Overcoming your FEAR of Public Speaking

March 5, 2018

Palms sweaty, heart racing, hands trembling, legs shaking, knees rattling … you know the feeling! Whether it’s five people, fifteen or fifty, public speaking is a gut-wrenching experience for most of us. You have forgotten what you were supposed to be saying and you are drenched in a hot anxiety that everything is about to go pear-shaped.

Glossophobia or fear of public speaking is one of the most common phobias, with around 75% of people suffering from various forms of this phobia and 10% of them genuinely terrified. You may have heard the joke that some people would prefer to be in their own coffins than give a eulogy at a funeral. While this may be an exaggeration, many would agree. The average person ranks the fear of public speaking above death. If the thought of public speaking makes you break into a cold sweat, you’re not alone.

The first thing to realise is that if you plan on living a successful life, you're going to have to speak in public. And you're going to have to do it a lot.

The fear may happen in the classroom where the student prays that the teacher doesn’t call on him/her to answer a question. It can happen in the workplace where the manager experiences panic attacks at the thought of making a presentation to his/her superiors. It can happen at home where the jobseeker becomes emotionally distraught before going to a job interview. It can happen at a party where the possibility of meeting someone new is curtailed by butterflies in the stomach. It may happen 35,000 feet above the earth, where pilots and cabin crew feeling intensely uncomfortable having to make announcements to passengers during a flight.

With fear everywhere, I thought it apt to rip the dreaded four-letter-word FEAR and find out ways to manage it.

F - First of all START SMALL

If you're new to the world of public speaking, start small! Begin voicing your ideas in meetings or while in conversations with acquaintances. Introduce yourself to someone in a party and have a chat. Attend sessions. Begin by speaking to smaller groups and build up from there. You might be embarrassed, or disheartened by the experience. But no matter what, if you do it you will subtly gain more confidence.

As a start-up, rehearsing your speeches alone in a room, delivering them solo would help. Practice in front of a mirror. Grab a friend or a family member and practice in front of them. Practice in front of a small group. In a small group, you can see everyone’s facial expressions and feel their gaze burning a hole in your retina. This will set the tone to perform in front of a large audience. Ask for feedback. Every time you go through your presentation, you're adding another layer of "I know this stuff".

Watch news bulletins on television. Analyse what makes successful public speakers so successful. Note their habits and speaking styles. Watching and listening is an integral part of learning.

Sister-in-law’s efforts: My sister-in-law Sunitha while young, I am told used to take assistance from her parents and siblings in preparing her speech. Once that was done, she used to practice on them standing over an elevated place - on the bed, on the dining table, on the washing stone, on the compound wall getting feedback and improving all the while. In the course of time, with this sort of practice with zeal, she became a successful speaker in life and heard many a times almost brought the roof down with equal fluency in English, Kannada and Konkani.

You just have to get out there and make a fool of yourself a few times before you get really comfortable

The more a person delivers public speeches the more he/she can handle his/her stage fear. Presenting at less intimidating settings could really help. Find business organisations, networks and clubs such as Toastmasters in your area that can afford you the opportunity to practice. You will meet people here with the sole purpose of improving their public speaking skills and thus everyone being in the same boat, there is nothing to be ashamed of. I was a member of Student Orators’ Forum of Action (SOFA) - an intercollegiate platform for Public Speaking in College, where the Sessions were held in different Colleges each Saturday. The exposure gained and the feedback received from our Chief Director Sunney Tharappan and other Directors was valuable in moulding me in becoming a better speaker.

Ultimately, the only cure for insecurity is experience. You just have to get out there and make a fool of yourself a few times before you get really comfortable.

E - Embrace your AUDIENCE

Here the word ‘Embrace’ does not mean you go and hug each one in the audience. Perhaps if you do so, your nervousness would have flown away as you would realise that they are humans after all, being made of flesh and blood just like you. In the broad sense, I have taken it as to make ‘adjustments or emend’ to your audience.

To whom are you speaking? If they're colleagues, they probably want to learn something from you. If they're friends, they're likely looking to be entertained. If it's a Court, well, the judge needs to be convinced. If it’s an interview, then the ball is in your court. Know who your audience is and tailor your communication accordingly. Give them what they need! Even if you have given speeches before, be sure to make tweaks to engage the specific audience.

Remember that people in the audience really want you to succeed. Just knowing this fact can often shake off a lot of pre-stage jitters

Sonia Gandhi’s Hindi speech: A few years ago, then Congress President Sonia Gandhi addressing a huge election rally read from her prepared text in Hindi. “Aap itne kadi dhoop mein khade ho aur mera bhashan sun rahe ho.” (You are standing in this hot sun and listening to my speech) when in fact it was raining and the umbrellas were up. The huge crowd went hush hush! The opposition parties latched onto this sentence spewing criticism. Perhaps the forecast was that of a sunny day when the speech was drafted, but it wasn’t corrected.

