The fear of speaking in public is widespread.
It’s estimated that 80% of adults feel nerves when delivering a speech.
For another 10% of people, this becomes a full-blown fear that causes extreme anxiety whenever they communicate in public.
While a normal amount of nerves is nothing to worry about, this stress-response can impede our performance when it becomes too trigger-happy.
The last thing you need is your fight/flight/freeze response kicking into overdrive the moment you’re asked to “stand and say a few words”.
The most powerful and permanent way to reduce these fears is through practice, training and exposure. Which is why attending a public speaking course can be so transformative for anxious speakers.
But besides “facing your fears”, there are other – more unconventional – ways to feel resilient when you’re in the spotlight.
Read on for my 6 ways to reduce public speaking anxiety and become a master of staying cool under pressure.
Each of these methods has been studied scientifically, and each of them I’ve personally tried.
Try Meditation to find more calmness when communicating.
There are many different types of meditation with a variety of uses. Some focus on the breath, a mantra, the outside world, or the inner feelings of the body. But all forms of meditation circle around the same common objective:
Calming the mind, relaxing the body, and developing self-awareness. In our modern world where stressors are everywhere and moments of calm are rare, most of us need this more than ever.
Meditation has been shown to have a strong effect on mood, energy and focus. It can reduce levels of cortisol and adrenaline, decreasing feelings of stress. It’s even been shown to reduce the size of the Amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear response.
For anxious speakers, building a meditation practice can offer a profound way to gradually bring down the baseline of your stress-response. Giving you more control over your fear, and a greater capacity to face high-pressure situations such as pitching or presenting.
As a long-term strategy for anxious speakers, meditation could be a truly transformative habit to begin learning.
The question you might ask is: if meditation is so powerful, why isn’t everyone doing it?
One major roadblock most people face is simply having discipline and consistency. It’s incredibly easy to “not” meditate – as I’ve discovered while trying to build the habit.
I found meditation apps such as Calm helpful to get started; and recently have found Brahma Kumaris, an organisation where you can attend free meditation courses.
Use Cold Showers to build unbeatable stress-resilience.
Looking for the ultimate ‘comfort-zone challenge’?
Look no further than cold shower therapy!
The idea of therapeutic cold exposure has built a huge following. With teachers such as Wim Hof showing we’ve seriously underestimated the limits of human endurance.
All of this buzz has also attracted the scientific spotlight, and cold exposure is being proven to have powerful therapeutic effects on body and mind.
Amongst many things, it can help to boost metabolism, generate more healthy “brown fat”, improve our temperature regulation, and dramatically increase levels of dopamine – which has huge potential for treating things such as depression.
Perhaps not surprisingly, cold water therapy also has a powerful effect on stress-resilience.
I can tell you from personal experience, jumping into a freezing cold shower feels plenty stressful. In fact, it’s a very similar experience to speaking in public while having anxiety.
Your heart rate rises dramatically, breathing quickens, and the fight/flight/freeze response of the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive.
Taking regular cold showers can teach us to accept these bodily reactions. To become comfortable with them, and to remain calm even as your nervous system is screaming “get out, get out!”
Developing this controlled calm response with cold showers, can also help us to deal with the stress of speaking in public.
Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the rush of adrenaline when faced with an audience, we can learn to more effectively regulate these feelings and stay in control.
If you want to handle stressful situations with more confidence and control, cold water therapy offers an immediate (and very real) way of practising this skill.
Even for particularly nervous speakers, that big presentation will feel far less scary after you’ve already faced the monumental challenge of two minutes in a freezing cold shower!
When I began experimenting with cold showers, I started by turning the shower down to 20 degrees for 1 minute. Then gradually built up my endurance (and courage) to reduce the temperature down to zero for 1-2 minutes. Eventually I built up to a 3 minute open water dip in February!
It’s easy to over-do cold exposure and put your body into shock, so please be cautious and always ease yourself into the process gradually.
Cold showers are something I come back to repeatedly when I want to feel more active and resilient. It’s something I’d definitely recommend trying for at least a week!
Speech to deliver? Breakfast like a King.
You may have heard the saying:
“Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper”.
