Beat Public Speaking Anxiety with Self-Love
I have public speaking anxiety, so I admire people who are able to stand up in front of a crowd and speak passionately about important issues. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a senior there, Emma González, gave a powerful speech calling for stronger gun control. She was emotional, wiping away tears as she spoke. As she read from her notes, her voice sometimes shook. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was speaking out on behalf of students everywhere, demanding change. Emma called “B.S.” on all the politicians who took NRA money instead of taking action to protect kids, and her speech was so effective, it went viral.
I attended a gun control rally in Los Angeles the following weekend and saw many people holding signs that echoed her refrain, “We call B.S.”
I’m so impressed with Emma for giving that amazing speech, but I hope nobody reading this ever has to get on a mic under such tragic circumstances. Many of us have so much public speaking anxiety that we’d feel traumatized at the idea of doing it under any circumstances. Anytime someone asks me to speak in front of a crowd, even just for a minute, I feel myself starting to panic.
A nervous little voice in my head starts asking questions like: What if I forget what I’m supposed to say? Will I sound stupid? What if I freeze up and stand there in silence? Will the crowd hate me?
My longtime friend Emily Parker speaks in front of groups on a regular basis as part of her job. She’s the director of development at Food Forward, a nonprofit organization that connects surplus produce with hungry people to reduce food waste. She says, “I basically have to convince people to give Food Forward money. I have to transfer my enthusiasm to them so they get excited to support us financially and in other ways.”
When I asked her to share a few public speaking tips with Like a Boss Girls, she had a surprising confession: “I have a fear of public speaking.” Emily majored in acting in college, and she has performed on stage countless times, but she says that’s not the same as being able to give a speech. “I’m not afraid to be someone else in front of people, but I’m afraid to speak for myself in front of people.”
It turns out that since Emily had to conquer her own public speaking anxiety to succeed at her job, she has lots of advice for other people in the same situation. Instead of feeling nervous, focus on self-love. What’s the kindest thing you can do for your speech-giving self? Make sure you’re as prepared as possible on the big day. Emily’s tips are a great place to start:
Know what you want to say.
Get as familiar as possible with the topic of your speech. Emily says, “The more I know about the topic, and the more I’m connected to it, the more I can speak passionately about it.” If it helps you feel less public speaking anxiety, write out the whole speech you’re planning to give, word for word. If you feel like that’s not necessary, at least make a list of the points you want to make, in order. If your speech includes someone’s name or a word you’re not familiar with, make sure you know how to pronounce it. You don’t want to be sounding anything out for the first time on the mic.
Rehearse your speech—and then rehearse it again.
She says, “I practice a lot. I write down everything I’m going to say, and I rehearse it. That helps make me feel better about getting up in front of people.”
Bring your notes up to the podium.
Don’t pressure yourself to memorize every word of your speech. Maybe that’s what the best speakers in the world do, but in 99% of speech-giving situations, it’s totally fine to look at your notes. Emily says, “I talk about Food Forward all the time, but during a speech, I always have notes in my hand—and that’s okay. A few years ago, I put together a fundraising workshop. The executive director of a well-respected foundation came to speak to us. She had notes in her hand, and that made me feel so much better. She speaks all the time, and she still has notes—that’s not a crutch.” If anything distracts you during your speech, you’ll be able to get right back on track. Having notes in your hand will help you let go of your public speaking anxiety and relax.
Focus on why you’re there.
If you feel yourself starting to get nervous, force yourself to get out of your own head. Remind yourself of the reason that you’re giving the speech in the first place. Emily says she tells herself, “It’s not about me—it’s about me promoting something else. That is easier to do, because I’m focused on what I’m passionate about, not like, ‘Are people judging me?'”
If your public speaking anxiety gets the better of you, forgive yourself.
Everybody makes mistakes when they’re speaking. That’s just how people talk. Instead of worrying whether you’ve repeated yourself, focus on getting the important points across. Emily says, “Get over little missteps, because they’re okay. They don’t matter.”
Remember: The audience is on your side.
Have you ever seen a speaker get so nervous and flustered they have to stop talking for a moment? Think about how you reacted. Chances are, you felt empathy for them—you didn’t judge them for pausing to take a breath before they continued speaking. When you’re the one on the mic, the audience will feel the same way. They want you to succeed, because they care about what you have to say. (If they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t be there in the first place.)
What about after the speech?
If you’re giving a speech for any kind of professional reason, you can’t just run away and hide after it’s over. People might want to ask you questions or share ideas with you. When Emily gives speeches about Food Forward, she often has to do a little schmoozing with the crowd. Whenever possible, she prepares for that, too. She asks herself questions like, “Who are these people? What do I know about them? What do they like? Who do we know in common?”
One on one, Emily’s public speaking anxiety disappears. She shared a tip on how to make talking to strangers less stressful. “You really want to get to know them, and focus on that, because people like to talk about themselves. By focusing on them, that takes some of the pressure off of you, because you’re just asking them questions.”
Memorize your elevator pitch.
Can you describe yourself and what you do in one sentence, or three sentences? Figure out the best way to explain it quickly while getting the key information across. (Your elevator pitch is worth committing to memory, because you’ll need it in almost every social situation.) Emily says, “It’s so important to have that down.” When you know your elevator pitch by heart, you’ll speak with confidence when you share it. People will be able to tell that you know what you’re talking about, and they’ll pick up on your confidence.