How to hack your public speaking fears
I learned public speaking from the worst person ever—my 5th-grade teacher, Mr. Gramarchek. He was the kind of dude who terrorized little kids, and made them cry almost daily. One day in class, our assignment was to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the class. I was terrified—mostly of Mr. Gramarchek—and about to pee my pants.
But it was because he was so scary that the most important lesson he taught me actually stuck. At the start of the class he said one thing: “Remember, kids, if you feel nervous inside, just let that nervousness out. Just speak a little louder, be a little bit more animated. Just take that energy and just let it out.”
Something in me clicked. When I stood up in front of the class, I practically screamed out my poem. All that anxiety and all that nervous energy was suddenly transformed into sheer confidence. It was like my veins were filled with fire.
For me, the realization that changed everything was that it’s okay to be nervous, and I’ve never forgotten this lesson. When people ask how I get up on stage in front of tons of people and act so confident, I tell them that it’s not that I’m not nervous. It’s that I’m harnessing my nervous energy.
Getting anxious? You can still be a champ!
Bill Russell, the professional basketball player and 11-time championship winner for the Boston Celtics, actually vomited from anxiety before 1,128 of his games. But rather than getting grossed out, his teammates actually appreciated this behavior. The team understood that this wasn’t a sign of weakness, but one of dedication and strength. They were able to realize what he couldn’t, because he was living through it.
The first step to hacking public speaking is to accept that it’s completely natural to feel nervous before standing up in front of a crowd. Everyone does. What you need to understand is why you get nervous. Most people instinctively panic as soon as they feel their palms sweating, or their heart racing. Oh shit, they think. I can’t do this, my hands are shaking, I’m going to fail. But responding to panic with panic just creates more panic.
That’s why it’s so important that the first thing you do is take a step back, and distance yourself a little from the situation. You have to identify the problem before you can master it.
Fight or flight
It's a survival instinct rooted in basic biology. We know it commonly as “fight or flight.” In moments of high stress, when we feel scared and under threat, a region of the brain called the hypothalamus sends adrenaline pouring through our glands, like a slap in the face. It’s this rush of energy that kept humans alive when we lived in a more dangerous world.
When your heart pounds and your palms go sweaty before a hugely important sales demo or keynote address, you experience that same fight or flight instinct in action—and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
Don’t cover up your nerves, or sweep them under the rug—your physiological reactions to stress and adrenaline are going to happen no matter what. By taking a step back and zooming out of the situation, you’re able to reframe the situation to your advantage. Those symptoms—the red face, the racing heart—aren’t indicators of failure, but the complete opposite.
You’re programmed to have these reactions to wake up, and rise to the challenge.
Your nerves are your best friend
Most people give into the symptoms of fear, which is what paralyzes them in front of a crowd. But once you’re able to develop some perspective and actually face your fears head-on, you transform them into a source of strength. I like to call this emotional alchemy—you’re turning shit into gold. And it starts with a decision that you make.
Stress expert Kelly McGonigall says, “Normally, we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we aren't coping very well with the pressure. But what if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge?”
The difference between excitement and fear is simply context. Our nerves are what allow us to survive. Being nervous before a big presentation isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that you’re passionate, that you’re invested, and that you care.
Make the decision to interpret your fear in a positive way. Then use this energy to supercharge your speech, presentation, or call. You tap into all the emotions and things you feel as a source of passion and conviction. This is what allows you to make your speech even more powerful, and likely to close the deal.
Here are the science-backed steps you need to take to get the crowd hanging on your every word:
- Practice body language. Before they give a presentation, most people focus on memorizing the bullet points. But research shows that “nonverbal conversation” precedes any actual words that are spoken. Because we think in gestures, and through body language, it turns out that the way we say things is often more important than what we say.
- Meditate. A University of Chicago study shows that students who spent only 10 minutes meditating before an intensive exam received almost a full grade higher than those who didn’t. When we obsessively overanalyze every move we make, we cripple our ability to perform—and a lot of times, the solution is just to stop thinking.
- Prepare yourself mentally for success. Olympic swimmers who visualize their success outperform those who spend all their time swimming laps. Do the same thing by visualizing all the times that you’ve successfully spoken in public—even if it was just in front of a couple of close friends. This allows you to get your mind in gear.
- Breathe in and out slowly. Our bodies are programmed to give us energy when we need it, but we also possess the ability to gain energy on command—by breathing. Before you give your presentation, take deep breaths. Count to 5 as you inhale, and exhale deeply over 10 seconds. Slow breathing stimulates the “parasympathetic” part of the brain and calms us down.
Fear makes you a better speaker
We need our fears and anxieties—whether we’re in 5th grade reciting poetry or giving a sales pitch in front of a bunch of suits.
As David Barlow, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, says, “Without anxiety, little would be accomplished. The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish; crops might not be planted […].This would be as deadly for the species as nuclear war.”
It’s the same for your big speech. Fear is what makes you push yourself harder to improve, and to take risks you otherwise wouldn’t. It’s what sends the adrenaline pumping through your veins, and lights a fire in you as you stand on the stage. At the end of the day, this is how you get your words to land perfectly on the mark.
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