is to immerse yourself in a similar situation to that which you will be performing on the day - and eventually that fear will disappear. Organisations such as Toastmasters and meetup.com have groups all over the country specifically for this.
Also, write and learn a strong opening line. Starting with confidence will help you get past the first barrier much more easily. Whether its welcoming the audience, stating the objective of the presentation in a company meeting or introducing yourself, a clear opening line that you can deliver without reading or hesitating will capture your audience and help you relax.
Don't ignore the audience
When speaking in public, nervous people tend to stare at their prompt cards or rapidly scan the audience from left to right, instead of making eye contact. Eye contact is considered one of the most important elements of public speaking as it provides a way of connecting with your audience. By focusing on one person at a time, you make each person feel involved and interested.
In addition, with no audience connection you can easily become lost in your own thoughts and start doubting yourself, as you are unable to gauge audience reactions. Research suggests that humans are attracted to attention. In other words, the rest of the audience will notice when you look someone in the eye, because subconsciously, they will be hoping you pay attention to them next.
Turn fear and anxiety into positive energy
Every time I've had to speak in front of a crowd, I'd always have the same symptoms: a pounding heart and a shortness of breath. It seems that your body reacts to fear and anxiety in the same way, but the way you handle it can make a big difference.
Instead of allowing these symptoms to overwhelm you, it is good practice to redirect this energy into something positive that you can use to your advantage. For example, when your heart starts pounding (due to the body releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream) try to channel it positively, as your body's ability to obtain a surge of energy and strength to help drive yourself forward.
Refocus your brain
It's entirely normal to become overwhelmed when speaking in front of people, or to lose your train of thought and hurry through your speech. Therefore, it's a good idea to refocus your brain right before you start. Om other words: tell your brain that the presentation is about the audience and not yourself. Stress the simplicity of what you're about to do - talk about a subject you know inside out.
It's also good practice not to overly focusing on trying to 'keep yourself together'. By doing this, you take emphasis away from the speech, increasing the chance of forgetting what you are talking about. Lastly, keep reminding yourself to talk slower - nervous people tend to rush through their speech which interferes with their breathing and creates a barrier between them and their audience. This, in turn, heightens their fear.
We all know how daunting public speaking can be, especially for people who aren't used to presenting in front of large audiences. However, by forcing yourself to participate and practicing regularly this fear will recede. These four tips should provide a good starting point for anyone looking to master the skill of speaking well in front of a group.
*Interested in finding out more top tips? Head over to the 12 days of Christmas challenge*