Whether you're speaking before a small group of 10 or a massive audience of 1000, recognise that all audiences are essentially the same. They are just people, many of whom suffer from the same fear of public speaking. Focus on delivering your material in the best way possible, without worrying too much about their reactions.

A - Adhere to PRACTICE

We’ve all heard the saying, “practice makes perfect.” The main benefit of practice is to increase your familiarity of a given task. As this familiarity increases, feelings of anxiety decrease and have less of a negative impact on performance. In other words, the anxiety you feel about speaking in public will be less, the more comfortable you feel with your presentation. ‘The only way to learn to speak is to speak and speak … and speak and speak … and speak and speak and speak.’

The story of a Pakistani: While in Abu Dhabi, UAE apart from my main employment, I used to teach in Training Institute. My good friend Noor Al Ameen, the Chairman had invited me to start English Courses and gave me a free run. A shy 17 year old Pakistani Shehzad Akhtar had enrolled for TOEFL as well as Advanced English courses. His dream was to migrate to the US, but was concerned of his lack of confidence and conversational skills. One fourth of the Syllabus in the Advanced English Course was made up of group discussions, face it and quiz sessions, personality development and public speaking. The first time I virtually forced him to go behind the podium, his throat closed as he was trembling and shaking with his gaze on the ceiling. Four months later when he left he had transformed into a confident speaker. His dad had come to the Institute the last day, to express gratitude and more so to explain his son’s activities at home. When a debating topic was given in the Class, Shehzad used to spend hours in the library preparing his speech, talk to the walls at home, record his voice, play, listen, rehearse, review and practice until he delivered his speech for or against the topic in the Class on the allotted day. He used to absorb all the feedback that was provided. Though everyone in the batch improved, Shehzad was way ahead, totally because of the practice he had put in. Today, apart from being a successful Doctor in the United States, he is also a visiting professor in a University of repute.

When you’re prepared for something, you’re confident. And when you’re confident, there’s less fear to latch onto. Fear magnifies and latches onto uncertainty and doubt. A public speaking appearance is only the culmination of a really thorough process that involves preparing and rehearsing your presentation. When preparing for his legendary presentations, Steve Jobs would spend days rehearsing and getting feedback.

The more talks you give the less nervous you get - partly because you improve, but mainly because you work out that the world does not end if things do not go quite to plan.

R - Readying for PRESENTATION

Unfortunately ‘delivery’ cannot be outsourced. You have to do it yourself. Especially in your workplace or business, you have to be its face. You can take help from people to have your speech prepared or ask for guidelines, but ultimately it has to be YOU!

I have put down a dozen tips that might benefit in reducing your fear before and during your presentation:

1] Practice healthful lifestyle habits. Try to limit caffeine, sugar and alcohol as much as possible. Listening to some high-energy music can help you to get psyched up and motivated just hours before your presentation.

2] Getting organised, ahead of time, will calm your nerves as you are ready. The more organised you are, the less nervous you will be.

3] Arrive early as obviously, if you are late, this will only heighten your anxiety. Arrive early and acclimate to your surroundings.

4] Sip water that’s warm or of room temperature. Squeezing some lemon into your water helps as well as it lubricates your throat. Try to avoid sugary beverages before speaking as these can dry out your mouth and make it harder to talk.

5] Exercising lightly before a presentation can get your blood circulating and send oxygen to your brain. Minutes before you go on stage, take some slow, deep breaths, so that by the time you get to the stage your breathing is relaxed and your nervousness has minimised.

6] Pace yourself and remember to speak at a normal (or even slightly slower) pace when you're speaking publicly. One of the biggest indicators of nervousness is the lightning-fast talker. You might have the best speech ever written, but if no one can understand what you're saying, the very purpose is defeated.

7] Nail the beginning and the ending - Your opening sets the tone for your speech and your closing is what you will leave your audience with. Rather than expecting those sentences to happen spontaneously in the moment; write and practice them in advance.

Prime Minister of India’s address to the Parliament of Australia: When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in November 2014, he was given the honour to address the Australian Parliament in Canberra. He began with a ‘shirt fronting’ joke (about then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s threat to ‘shirt-front’ Russian President Vladimir Putin over Malaysian Airlines - M17 plane attack. The term, used in Australian football and rugby league, describes aggressively grabbing an opponent or knocking them to the ground) drawing laughter and applause from the gathering of Australian MPs and thus made them to focus on his speech. It was a superb start! While concluding though, he wished Australia the very best in hosting the Cricket World Cup. Now, in an Indian context this sentence is perfectly fine as Cricket is the only game that grips the nation, but in an Aussie context it fell a bit flat as Cricket is one of the many games and it does not necessarily grip the country.

