How to reduce a fear of speaking in public

A recent survey ranks fear of public speaking higher than death, if you are in that category you are in good company, but there is also a lot you can do to reduce and manage any nerves you have, says Annmarie O’Connor

How to reduce a fear of speaking in public

IT’S not often that I am at a loss for words. Speechlessness is an occupational hazard for a media professional, so I always carry some spare colloquial change should I be caught short. Handy when faced with the enormity of delivering my first TEDx talk.

Of course, the very moment I could have used the dig-out, my mental pockets were empty. I stood there looking like I had been slapped in the gob with a mouldy turnip.

Crickets. Tumbleweed. Radio silence.

Thankfully, I was rehearsing in front of the mirror and not the 200-strong Dublin audience for which I was preparing. That said, the possibility that it could happen again ignited my fears which were, at this stage, drunk on a heady cocktail of adrenaline and heckling me for not using slides or speaker notes. Cue: dry mouth, heart palpitations and cold sweats.

At least I wasn’t alone. Glossophobia, also known as the fear of public speaking, is more than a snazzy sobriquet; it’s an equal opportunities employer. Well-known figures like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Laurence Olivier, Mahatma Gandhi and Adele have all faced and fought the angst of addressing a crowd.

In fact, a recent survey ranks the fear of public speaking higher than death; yet it is something we all have to do at some stage, whether delivering a work presentation, a wedding toast or, in my case, a 13-minute speech about finding satisfaction which would potentially be viewed by tens of thousands of people online. The struggle, folks, is real..

Formidable reputation aside, public speaking is hardly a life-threatening scenario. So, why the steely panic?

Let’s start with the nervous system. In short, it could use a 2.0 update. Here’s why: When faced with imminent danger, the body releases adrenaline to drive its ‘fight-or- flight’ response.

Like many evolutionary coping mechanisms, this may have been a viable survival strategy for our cave-dwelling ancestors when outrunning a sabre-toothed tiger.

The problem? We’re not exactly legging it across the Serengeti anymore, which means the cascade of symptoms (increased heart rate, breathing and blood pressure), designed to improve one’s chances of survival, can feel like a fate worse than death, even if that fate simply involves presenting the Q2 marketing report.

Physical threats of yore (not eating; being eaten), have morphed into equally imminent emotional fears with perceived social exclusion (the equivalent of being mauled by a predator), keeping speakers in a state of high alert.

Combine this prehistoric predilection with the prospect of letting others down, or worse, being publicly shamed on social media, is enough to prevent us ever opening our mouths.

The good news? This surge in energy can actually serve us well, provided we can manage our state and reframe the feeling of fight-or-flight into address-and- impress.

Here’s how...


Business magnate Richard Branson uses mind games to quell his nerves when speaking to a large group. His favourite? Imagining he’s speaking to friends in his living room.

Anytime I felt butterflies rise in my body, I apply a similar tactic by visualising them exploding from my body like a rainbow and disappearing into the ether. Butterflies no more.

Short is sweet

Mahatma Gandhi suffered frequent panic attacks which affected his career as a young barrister. Bolstered by a passion to see India free from British rule, he worked with his anxiety by constructing meaningful, succinct statements to deliver his message.

Similarly, the 18-minute TED talk rule has helped speakers craft pithier pitches that get to the heart of the matter and the attention span of the audience.

Remember to laugh

Singer Adele, known for her powerhouse vocals, admits to being so frightened once she vomited on an audience member at a concert. To cope with nerves, she tells jokes, something which creates empathy and connection, especially when feeling vulnerable.

A small microphone glitch during my TEDx talk required me to start again after having delivered my opening gambit. I made it into a joke and the audience laughed with me which released the pressure and set a more memorable tone.

Set your sights

It’s very easy to misinterpret audience expressions such as yawning or looking bored. It’s even easier to self-sabotage by allowing non-verbal cues to mess with your message.

Top tip? Find a focal point before you take to the stage — a friendly face, a spot on the wall, whatever keeps you calm. Actor Laurence Olivier famously asked Iago to stay in sight when delivering his Othello soliloquies; while also asking other actors not to look him in the eye. Unorthodox, perhaps? Either way, he delivered.

Practice, practice, practice

Apple entrepreneur Steve Jobs is still lauded for his captivating public speaking style.

His secret? Rehearsal. Rehearsal. Rehearsal. Follow his legendary lead by preparing well in advance with mock audiences and continual adjustments. Handy hack?

Video your speech at every rehearsal or, better yet, in front of family and friends. Use the feedback to improve tone and pace and to tweak physical ticks like rogue hand gestures. No one wants to look like Dave the Rave — not in a management meeting or while reciting a eulogy.

As for me? I successfully delivered my talk despite a mini mind-blank, mid-flow which nobody appeared to notice. That’s the kicker. Despite the nerves, nausea and bargaining with God, research proves that people will forget half of what you said within ten minutes of having said it.

So, if you do ever find yourself at a loss for words, fear not. It’ll be like it almost never happened.

More in this section


Join us for our International Women’s Day virtual lunchtime celebration on Monday, March 8 from 1pm


Have the Irish Examiner delivered to your door. No delivery charge. Just pay the cover price.