How to Overcome Your Fear and Learn to Love Public Speaking

how introverts can be better at public speaking
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How even an introvert can overcome stage-fright and learn to love public speaking

I am an introvert. But people often mistake me for an extrovert because I am a leader, confident at public speaking and can be gregarious at gatherings.

The thing is I have learned to be confident and sociable. It did not all come naturally. I am more inclined to listen than to speak, to watch from the back than to step up to the front. I had to teach myself to be more outgoing and self-confident.

And that is an important fact. You can teach yourself to be more outgoing and to actually enjoy presentations and public speaking. I regularly have to speak to large groups of people – often in their hundreds – and I have learned to love it. Yes, you heard me right; love it!

You don’t need to lose your introvert superpowers; embrace them but also draw on extrovert strengths to give yourself an extra boost.

Overcoming stage fright

I first had to grapple with stage-fright in primary school. I was very self-conscious if I was called out in class or had to stand up in front of people. In these situations, I would immediately feel the panic rise and would blush, get confused, or clam up. When it came to the fight, flight or freeze stress response I would be the bunny in the headlights.

But then came The School Play.

I loved playing make-believe and (like any other kid) desperately wanted to be popular. The thought of being in the school play was both alluring and terrifying in equal measure. At this point, I must give full credit to one of my teachers. They had obviously spotted something of this conflicted dynamic in me and they cast me as the crocodile in the school production of Peter Pan.

Enter the crocodile

The crocodile? Surely that is a non-speaking part I hear you think (as an introvert you did not voice your objection out loud). But that was the point. I did not have to remember any words, I just had to play a character. Even better, I was dressed head to toe in a costume that meant that no one could recognise me. 

The result was revolutionary. I was free to inhabit the stage and have fun. My stomach still tried to exit my mouth before going on, but the mask was enough to help me push through this and get onto the stage.

Then came the applause. Oh, the applause! As any introvert will know, we are just as much in need of praise as extroverts, if not more so because we are all so darned self-deprecating. The acclaim of an audience was intoxicating. I wanted more.

In terms of changing my habit loop, I had found my new reward. Now all I needed to do was link back the new confident routine to the cue of being in front of a crowd. 

I can hear you musing again. You are wondering what the point of all this is. Am I expecting you to dress up as a crocodile for every public engagement? 

Engage your alter-ego

The good news is no, you don’t need a crocodile suit every time you are speaking in public. Although come to think of it, it could be fun.

The real point here is that being someone else can be releasing. That is why so many famous actors are introverts. The ranks of the gloriously introverted include Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts, to name just a few. As an actor, you can be someone else. Method acting, where you continue to embody a character even when off stage or camera, is the extreme version of this.

Our fear is based on our negative assumptions of ourselves. This is the negative side of introverted humility. But you don’t need to be someone else entirely, you just need to put yourself into a different frame of mind. You need to be the best version of yourself; your mega alter-ego.

Engage your mind

So how do you make the change? You cannot always put on a mask but even getting into certain clothes or having a certain item can help prompt this switch. It is all about associating yourself with the feelings and persona you want to embody. You envision yourself as charming, funny and confident. That envisioning process can be aided by a totemic item, such as a photo of you smiling and exuding confidence. Some actors use a similar device to get into character but it is not essential.

By clearly picturing yourself as that person, on the stage, at the party or wherever your mind will start to build constructive associations. The more senses you can engage in this process – imagining the sights, sounds and affirmative feelings of that moment – the more securely you will anchor yourself to that positive projection of the confident you.

By preparing your mind in this way you are literally prepping the synapses, so they start to fire the right way, for when you step out before the crowd.

Engage your body

Your psychology is hard-wired to your physiology. In other words, what you do with your body affects your frame of mind. Having the right posture and body language can immediately change the way you feel and improve the quality of your public speaking. 

Walking confidently towards an audience, looking directly at them with a smile and an open posture will set you off on the right start (even if you are not feeling necessarily confident and happy inside).

By holding our bodies in a certain way and projecting openness and confidence, not only do we reassure the audience, but we also calm ourselves. Simply put, the physical signals from our body start to tell our brain that everything is ok, and you start to overcome the freeze, fight or flight response.

Don’t think like a prey animal faced by a group of predators. When you take the stage, you become the alpha; the animal at the top of the food chain. You pursue them, not the other way around; so, don’t hide behind a lectern!

When you are up on show you want to avoid negative body language and posture. This includes:

  • Folding arms (can appear defensive)
  • Wringing hands or fidgeting (appears nervous)
  • Avoiding eye contact (appears nervous or untrustworthy)
  • Not keeping still (appears anxious and projects avoidance)
  • Face and eyes downcast (appears unhappy, reduces energy and volume)

This takes practice and self-awareness but there is a simple hack to help start in the right way. I find it really useful and regularly employ the technique before I go in front of an audience. I learned this trick from psychologist Amy Cuddy and found it so helpful that I now teach to the people I coach. 

Before I go onto a stage or in front of a crowd, I find somewhere quiet (this is often the restroom) and then look in the mirror and punch my arms into the air in the same way an athlete does when they win a race, or a fan does when their team scores a goal. This is the body language of success. Do this and smile, say ‘yes!’ out loud, and you will immediately transform your frame of mind. Your body language and tone will immediately be better when you step out.

You might need to do it a few times to get over being self-conscious and start to really mean it. While you do it envision that amazing version of yourself and let the transformation begin.

Engage your empathy

Empathy is another superpower of extroverts so use it. When you are in front of a crowd you are already equipped to assess their thoughts and feelings. Use your emotional intelligence to adapt your message, body language and tone, and communicate more effectively.

This does not mean homing in on your negative assumptions of what you think people are feeling. People may be tired, bored, or defensive, but it is very unlikely (especially if you have just stepped up to speak) that you are the cause of this.

Remember, every audience is just made up of people, like you. It does not matter how important or famous they are; they have many of the same cares, worries, fears and challenges as you. You have so much in common. 

And you can assist them. You have a unique contribution. Even just by being positive, or being honest about your feelings, you can help them.

The experts at this are professional comedians so I recommend you study them. They know how to gauge the temperature of a room and adapt their routine accordingly. We may not all become stand-up comedians, but this is homework that we can all at least enjoy!

Exit, pursued by a bear

I cannot promise that overnight you are going to turn into Tony Robbins or Michelle Obama. Nor can I promise that you won’t feel awful before having to speak in public. But I can, both from my experience and the wonders of psychology, say that by applying these techniques and principles you can be better at public speaking.

My last bit of advice? As with any skill, start small and practice. Use these techniques before your next family gathering, rather than waiting until your first TED talk. 

Public speaking is an art. But apply the science to the art and then your introverted nature will follow.

“This is an art, 

Which does mend nature, change it rather, but, 

The art itself is nature.”

Shakespeare, A Winter’s Tale

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