8] Making gestures while you speak will increase your creativity as well as fills you with confidence as action and words go together.

9] While you may not have slept the night before (or for an entire week prior to your speech) your audience doesn’t know it. You think that people may notice you’re nervous. This makes you even more nervous. The truth is that most people can't tell that you are nervous or afraid. Keep in mind that you're the only one who knows.

10] Refuse to think thoughts that create self-doubt and of low confidence.

11] Always, always run short - If you have been given thirty minutes, take 25. If you have an hour, take 50. Always respect your audience’s time and end early. Finishing early will allow you to take questions from the audience but never run long - because all the goodwill you built could be lost.

12] Give up trying to be perfect and know that it is OK to make mistakes. Be natural, be yourself and visualise your success.

Pace yourself and remember to speak at a normal (or even slightly slower) pace when you're speaking publicly

As I have said, you are not alone. Many famous people have suffered from glossophobia. At some point, they all mention going out of their way to avoid speaking in public. Abraham Lincoln be it known that the cause of his nervousness was public speaking, excused himself from many addresses. According to an article I had read in ‘The Atlantic Daily,’ Gandhiji was due to be speaking in a Court and only managed to say the first sentence of his speech before he dried up and an assistant had to step in to continue from where he left.

My first speech of recognition was when I was in standard IV in Mary Immaculate School, Bengaluru. The boys had to leave after Std. IV. Each year, two ‘Best Outgoing Students’ awards were bestowed - one for the ‘best outgoing tenth standard girl’ and the other for the ‘best outgoing fourth standard boy.’ I was chosen for the latter and it would be conferred on the School Day. Though that part was good, the horror part was after receiving the award, we have to give a speech. I remember telling Sr Henrita, my class teacher that I do not want the award and let someone else have it. On the School Day, seeing and hearing the ‘best outgoing girl’ speaking so well, thoughts cropped up in my mind to flee! However, having started small, embracing the audience that comprised of my class-mates, school-mates, teachers and parents - preparing, practicing and rehearsing well, I did pull off a reasonably good show.

Since then, I have given several keynote speeches, numerous presentations, conducted innumerable social occasions - my presentation at IMF/World Bank Annual Meeting in Dubai in September 2003, my best by far. I get nervous occasionally, but public speaking is now one of my favourite activities.

There's a Japanese proverb that says, "Fear is only as deep as the mind allows". If you are willing to stop avoiding your fears and learn new skills to reduce and manage them, you will develop an empowering belief and trust in yourself. In facing your fear, it becomes possible to overcome performance anxiety and find comfort and ease in expressing yourself in front of others.

Public speakers are not born, but made. The earlier you start doing it the better, because the longer you wait the more pressure you'll feel. Start now! Because you're either going to face it head on and get better at it, or waste your existence running away from it your whole life. Don't let your fear get in the way of your dreams. You may be a work-in-progress for sometime, but eventually you will get there. The thunderous applause will then follow even before you have begun, wherever you go!

Starting small gradually shedding all fear
Embracing the audience who yearn to hear
Practicing and believing that perfection is near
You will be the one to stand out amongst your peers.


Stephen P D'Souza Archives:


By Stephen P D'Souza, Melbourne
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Comment on this article

  • Michelle Chua, Sinagpore

    Wed, Mar 18 2020

    Nice tips...Learn & Avail the benefits of motivational speaking classes in Sydney at talentclub for better performance.

  • Stephen P. D'Souza, Kadri / Melbourne

    Mon, Mar 19 2018

    Dear John Esquire. Thanks for your comments. Sure, will give you a call in the next few days.

  • Stephen P. D'Souza, Kadri / Melbourne

    Mon, Mar 19 2018

    Thanks for your insight Mable. Glad that you found the Article useful.

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Sun, Mar 18 2018

    Dear Stephen Sir: I Belatedly read your how to do manual which I would have benefited from if I was a bit younger. Yet, I want to to consult you if you could oblige me with a call.

  • Mable Pereira, Reading, UK

    Sun, Mar 18 2018

    In the modern world of non technical skills being given so much emphasis, this is a very good article for those who go for high level interviews or have multiple interactions professionally as well as socially, where communicating to the panel or the audience effectively is the essence. Personally it was very useful for me, as I am in these kind of situations quite often and this article has given me confidence that anyone can master the art of good communication, capturing the audience.

  • Stephen P. D'Souza, Kadri / Melbourne

    Wed, Mar 14 2018

    That's the spirit Joyson. There is no magic formula for success except self-determination, hardwork and prayer. Very soon, you will find yourself within the 25% who have overcome the fear of Public Speaking. With your flair for writing, you may even pen an Article somewhere as regards to your experience. Wish you all the best!

