3 Ways to Control Public Speaking Anxiety

I admit to feeling relieved last week after I spoke up in a meeting. I had an opinion on the topic and I wanted to add value, be a leader and improve my credibility. The dialogue moved quickly. I had to act fast, be clear and be compelling. Anxiety was building as I considered this minor performance.

Then out it came from my mouth, followed by heightened awareness of the reaction from others. And I did a quick critique of my delivery.

“Spoke a bit too fast,” I thought. And, “over-explained yourself,” as I continued to follow the conversation.


In The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, one of the most influential books on social dynamics, David Riesman wrote that our modern age has produced a new social type called the “other-directed personality.” Metaphorically, he said, we function like radars, “able to receive signals from far and near; the sources are many, the changes rapid.”

We plot our course through life by constantly bouncing signals off of others, as my in-the-moment self-critique last week demonstrated. He adds that our “anxieties, as child consumer-trainee, as parent, as worker and player, are very great. We are often torn between the illusion that life should be easy, if we could only find the ways of proper adjustment to the group, and the half-buried feeling that it is not easy for us.”

The terms “public speaking” and “presenting” are often used interchangeably. However, I’m noticing that I am delivering fewer “presentations,” which almost always allow for some advanced preparation.   Rather, I increasingly need to speak off-the-cuff in public places: business meetings, coaching hockey, Bible study, dinner parties.

While they both produce a level of fear, it’s constant “public speaking” that seems to most define my leadership and confidence. Dale Carnegie, who famously taught public speaking courses said, “I have been convinced by observing the experience of thousands of people that the most valuable thing people obtain from a course in public speaking is not the ability to talk in public, but an increased self-confidence.”

So how do we manage the anxieties that come from daily public speaking?

1. Practice short performances. Rehearsing 30-second to two-minute stories and explanations with trusted friends or with a coach can be extremely helpful. Not only can we weave these short segments into daily discourse, practicing in a non-threatening environment can improve our comfort and ability to deliver in any situation.

2. Increase enthusiasm. When I take a deep breath and make a point with passion, I find it harder to hear the echoes of insecurity. The plaque hanging on the wall of Douglas MacArthur in WWII read, “You are as young as your faith; as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence; as old as your fear; as young as your hope; as old as your despair. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”

3. Regulate the radar. I have so much admiration for my grandfather’s ability to focus on others without seeming to fret their response. He’s famous for saying, “Don’t worry what other people think about you because other people don’t think about you.” Maintaining an active radar doesn’t need to change the way we feel about ourselves.

These three tips are helping me be appropriately self-aware in my public speaking. What helps you? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.



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  • Rick Kaufman
    January 8, 2014 at 10:09 pm

    “The ability to improvise often impedes the discipline to prepare.” Recognition of this statement in the various situations you mention is certainly something I continually grapple with as I try slow down both my self-inflicted overly busy, daily schedule and my brain during conversations. Thanks Matt for the great ideas to implement as I continuing to try and be more intentional and aware in public/private speaking situations.

    • normanblogger
      January 10, 2014 at 2:52 am

      Thanks for your vulnerability, Rick. You make a great point about how our hurry and busyness contribute so much to our intentionality and presence.

  • krobbert76
    June 20, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    It helps when I view my anxiety about public speaking as energy rather than fear. If I view it as fear I go into fight or flight. If I view it as energy I have the power to positively channel that energy in a way that engages others. I have come to terms with the fact that such energy (sometimes anxiety ridden at the start) is a strength… it means I care deeply about the content of what I am saying and how it may resonate with those that are listening.

    • normanblogger
      June 23, 2014 at 3:50 pm

      Love that idea of re-framing the anxiety as energy and using it rather than fighting it. Thanks!