• Sarah Tian

How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking? 3 Lessons Learned

Updated: Jul 15



Like many of you, I've always had fear of public speaking. Growing up as a Chinese immigrant in Hungary, where I had to speak in a foreign language did not help. As someone who is always eager to learn and overcome my weaknesses, I took a huge step forward by taking a public speaking class in my freshman year!


I remember seriously wanting to drop the class every time I went, but I persisted and managed to finish the class with an A! I'm not as afraid of presenting material that I had time to prepared for, because I know that if I rehearse and over-prepare, I will do fine. What terrifies me the most is having to do impromptu speeches. We would randomly get a topic and just one minute to prepare for it before having to give a one minute speech to the whole class! However terrified I was during the public speaking classes, finishing the class did give me an initial boost in my confidence.

It was enough of a boost to make me seek out other activities to continue to practice this skill. For example, I gave speeches at events as the president of the Psychology International Student Association (PISA) student group and I took a personal leadership class where everyone had to lead a class.


In the course of my PhD studies, my public speaking skills were further elevated. For example, we had to give several 3-hour presentations in our seminars. I assure you, even if you were anxious in the first couple of minutes, this will subside to almost zero towards the end of the first half an hour. Also as a Teaching Assistant, I had to give weekly lectures to classes ranging from 20-30 people. This enhanced my improvisational skills, as I often had to respond to students' questions on the go.

I also did several summer internships where we had to give final presentations. In one particular instance, I remember the VP came in and sat right in front of me, which threw me off a bit. I also happened to be the first one to go (I always want to be the first one so that I can get this off my shoulders and not having to worry about it during others' speeches). This was the only time I presented where I felt my voice shaking during the entire 10 minutes and I could not control it at all. Till this day, I dare not watch the recording of that presentation.


I discussed this experience with my manager, seeking feedback and guidance. It made me feel slightly better to hear that my manager had experienced the same thing earlier on in their career as well. One very practical tip I received was: don't drink coffee before important presentations. I remember that advice till this day and have put it into practice. Since then, I have never experienced that level of trembling voice in important presentations.

To deal with my fear of public speaking, I've used Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as a method for "self-therapy." For example, I figured out that at the deep root of my public speaking anxiety is the fear of others' judgment (thinking I am stupid, not competent, etc.) if I make a mistake or not perform to perfection.


I learned to reshape my negative thoughts. For example, rather than thinking “I must give a flawless presentation”, I remind myself all the time that all humans make mistakes and that it is just part of being human! Moreover, most of the time the audience will not even realize those mistakes!


There are a plethora of advice on how to overcome public speaking jitters. Personally, I have found the following 3 methods the most effective in helping me overcome my fear of speaking publicly:


💡Over-prepare!


Always be sure to rehearse your speech/presentation as many times as possible under conditions that as closely resembles the situation you will be in. Practice in front of others and get their feedback and questions, so that you are prepared to answer questions the audience may have.


💡Reconsider your worries!


It's common for people with public speaking anxiety to overestimate the possibility that they will make mistakes or that the audience would be critical of them.

  1. Write down your specific fears and worries (e.g. "I'm afraid others will think I'm stupid if I make a mistake").

  2. Then underneath each one, write down if you have any evidence for each one (e.g. "There is no real evidence to prove that others will think I'm stupid if I make a mistake") .

  3. Finally, write down what objectively is the most likelihood alternative outcome (e.g. "If I make a mistake, most people will not even realize. Even if they do, they will soon forget since most people are too busy with their own lives to hang onto that mistake I made").


💡Transform your anxiety into excitement!


A heightened heartbeat and palm sweat might be interpreted as anxiety, fear, or excitement depending on how we interpret it. The trick is to learn to transform our anxiety into excitement.


I put this into action during my dissertation defense. I focused on how excited I am to share my findings on perfectionism with everyone and anticipated the audience's joy of having more knowledge about this fascinating personality trait. I was very satisfied with my performance and could not think of any other ways it could have gone better!


Just like Adam Grant shares in his article on the same topic: "I focus on the reasons to go: I’m delivering a message that matters deeply to me. I enjoy challenging assumptions, offering actionable insights, and providing some entertainment. As my enthusiasm climbs, anxiety fades."


As someone who has mostly conquered her fear of public speaking, I'm convinced that you can do the same by diligently practicing the three steps above!


I wish you luck with your next big presentation and hope that these pointers can ease your nerves a bit!


 

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