How I overcome my fear of public speaking: 11 tips for that moment in the spotlight

8th July 2018

I’m speaking at a number of B2B marketing conferences over the next few months, including B2B Ignite this coming week. And, as is always the case with me, I’m starting to have more than a few sleepless nights.

How I overcome my fear of public speaking: 11 tips for that moment in the spotlight Photo by Molly Belle on Unsplash

I’m not a ‘natural’ on stage. I’m one of those people who is eloquent in a one-to-one or small group setting, but completely tongue-tied in more public situations. In fact, the first time I was invited to give a main stage presentation at a large marketing conference I really didn’t want to do it.

I was terrified.

But I did it anyways.


Glossophobia: fear of public speaking

Public speaking is not high on the development list for most people. Yet giving a speech or presentation in a public setting is something that most of us will either want or have to do at some point in our careers. I know people who revel in it, who love being the centre of attention, no matter whether they’re in front of a small group in a meeting room or standing before an audience of hundreds on a conference stage. Yet, no matter the size of the audience, I know many, many more people – including myself – who fear public speaking more than just about anything else. There’s even a scientific name for this fear: glossophobia, from the Greek ‘glossa’ (meaning tongue or language) and ‘phobos’ (the personification of fear in Greek mythology).

Yup, that’s me, ‘glossophobia’ personified. And it’s ironic, because I’m told that I am, in fact, a terrific speaker, even inspiring. Yet every time, stepping out on that stage is like an out-of-body experience and my mind completely blanks.

So, how do I do it?


11 Tips for public speaking

Like everything else in work and life, there are skills and habits, and little tips, that can be learned and followed to become more effective in the spotlight. These are mine:

  1. Prepare and practice, over and over again: I script all my presentations word for word. And then I practice that script again and again and again until it becomes embedded in my psyche. Scripting enables me to do 2 things – to ensure first that I’m within the time limit and second that I cover everything I want to say in the way I want to say it. I practice out loud and in front of a mirror, mentally visualising being on stage until the script comes naturally – almost like muscle-memory but for the mind – so that it sounds like I’m speaking extemporaneously.
  2. Keep your slides simple: your slide deck is not your script! Images enhance a great story so think about how each slide illustrates what you’re talking about. And if you have so much text and/or other elements on your slide that the audience can’t read it, don’t use it!
  3. Check your notes and equipment: I still bring my script with me, with pages numbered and important points highlighted, even though I rarely refer to them anymore. I’ve also just found a teleprompter app for my phone which I may try. I visit the room where I’m presenting beforehand to check my slides and accompanying technology to make sure everything’s working. I walk onto the stage and think about where and how I’ll walk and stand. I also walk around the room to see what the stage looks like from the audience perspective. This all ensures that I’m comfortable with the room and not worrying about equipment working properly or that I’m forgetting something when I should be concentrating on relaxing.
  4. It’s not about you: my pet-peeve are those speakers who use the first 5-10 minutes of their presentations talking about themselves and what they or their organisations do. From an audience perspective, I don’t care about you, I care about what you say, relative to the topic your presentation is about. I’ve already read your bio in the speaker programme, and it’s likely you’ll be introduced before you walk on stage. Why would your audience want to hear all about you again?
  5. Start strong with a ‘grabber’: you need to grab your audience from the very first moments. A personal story, a quote from an expert, or a surprising statistic – something that takes hold of your audience, gets them hooked with your first words and opens their minds to your message. I often start with a video but it needs to be short, compelling and relevant so that it acts as an introduction to the story you’re telling.
  6. Speak slowly and take your time: Mark Twain said ‘There are two types of speakers: those who get nervous and those who are liars’. I’m always nervous! My nerves most often manifest as rushing straight into a presentation and speaking too fast. You can never speak too slowly, especially if you’re speaking in another country where your language may be the audience’s second language. Use pauses for emphasis and don’t be afraid to stop and have a sip of water. See point #1: practice will help you find and embed your speaking rhythm.
  7. Dress sensibly: it’s hot on stage, under the lights, and combined with nerves, you’ll probably sweat more than usual. I’ve found I’m most comfortable in looser-fitting, lighter-coloured clothing. But be sure to wear something that makes you feel good about yourself. Your confidence will soar if you think you look fabulous. And, though I’ve seen advice to the contrary, I never wear killer heels; they affect your posture, inhibit your movement on stage and distract you if they’re uncomfortable.
  8. Keep your energy level high: many speakers walk around on stage to keep their energy levels up. But don’t pace!  I personally find it extremely irritating when speakers continuously walk back and forth across the stage. I would much rather watch and listen to a speaker who stands at a podium, as long as their energy level remains high. Use gestures to emphasise key points, modulate your voice and above all, smile! If you look like you’re having a good time up there, your audience will enjoy listening.
  9. Make it personal: I try to make eye contact with individuals in the audience, looking directly at a specific person for an entire sentence or idea. This not only creates a connection with an individual, but the entire audience can feel it too. I find it really energising when I see people furiously scribbling notes or nodding their heads. It then looks like you’re having a conversation with the audience, speaking with them instead of at them. Furthermore, contrary to what most people think, continually looking at a point in the distance or panning across the room actually disconnects you from the audience.
  10. Never apologise: An apology will only draw attention to something that your audience probably hasn’t even noticed.
  11. Say Thank You when you’re done: I’m often astounded by how many speakers end their presentations awkwardly with something like ‘So, that’s it’ and look to the host to ‘end’ the session. This is usually down to nerves again, relief that it’s over and a desire to get off stage. But your audience has given you their time and attention. Acknowledging this with a simple thank you and a smile is not only right, your audience will feel appreciated!

I still haven’t learned to actually love public speaking, but the more I do it, the better I become.

I think there’s a life lesson in that.


This post is an update to the original 10 Tips for the Terrified, published in June 2017

I’m speaking at B2B Ignite on Tuesday, 10th July at the Business Design Centre in Islington, London and at the PM Forum Annual Conference on Thursday, 27th September at the Congress Centre in London. Stay tuned for more events and dates!

Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.

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