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Most of us have a morbid fear of speaking in public.  In fact, speaking in public is rated as the number one fear even ahead of the fear of death. Just considering the idea of having to stand in front of people, whether it be in front of a class or in front of our colleagues (or superiors or clients), can cause our knees to knock and our throats to become dry. We are deathly afraid of looking like a fool in front of others and being branded as incompetent.

What is it that makes us tremble at the thought of having to speak in front of others and how can we overcome this fear? Is it even rational? Probably not, but we get so caught up with the overactive imagination in our head that we envision all kinds of scenarios that may never even play out. We think that people will laugh behind our backs, fall asleep or criticize our performance.  Logically, we know this is probably not going to happen, but we allow ourselves to get worked up into a fear frenzy.

The good news is that we can actually use tools to overcome this fear. We can develop the confidence and the skills we need to go from a knee-knocking fearful speaker to a powerful and effective speaker. We are not doomed to being the public speaker that no one wants to listen to.  So why do we clam up and how we can overcome this fear to become an effective speaker?

One of the reasons we clam up and get all knock-kneed about speaking in front of others is because of all the unknowns. We might not know what exactly it is we are getting ourselves into. Maybe we don’t know who we will be speaking to. Maybe we do not have a context or framework to guide us. We might feel that our speech does not fit anywhere. Perhaps we are not fully aware of the expectations of our listeners or of those who asked us to speak. There are a number of reasons we freeze when it comes to speaking in front of a group.

Preparation Is Key

Preparation sets the context and puts the speaker firmly in control of the context. We need to remember that whatever the reason we have been asked to speak, we are still in charge of what we will say and how we will say it (content and vehicle). When a speaker prepares his talk, be it in a corporate or academic setting, the preparation will determine the outcome (or at the very least, influence it). So, the first key to overcoming fear is to prepare well for the presentation.

Instinctively, we all know that it is important to prepare, but, still, many of us do not take this important step. Perhaps it is because we don’t realize how important it is or perhaps we feel it requires too much time and hard work. However, formulating our ideas and organizing them is crucial to effective communication. We also need to be careful about the information we provide. Too much information given in the wrong way might mean that the listeners get buried in the details.

We all want our presentations to be memorable and worthwhile.  Preparing well will help us to achieve our objectives. However, in order to prepare well, we also need to think well.

Good Communication Begins with Good Thinking

All public speaking begins with good communication and good communication starts with good thinking. Good thinking takes work. Henry Ford famously said:


Thinking is the hardest work there is; that’s why so few people engage in it.


So we need to have an idea of what we want to say, how we are going to say it, why we are going to say it and to whom. We need to be clear in our objectives if we are going to be clear in how we prepare our thoughts.

Essentially we need to step out of our shoes and step into the shoes of our listeners. What is it that they want or are expecting to hear. Our presentations shouldn’t really be about us at all but should be focused on the listeners. Just this information alone should be encouraging because we can take the focus off ourselves and our fear and focus on helping our listeners and what they would like to hear.

Good communication should be:

  • Interesting

  • Memorable

  • Valuable

  • Clear

  • Motivating

The information we convey should be acutely relevant to the people we are speaking to. It should garner their undivided attention. We certainly don’t want them drifting off to sleep or fiddling with their cell phones rather than listening to what we are saying. After all, they came to hear something, didn’t they?

Our delivery needs to be something they will remember. Certainly, they will not remember much of all the details, but at least they will remember that it was interesting.

Valuable content is very important. We need to know what we are talking about. People can easily spot a phony. They will quickly pick up on whether or not we “know our stuff”.  Remember, they are there to learn, not waste their time.

Clarity is also very important. Our presentation needs direction and purpose. If we can not connect with or if we lose connection with our audience because they have difficulty following our ideas, we can forget about delivering our message effectively; it will be lost on them.

Our speech or presentation needs to be motivating. We are giving it for a reason, aren’t we? What action or decisions do we want to stimulate? What changes in thinking do we want to encourage? Motivation gets right to the heart, to the emotions and this is where transformation occurs. Our words need to go from forming images in the mind to activating emotions.