  • Joyson, Mangalore

    Tue, Mar 13 2018

    Thank you very much Stephen for your encouraging words and some tips. I will work hard on those. God bless you.

  • Stephen P. D'Souza, Kadri / Melbourne

    Sat, Mar 10 2018

    Joyson – one thing is for sure, you are not a born loser. The way you have put in your comment deserves a salute as I myself would not have been able to convey such a message in so few words.

    The very fact that you can write so well and in your own words can speak remotely says you are almost there to cross the next hurdle of being able to speak and explain things in front of an audience. Think that you will be a winner and you would have won half the battle there itself. Just follow the steps I have explained in my Article. It’s a slow process, just like for a person to sit for the SSLC Exams, one needs to attend and pass all classes from Std. I to IX and just cannot jump into the tenth Std. straight away. I feel you gave up attending Toast Masters way too early.

    Try this method. When I was nervous, I used to make use of this ‘wall push.’ This is a technique used by Yul Brynner, star of the musical ‘The King and I.’ This is what you do: Stand about 18 inches away from a wall and place your palms flat on it. Push against the wall. As you push, your abdominal muscles will contract. As you breathe out, hiss and contract the muscles below the rib cage as if you were rowing a boat against the current. Do this a few times and hopefully you’ll banish all feelings of stage-fright just like it worked wonders for me.

  • Stephen P. D'Souza, Kadri / Melbourne

    Sat, Mar 10 2018

    Thanks for your positive comments Max & Jessie.

    I will take your suggestions on board of sharing some words of wisdom to young men and women.

    In UAE, while teaching in the Training Institute, our Chairman was pushing me to start a ‘Toastmasters Club – Abu Dhabi Chapter.’ But before it could materialise, we were in the ‘Land Down Under.’

  • Stephen P. D'Souza, Kadri / Melbourne

    Sat, Mar 10 2018

    Thank you Vidya. I hope you and your family are doing well.

    Many thanks for your compliments Tony. As you mentioned, I hope it will be handy and valuable to all as it is written from my own experience.

  • Stephen P. D'Souza, Kadri / Melbourne

    Sat, Mar 10 2018

    Thanks Elwyn. Your story of the lion is ‘spot on.’

    During social occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries etc. whereby the host prefers to celebrate it in the form of lunch/dinner in hotels/restaurants in a round table format, there will be a few people missing even after they had double confirmed due to the sheer fear that they have to say a few words, gracing the occasion.

  • Joyson, Mangalore

    Sat, Mar 10 2018

    Hi Stephan,

    My social anxiety is affecting me seriously. I get too nervous if i was asked to present in the meeting or asked to speak in the meeting. I cant even explain the things well that i know very well. Mind just goes blank with fear of speaking. I can do it very well over the phone remotely but when it comes to face to face it doe snot work for me. What will be your advice to help me overcome this? I went to toast masters but was too scared to go and speak so i attended 2 or 3 sessions just watching and then stopped going. I feel like a born loser.


  • Max and Jessie Rasquinha, Houston/Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.

    Fri, Mar 09 2018

    Well said, Stephen. Very valuable message to ponder, especially to all the young men and women of India trying to integrate their life of career as they leave their Academic life and seek job opportunities. All your tips will be extremely beneficial. As and when you visit Mangalore please make it a point to get entangled with the Toastmasters Clubs and share your words of wisdom to all those young men and women who are aspiring to be the future leaders of the world.

    Best of luck to you, as always.

  • Tony Crasta, Taccode/Venur/Sydney

    Tue, Mar 06 2018

    One of your best articles Stephen! Well written and presented. Quite valuable and handy to all, especially to the aspiring Public Speakers. I immensely enjoyed. Well done!

  • Vidya Shenoy, Mannagudda/Mangalore

    Tue, Mar 06 2018

    Very nicely presented and explained. Congrats Stephen!

  • Elwyn Goveas, Valencia

    Mon, Mar 05 2018

    Very well written my child hood friend and classmate Mr. Stephen.I am proud of you.
    Three things hold the key to get overcome the fear of public speaking.
    1. Be confident
    2.Body language
    3. Supporting presentation.
    But it needs practice,practice, and practice.I have made this in a story.
    In the old roman empire,criminals were thrown in front of a starving lion and the criminal had to fight the lion and escape or be the dinner for the lion.Once criminal was in the situation and the lion came roaring to him and the accused caught hold of the lion and whispered something to the lion and the lion ran back to his cage.The accused was released and his friends asked him what he told the lion which made him run back.The accused said All I told the lion that you can have me for dinner but after that you have to give and after DINNER SPEECH or get killed by the soldiers of the king.So scary was the idea of giving a speech.

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