There’s often more truth that we realise in such old sayings – and when it comes to reducing your fear of public speaking, this one could actually help.
There are many symptoms we associate with public speaking anxiety. You might experience a dry mouth, fast heartbeat or shaky hands. Most of these are caused by the elevated stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.
It makes sense that if these hormones are already high before we engage in a stressful situation – it’s likely to be even worse.
Vice-versa, if we can keep our stress levels lower beforehand, we have a greater ability to face such stressful situations without being overwhelmed.
So where does breakfast come in?
It turns out eating a large meal at the start of the day helps to keep these stress hormones low. Having a large breakfast increases our metabolism and stimulates the ‘rest and digest’ system which keeps our stress hormones in check.
So eating a large breakfast with plenty of carbohydrates, fats and proteins could be an effective way to decrease your overall stress levels through the day.
Furthermore, increased stress generally means increased calorie requirements, so when we’re faced with something particularly challenging (such as delivering an important presentation) we need even more calories than usual.
I’ll leave the question of “what” to eat, up to you.
But experience is the mother of wisdom, so try experimenting with different breakfast meals and see what has the best effect on your mood.
But whatever you do, never deliver a speech on an empty stomach!
Counting chimneys to develop your self-confidence.
Here’s an interesting story of a man visiting a psychologist.
The man is suffering with general anxiety and low confidence. He visits the psychologist and describes his problems: “I’m always lacking self-confidence, and never feel self-assured”.
Rather than prescribing medication or delving into his childhood, the psychology asks the man to follow a simple direction:
“For the next week, whenever you’re walking outside – I want you to count as a many chimneys as you can see”
It sounds like an excerpt from a Charles Dickens story, but stay with me…
For the next week the man counts all the chimneys he can see as he’s walking to and from various places. When he returns to the psychologist he tells him, “It’s strange, but I do feel more confident in myself, more assured”.
Is there something we’re missing about chimneys?!
Not exactly – the man began to feel more confident not because he was counting chimneys, but because doing so forced him to stand up straighter, and look up ahead rather than down at the floor.
In other words, correct posture leads to increased confidence.
Standing up tall, keeping your shoulders back, looking people in the eye. These things may sound cliche, but are massively overlooked when it comes to dealing with anxiety.
Making a habit of carrying yourself confidently will absolutely lead you to feeling more self-assured.
That’s because our body language is a two-way street; not only influencing how other people perceive us, but also how we perceive ourselves.
So stand up straight, walk with your head held high, and if need be start your own chimney counting habit.
When you carry yourself with confidence in day-to-day life, a portion of that confidence is carried over into situations when you need it most.
If you live in the city, chimneys can be hard to spot. Another similar trick is to associate all doorways with standing up tall. Every time you walk through a door, let it be a reminder to correct your posture and hold yourself more confidently. You’ll typically end up doing this 10-20 times a day, and quickly build the habit.
Use scientific sleep to avoid the 'cortisol spike' and lower anxiety.
If you’re anxious about delivering a speech, the chances are you’ll spend the whole night before wide awake worrying about it.
There’s not always much we can do about that, but getting good sleep in general can help to reduce your stress and anxiety.
Sleep is governed by our circadian rhythm, the body’s in-built system to make us sleep at night and wake in the morning.
An interesting aspect of our circadian rhythm is the so-called “cortisol spike” or CAR (cortisol awakening response). This timed spike of cortisol is released just as we wake up, to help us feel alert in the morning.
But with modern life, many of us have fallen out with our natural sleep and wake cycle. We stay up later and later, kept alert by bright screens and artificial light.
The later we stay up at night, the later we tend to rise in the morning. Over time, this can lead to our morning cortisol spike occurring later in the day.
If it gets pushed back late enough, it can mean that during our typical working hours we’re experiencing a heavy spike of cortisol (meant to wake us up first thing!).
If you’re someone who’s already nervous when speaking in public or communicating with others, this extra spike of cortisol could be adding fuel to the fire.
In fact, it’s been shown that poor sleep habits leading to a delayed cortisol spike can result in increased levels of anxiety and depression. As well as the opposite effect happening when people sleep and wake earlier in the day.