Most Communication Is Not Received

It’s true! We will only retain a very small percentage of what we hear, if at all. A lot of what we hear only stays in our memory for a very short time. We retain slightly more of what we see, so visuals are good to include. But when we experience something or do something ourselves, we are more likely to retain the information.

So here is another encouraging thought for those who are terrified of speaking: most people will never remember what you said. Sometimes they are thinking of other things like what time they need to pick up the kids and whether or not they should stop off at the grocery store on the way home. They really are not concentrating on your words.

 Best Communication Is Experiential

If we want to leave a mark and give an impactful presentation, we need to think more in terms of pictures and experiences. And, we need to drive home the main point. People don’t have time for or interest in complicated or complex information. They just want to know what the takeaway is and what action they should take. They didn’t sit there and listen to us to learn how much we know.

So, it is in our best interest to make the main point clear and paint it in pictures. We need to make it clear and make it stick. People will retain more and listen more when we show them rather than tell them. No one wants to be told anything. Remember: it is better to make one point very well than to make several points poorly.

Some speakers (hoping this is not you) present by stating, telling, stating, giving information, using logic, stating and telling… While the information may be sound, the speaker is probably not connecting with the listeners. No matter what the context of the presentation, we need to capture the imaginations of the listeners.

How to Capture Interest

Everyone loves a story. Stories capture our imagination and spark our interest.  If we want to get an important message across and motivate new actions or ways of thinking, illustrations and stories are our best weapon. A story doesn’t necessarily have to be something we tell, though. It can be done through a short pertinent video clip, through a cartoon diagram, through a movie scene or through giving examples of people (such as sports heroes).

People also love humor. Including humorous but pertinent videos or cartoon pictures can break up the seriousness and drive home a point. Maybe we don’t consider ourselves to be a funny person or good at coming up with funny illustrations. We can use third-party resources to bring in humor. Our listeners might well remember our talk just because of the funny examples we used.

Other methods to capture our listeners’ interest would be to include one-liners, something true and punchy that they can put in their back pocket and take home with them. Or we might want to include reversal statements such as:


It’s not how much love you get out of life; it’s how much love you put into life that counts.


Using famous quotes is also an effective tool to get a point across. For example (Lee Iaccoca):


You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.


The point is that it is a good idea to mix up (spice up) our talk with a variety of elements to keep our listeners engaged. And when our listeners are engaged, it is easier to have confidence in our speaking.  So, a preparation that includes important information and different communication vehicles to illustrate will give us a winning and engaging presentation.

Getting Ready For the Actual Talk

Now that the preparation is done, what do we do? What do we put in our presentation notes? Some people like to have everything written down to the very last detail, but may I suggest that this approach will keep us locked into our notes with little wiggle room for changes or spur of the moment ideas. The whole point is to communicate and it is very hard to do this if we are totally dependant on notes.

It is helpful to organize presentation notes in the form of bullet points and sub-bullet points. And, I would suggest staying away from teleprompters – these just make the speaker look disconnected. We don’t have to be married to our notes. We don’t even have to use our notes at all if we don’t feel like it. The very fact that we have ultra prepared will give the confidence needed to stray from our notes, to go “on-the-fly” a bit.

Lastly, remember that most everyone has this fear of speaking in front of a group. Very few enjoy having to perform in the limelight. We feel vulnerable and judged. However, this is where all the preparation will be helpful. The preparation is a toolbox. Take your toolbox with you. You have researched, planned and organized which is far better than going in cold with nothing to say. And your listeners will most certainly appreciate the work you have done.

The Takeaway

The thoughts and experience of public speaking, as scary as they may seem, can be tamed when we take the time to prepare well. Fear is really just a function of our imagination and can be tamed with facts and action. By preparing well, organizing our thoughts and then going into action, we can rid ourselves of this fear. What keeps us in the fear zone is inaction and overactive thoughts. And, finally, we really shouldn’t think too much about what people think of us because chances are they are not.

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Diana Lynne’s passions are family, travel, self-improvement, living a debt-free/financially free life. She also loves hanging out with family, friends and being with her dog Skye. You can connect with her through