The vast majority of people don’t like public speaking. This discomfort often stems from speaking in front of large forums or being up on a stage. In other words, being the centre of attention.

Fear of public speaking can be a vicious cycle. For example, if a person has a fear of public speaking, they experience bad nerves before and during their presentation. This reinforces their fear of public speaking. Naturally, the next time they have to deliver a presentation, the anxiety has increased and so the downward spiral continues.

Feeling nervous is our biological flight or fight response kicking in. As soon as we feel threatened, our body releases a surge of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which helps us either stay and fight or flee.

A certain level of these stress hormones can be advantageous, even in public speaking because they bring energy and excitement to the presentation. However, too much adrenaline and anxiety can dry up the throat and mouth, increase the heart rate, and make us sweat and look flushed. It can also result in muscle-twitching, the shaking that people often associate with nerves.

While we can’t completely eliminate the release of these stress hormones, nor would we want to, we can use the following five tips to help control fear and speak in public with confidence.

  1. Awareness and acceptance. The very first step is awareness and acceptance of your nerves. It is important to accept that you are going to feel nervous and know that it is an inbuilt system experienced by the vast majority of people.

    Even the presenters you judge to be extremely confident experience nerves. This acceptance serves as a circuit-breaker to negative talk and allows you to take action with the following tips.

  2. Deep breathing. Breathing might seem obvious, but it is amazing how many people simply stop breathing when they panic, then breathe shallowly and too quickly. Deep, controlled breathing can really help with nerves. It physically sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax.

    It’s important to start early with your deep-breathing routine. As soon as you experience the first symptoms of anxiety, breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and finally breathe out for another four seconds.

  3. Get physical. Like breathing, getting physical before a public speaking event can reduce those annoying stress hormones. Even the smallest amount of physical activity can help reduce anxiety.

    This may be a brisk walk, or even a few quick dance moves backstage. So find a way to get physical, even a little bit of movement such as adopting the so-called Amy Cuddy ‘power pose’ before you have to speak.

  4. Visualise success. Physiologist Edmund Jacobson’s research into professional athletes showed that when they visualised specific activities, the muscles in their bodies subtly moved, as if they were actually performing that movement. The research showed that a person who consistently visualised a certain physical skill develops ‘muscle memory’, which helps boost performance.

    Visualising success works because the brain cannot distinguish between reality and imagination. After you have visualised something in detail, when you actually encounter the real situation your mind feels like it has done the action before.

  5. Choose clothes for confidence. When it comes to public speaking, I believe it is important to wear clothes that you feel confident in. Choosing clothes that make you feel good will help boost your confidence and this has a flow-on effect to how you perform onstage. Of course, you still need to consider the dress code but if you don’t feel confident in an outfit, don’t wear it.

Public speaking is a necessity for most management roles, especially as you progress into senior leadership positions. Learning to control the nerves with these tips will help reduce your fear of public speaking over time – even to the point that you might enjoy it!