The basic take-away is that staying up late and over-sleeping can contribute to increased levels of anxiety.
So developing a healthy sleep routine which includes rising early in the morning, could be an effective long-term approach to reducing the fear of public speaking – and anxiety more generally.
I’ve always been a night owl and believe this likely contributed to my own anxiety earlier in life. One aspect of the circadian rhythm I didnt mention is light. Specifically, it’s vital to get sunlight in your eyes prior to 10am, which “sets” your internal bodyclock to get sleepy roughly 12 hours later. For further reading I recommend this article.
Swap your caffeine for chamomile to stay calm under pressure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a three-coffees a day guy.
Give me a latte in the morning, and it’s already a good day.
But if I’m facing a particularly stressful situation, I’ll limit my caffeine use beforehand. One with breakfast is usually fine, but over-do it and you risk getting the ‘jitters’ when you least want them.
If you’re sensitive to caffeine you might want to be even more careful. But rather than going without your favourite hot drink, a better option is to swap it out for something a little different.
Chamomile has historically been known for its calming effects. Now studies have backed this up and shown it has a small but significant effect on lowering anxiety.
It’s thought this is caused by chamomile’s ability to increase GABA, a neurotransmitter which reduces excitability and makes us feel more relaxed.
While the effects of chamomile are only moderate, it can be a great tool to use alongside other stress-reducing techniques.
So opting for a cup of chamomile before speaking in public could help to curb your stress, and keep you focused. It’ll also keep you hydrated too!
I’ve actually grown very fond of a daily cup of chamomile. As well as using it to reduce stress throughout the day, I like having it as a bedtime drink – helping you to have a restful night’s sleep (and improve point 6).
Build up to your speech with a simple "hello!"
Picture the scene:
You have a big presentation to deliver that you’ve been dreading all week.
As you make your commute to work, your feelings of anxiety begin to creep up. You feel self-conscious. Worrying about how you look, and looking down at your feet (or your phone) so as not to make eye-contact with the outside world.
It feels easier to close yourself off, but it’s building up your nervousness even more. You arrive feeling agitated, stressed and “stuck in your head” – with the thought of delivering a presentation now scarier than ever!
If that sounds relatable, perhaps this final unconventional approach to public speaking anxiety could help.
Let’s re-play the scene:
This time you leave the house for work, pausing to take a slow deep breath and calm yourself. As you walk along the street, you make a conscious effort to look up at other people. When someone makes eye-contact, you smile and say “hello!”.
Not everyone responds, but when people do it you immediately realise “people aren’t that scary – duh!”. With each small hello you begin to smile and relax, breathe more deeply, and walk with more confidence.
As you arrive at work, you make another conscious effort to say “good morning!” to any colleagues you pass. With every interaction, you gain positive energy that seems to compound.
By the time your speech comes, you’re feeling far less self-conscious. More externally focused, and more attentive to other people than to your own internal dialogue.
This simple strategy of being more outwardly friendly and communicative can be incredibly powerful.
By purposefully coming “out of your shell” in many small ways throughout the day, it becomes much easier to do so in a “big way” such as speaking in public.
It’s all too easy to distance ourselves from others when we’re feeling worried, stressed or anxious – but by consciously doing the opposite, we can alleviate some of those negative feelings.
Try this habit of saying hello to people as you commute to work, and notice how it shifts your attention into a more proactive and self-confident state.
I’m not aware of any specific studies behind this idea, but on a personal level you can tell it works almost immediately. If you’re naturally shy, it’s the perfect way to come “out of your shell”. As a bonus, you’ll make other people feel more happy and noticed too.
Try these unconventional ways to overcome your fear of public speaking.
As I mentioned at the start, there’s no substitute for real-life experience and training.
The most powerful thing I ever did to develop my confidence when public speaking, was go and speak in public. So if you haven’t already, find a course, a mentor or any opportunity you can to begin facing your fears in a controlled way.
But while you’re on the journey, all of these unconventional methods can make life easier, and perhaps speed up the process.
Which unconventional methods have you found helpful?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Feel free to email, or message me on LinkedIn.
Here’s to a calmer, more confident you.
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