Tips for overcoming fear of public speaking


Why is it that when you are about to give a speech, deliver a presentation or introduce yourself, you feel that familiar flutter in your stomach, palpitations, and tightness in the throat, accompanied by an annoying dry cough. You can place an order at a restaurant, give advice to your children, discuss strategy during a team meeting, cheer at a sports game, sing in the church choir or talk for hours to friends on the telephone, all without a problem; yet once under the spotlight, you experience anxiety or panic formulating sounds, let alone words.

If you are one of those people, the fear of speaking can be so paralysing that it can leave you stumbling for words, dominating sentences with ‘ahs’ and ‘ums’ or, in extreme cases, stammering or stuttering. The ingredients of this cocktail that makes you tongue-tied are adrenalin, not breathing properly and not having the right mind-set before you even begin to open your mouth. It is important to challenge your fears when speaking, because your voice is part of your identity and what you have to say is important. It’s time to speak up with confidence and ease.

Adrenalin is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland in the body causing stimulation of the heart-rate. A rush of adrenalin starts in the nervous system as a reaction to high stress or strong physical exertion. If this happens just before speaking, in whatever situation, breathing will be faster, leading to the tone of the voice sounding higher than normal or the voice shaking. This is the moment to immediately focus on breathing by gently exhaling, blowing out that compressed air of tension a few times before speaking. This will release blocked air caused by misplaced adrenalin, which in turn often causes the larynx to move higher, giving the feeling of a tight throat, sweaty palms and butterflies, inducing panic.

Gently exhale out and let the mind assist. Let the right side of the brain take over by thinking of a peaceful image or sweet memory, or imagine a favorite melody in your head while exhaling out that blocked breath to formulate sound into words. Your nerves will not get the better of you when you introduce yourself, and people will understand your name the first time instead of asking you for it again later. When you can feel your breathing calm down at the beginning of a presentation, your voice will not elevate or quiver. Keep that positive energy going by connecting your relaxed breathing with your thoughts while you speak.

We actually train our ear by the way we speak: get to know the sound of your voice by letting your ear adapt to the very essence of the sound of your voice. Join a Toastmasters organisation or rehearse in front of friends or family or in front of the bathroom mirror. By doing this, your ear will be trained to hear your voice relaxed and panic free. Both your ear and your brain will remember these sensations, and eventually you will automatically know when you are not breathing correctly because you will hear and feel a difference in the way you sound. The brain is a powerful muscle, and the more you practice these tips the quicker you will develop a new habit.

Try humming to help prepare before speaking – hum in the morning while getting ready for work, hum in the car and repeat your presentation en route, or hum as you walk. By humming you are already connecting your breathing with your voice and you are also hearing your voice in a relaxed position.

It might be an idea to take up singing, especially if you are one of those who stammer or stutter – join a choir, sing at home, sing in the car, and sing with your children or with friends. Singing is actually sustained speech – you are connected with your breathing and physically cannot stutter or stammer. As an international opera singer and voice specialist, I speak with the voice of experience: from the age of nine until I was 18, I had a severe stammering impediment which disappeared through singing and learning how to breathe correctly to conquer anxiety. I had to learn to appreciate and love my voice and so can you.