Your opinion and expertise matter, so it can be frustrating when public speaking nerves leave you speechless. Maybe your heart races and you trip over your words, or you spend most of your presentation hoping no one asks questions.
Fear not. Public speaking anxiety is a common experience that impacts even the most confident people — and it’s manageable.
The intense nerves associated with public speaking aren’t reserved for being on stage in front of a large audience. Discomfort might occur during small team presentations, a sales pitch with a client, or group brainstorming sessions. The stress may be so potent that you avoid important opportunities to showcase your expertise and advance your career.
But identifying triggers and understanding your physiological response will help you overcome your anxiety. With practice and support, you’ll fearlessly share your important thoughts and opinions with others.
What’s public speaking anxiety?
Public speaking anxiety, or glossophobia, is the most common subset of social anxiety, affecting about 3–5% of the general population and 80% of people with social phobias.
Those with glossophobia feel anxiety symptoms, like a racing heartbeat and stressful thoughts, when sharing ideas or asking questions in front of others. And those who experience public speaking anxiety often feel more general performance anxiety during activities like striking up a conversation with a stranger or eating in public.
But why does public speaking cause anxiety? According to an article by the Harvard Business Review, our ancestors perceived being watched as a predatory threat, so our brains evolved to have a fight-or-flight response. This is the body’s physiological response to danger, activating the nervous system to encourage us to return to safety.
While public speaking doesn’t present real physical dangers, social anxiety can trigger your stress response. Worrying about people judging you, making a mistake, or messing up an important professional opportunity are visceral fears that send messages to the brain to seek protection.
In some cases, an acute fear can be motivating. Worrying about underperforming during a client presentation or making the right first impression at a face-to-face networking event could compel you to practice and perfect your speech.
But a chronic and debilitating fear of public speaking can disrupt your career. You may become avoidant and miss important opportunities to show off your expertise, establish your personal brand, and achieve professional development goals.
10 symptoms of public speaking anxiety
Public speaking anxiety is so all-encompassing you may not be conscientious of all the ways this type of stress affects the body. Acute anxiety symptoms are widespread and vary between people, but here are 10 common signs to be aware of:
Increased heart rate
Lack of concentration
Avoidant behaviors like social isolation
Shortness of breath
Shaky hands and legs
10 common public speaking stressors
While you might associate public speaking anxiety with delivering a Ted Talk or corporate event presentation, plenty of everyday situations can trigger your fear of performing. Here are 10 common stressors of public speaking anxiety:
Meeting new colleagues or coworkers
Sharing ideas in a brainstorming session
Giving a small presentation
Training new coworkers
Debriefing your team or managers on an ongoing project
Offering your opinion during a virtual meeting
Delivering an elevator pitch
Participating in a board meeting
Offering someone constructive criticism
How to overcome public speaking anxiety: 10 tips
Like any other challenge, thoughtful practice, care, and patience will help you approach public speaking confidently. Here are 10 tips for public speaking anxiety sufferers looking to improve.
1. Don’t expect perfection
Perfection is an unrealistic expectation that distracts from your good work and amplifies your anxiety. Instead of aiming for perfection, celebrate your improvements and seek out continuous learning opportunities. Every chance to speak in front of others is a chance to learn and grow — even if it means a few awkward pauses or stumbling over your words occasionally.
2. Be yourself
While keeping your body language and humor professional, be your most authentic self and stick with what feels comfortable. Imitating others’ speaking styles could make you overthink each gesture or appear unnatural and insincere. And the more you step into your authenticity at work, the more comfortable you’ll feel being yourself in every area of your life.
3. Remember your purpose
Whether delivering a presentation or making a sale, you’re speaking in public for a reason. Think about why you’re there — be it to share your experience or teach others — and focus on this core purpose. Doing so might get you out of your head and into the situation at hand so you can concentrate less on your anxiety symptoms and more on accomplishing your task.
4. Prepare and practice
The best way to feel comfortable speaking in front of others is to practice. Speech anxiety often focuses on the unknown, like audience questions or complex presentation materials. But subject-matter-familiarity quiets some of these questions and offers answers.
You can jot down and prepare for questions you expect or memorize your materials so they feel less overwhelming. And practicing your delivery and body language can take away the shock of talking to a group because you have less to worry about.
5. Let your coworkers know
Consider informing coworkers and managers about your stage fright so they know to support you. They might make adjustments like offering you additional notice regarding presentations they’d like you to make or taking your questions last in a meeting so you have more time to calm your nerves. And you can also ask team members for feedback and encouragement on your public speaking skills.
6. Visualize success
Use visualization, positive self-talk, and other manifestation methods to picture yourself confidently speaking in public. These positive projections can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as you do what’s necessary to make your vision a reality.
You could also try anxiety journaling to shake negative automatic thoughts and track your positive thinking progress.
7. Make eye contact
If you fear public speaking, you may instinctively avoid eye contact because it feels intimate or intimidating. But chances are everyone wants to encourage you, and you can feed off the room’s energy by looking your audience in the eye. If you see heads nodding and people paying attention, you may gain the confidence boost you need to continue nerves-free.
8. Pose for success
Standing in power poses (body postures expressing strength and assertiveness) signals to audience members that you’re confident and comfortable. And embracing these postures can make you feel that way, too.
For in-person speaking, try keeping your feet hip-distance and your shoulders back. And if you’re on a virtual call and have the option to stand, you can still carry yourself confidently to boost your own self-esteem. If you must sit, you can still hold your head high and posture straight.
9. Create a plan
Feel in charge of your public speaking journey by creating an improvement plan. Start by outlining small objectives, like starting two conversations with colleagues each week or contributing an idea at a team meeting. Then, define larger goals further down your improvement timeline, like leading a brainstorming session or training a new coworker. You could also work with a career coach to build the right plan for you and track your success.
10. Take a class
Structured learning might be the best way to reduce your public speaking anxiety and gain practice. Try asking your employer whether they subsidize professional development opportunities like a public speaking course or mentorship programs. Or invest in yourself by signing up for an after-hours class with a friend so you can hold each other accountable.
Diagnosing and treating public speaking anxiety
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, public speaking anxiety is classified as a social anxiety disorder that causes symptoms like intense distress and panic attacks. While it’s common to feel nervous in social situations, a mental health professional might diagnose someone with public speaking anxiety if that person experiences symptoms that affect their day-to-day health, like missing out on job opportunities or having to leave a meeting due to nerves.
While social anxiety may feel overwhelming, the good news is that it’s treatable. The first step is finding a diagnosis. Treatment generally begins by identifying the root cause and any related medical conditions to ensure a larger issue isn’t causing your symptoms. Then, you’ll work with your mental health professional to determine the best treatment plan. Common remedies include psychotherapy, medication, or both. In some circumstances, you may also seek the help of a support group or work with a life coach to build an action plan.
Speak with confidence
What you have to say matters, and you deserve to feel confident and comfortable when expressing yourself. While public speaking anxiety might quiet your voice, it doesn’t have to define your professional future.
Now that you have some public speaking tips for anxiety, it’s time to start working toward easing your symptoms. Depending on the severity of your nerves, consider consulting with a mental health professional, career coach, or support group. From there, you can build an appropriate plan and begin speaking — one small speech at a time — with newfound confidence.