Overcoming the Fear of Presenting

“I saw a thing, a study that said that speaking in front of a crowd was the number one fear for the average person.  I found that amazing.  Number two was death!  Death is number two?!  This means to the average person – if you had to be at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy!”  – Jerry Seinfeld

Presenting and speaking in front of groups can be challenging for a lot of people.  It is believed that glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, affects 75% of the population (according to psycom.net).  For some people, it’s a mild unease and for others it’s full on panic.  For a subset of people, this fear can be associated with certain conditions such as social anxiety (and some may need professional support).  However, studies show that not all individuals with glossophobia have social anxiety or other conditions.  Some of us have a fear of speaking in front of groups because of experiences we have had in the past, environmental and social conditioning, or perhaps it stems from a deep desire to succeed.

Thinking of Jerry Seinfeld’s quote above reminds me of the time I had to do my grandmother’s eulogy in a church in San Francisco.  I had done a lot of workshops and speaking engagements by then.  But even with that experience, I was still very nervous because that one was for my family and my grandma’s friends, and I had a lot of emotions at the time – I was actually shaky.  I got through it though and did well in the end.  Our level of anxiety may be different in certain situations, and sometimes the fear just comes from out of the blue, even if we are experienced speaking to groups.

For leaders this can be a real issue because one way or another we will find ourselves leading a meeting, sharing information, or speaking in front of groups big and small to present project updates, proposals, or research findings.  The good news is that there are pragmatic ways to help manage this fear or anxiety.  Here are some strategies that can help:

  • Understand and acknowledge your fear:  Recognize that it’s very common and perfectly natural to be anxious and think of it as a challenge that you can overcome with practice.
  • Practice “temporal time travel”: Visualize yourself in the future, when you are done presenting (maybe a day or a week later).  You’ll see that life goes on, it will be done, and it’s just another task in a busy week.
  • Think of your audience as people who want you to do well:  You can be sure of one thing – most people are happy you are the one up there instead of them.  Seeing your audience in a positive light also increases your empathy for them, and your desire to serve them well.
  • Visualize yourself nailing it:   In the 1950s a study was done on the impact of visualization on results.  Basketball players were divided into groups, and the first group was told to spend one hour each day practicing free throws.  The second group was told to visualize themselves succeeding at free throws every day. The first group shot 24% better after a month, and the second group shot 23% better.  The second group improved with visualization, even without touching a basketball.  Imagine how much improvement they would make if they practiced and visualized their success.
  • Shift your mindset from fear to excitement:  Acknowledge the emotions you’re feeling – don’t try to get rid of them – and reframe the energy as excitement rather than fear.  Once you start speaking and moving, you can let that energy out.
  • Practice breathing techniques: Take slow, deep breaths to calm your nerves before and during your presentation.
  • Start small and gradually increase exposure: If possible, begin with less intimidating situations and as you gain confidence, start taking on bigger challenges.
  • Celebrate successes: Reward yourself for your progress and improvements, and acknowledge your growth in overcoming the fear.

And of course, preparation and practice are key.  I heard an athlete say recently “pressure is what you feel when you are unprepared for a task”.  Sure, we will still feel some anxiety whenever we speak in front of groups, but preparation – and practice – will help us diminish that fear and give us a higher likelihood of success.

There are a number of techniques involved in effective practice and preparation for presentations.  Kwela’s Presenting Like a Pro workshop offers many tips as well as practice time.

Laura Villacrusis, Partner