How to Use Public Speaking Anxiety to Your Advantage

By Morgan McCullough

Whether you like it or not, there will be a point in your PR career where you’ll have to speak in front of an audience. You probably have already had to do this as part of your coursework. From client pitches to executive briefings, you’ll deliver an uncountable number of presentations during your career. Nevertheless, the thought of speaking before a crowd often induces nervousness and panic—even among seasoned professionals.

Many people’s anxiety come from the fear of bombing. They likely imagine a scenario like Hollywood director Michael Bay’s meltdown. However, such circumstances are exceedingly rare. Keep in mind that every speaker gets some form of performance anxiety, some just learn to channel it better than others do. Public speaking is a learned skill rather than inherent talent. Sometimes, the best speakers used to be terrified of stepping onto a stage. Like any skill, there are steps you can take to improve your abilities and even use your fears to your advantage.

Public Speaking Coach Dr. Craig Engstrom regularly delivers presentations to small and large audiences. Although delivering speeches is one of his areas of expertise, Engstrom admits to being nervous before every presentation or workshop. Instead of letting his fears hinder his success, he has found a way to transform his public speaking anxiety into a motivational push: “I have terrible public speaking anxiety, but I kind of like it because it motivates me to practice, practice, practice.”

In my conversation with Engstrom, he shared his top tips on overcoming stage fright.

Don’t Run: Embrace!

The first step to overcoming any fear is to acknowledge that it exists. Once you can name that fear and find out why it scares you so much, you can face it. Or better yet, you can use it as a tool. Engstrom’s go-to before every speech is to say, “Alright, I’m very nervous about this, but I’m going to start writing early and keep practicing up until delivery. I’m going to keep honing it over time. I don’t use the flight experience; I use the fight experience.”

Practice, Then Stick to the Script

The more practiced you are, the less nervous you’ll be when presenting So practice. Never, ever make last minute changes. If you step onto the stage well-versed in your script and don’t try to improvise too much, then the odds of completely bombing decrease.

While practicing, “speak it, don’t think it,” Engstrom advises. Do not read or practice your lines only in your mind. This is not sufficient to prepare you for oral delivery. Practice the speech aloud to identify tongue twisters or hard to recall lines.

Of course, it is usually helpful to practice in front of a small audience. You can interact with the crowd and observe how certain lines resonate with them. To control your anxiety, tell the practice audience whether you are seeking feedback or not seeking feedback. Getting unsolicited critiques is a terrible ingredient in the recipe of anxiety. However, if you’re seeking feedback, ask them what they loved, what confused them, or what content is unnecessary.

Reframe Your Nerves  

Being nervous is not always a disadvantage. In many cases, nerves are a good thing. Anxiety creates adrenaline, which can be channelled into positive energy. Stress can motivate you into giving an amazing performance full of wit, knowledge, and professionalism.

In public speaking scenarios, anxiety is your ally. It keeps you humble. Here is a case in point: Comedian Dana Carvey, never having bombed a show before, once went into a gig with a little too much self-assurance. (Watch: Worst I Ever Bombed.) By the end of his set, he was drenched in sweat and his partner broke up with him. He learned that it’s okay to bomb and that it is good to have a backup plan.

Envision Success

When anxious about presenting, people tend to imagine the worst outcomes. Instead of picturing potential failures, visualize success.

Develop Soothing Strategies

The above tips all work well for reducing preparation and performance anxiety; however, you need to find a way to reduce performance anxiety. There is no best way to soothe your fears, but you need a strategy. For some speakers, exercise may lower performance anxiety, for others meditation or breathing exercises work, and for others simply imagining a peaceful environment does the trick. Perhaps for you it might be working the crowd before a presentation or listening to music. Test some tactics to see what works.

REMEMBER: Only you know what you’re planning to say. If you mess up, the audience probably won’t even know it. And if you do noticeably make a mistake, there’s a lot worse things that could happen to you in this world. Just remember that bombing a presentation is normal.

So, before your next big presentation, remember to practice as much as you can, use stress as a motivator, and envision your triumph. If you do these things and more, your speech is likely to be a success.

Photo Credit: Jackson Schaal

Morgan McCullough is a Junior at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She is majoring in Public Relations and Journalism and is currently interning for Communication@Work LLC. This is third article I’ve shared from my conversation with public speaking coach Dr. Craig Engstrom. Next week, I will share one more about being a good audience member. Let’s connect on LinkedIn.

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