How I tamed my fear of public speaking

Public speaking – the fear of so many, the delight of others. As I decided to write this article, I asked the readers at The Viewpoint to share some of their thoughts on the fear of public speaking. I did get:

I have no fears


So maybe you don’t, maybe you do – as in everything in life, we can all strive for improvement.

I am not bad at public speaking, and I don’t necessarily dislike it. Generally, I am ok if I do well… I really enjoy it if I do extremely well. The problem really is the thought of it – and the moments just before. Once I get in the flow with my speech, it all generally goes away, but undoubtfully, I have a physical reaction to it – and sometimes it shows.

The first time I realized how scared I was of speaking in front of a large audience was in 2007, my first month in Harvard. I decided to run for the Section elections and be International Rep. It was no big deal, winning was not life-changing, people there were my colleagues for the next 2 years. I had a couple of sentences I was supposed to say. Potentially, another 2 people came before me to speak. I barely remember really. All I remember was standing at the centre of the 90 people auditorium seeing the paper shaking in my head, feeling my knees shaking

“Will people be able to see? How embarrassing!”


Did I win it?

Absolutely – but probably on content, not on form. That day I knew this was something I wanted to learn – how to cope with my anxiety in the face of something absolutely non-extraordinary. I attended seminars whenever the word public speaking was mentioned, I read some tricks, I talked about it. One of the few things I did not do was improve theatre, which many people recommend. But most of all, I did not shy away from it. Two things really made a difference to where I am today – hands shaking but respectable delivery. Business school and my charity. All in all, my learnings were 95% experience and, as such, I decided to put on paper my own guide on dealing with public speaking.

Prepareā€¦ and write

Preparation has been my strongest tool, especially in my early days. Because I always loved writing, speeches never came difficult for me. The moment I knew what the flow would be, it would generally take me under half an hour to put something together. I would tend to look at it again for small revisions, but I rarely change the first concept.

Depending on the complexity of what you are putting together, you may want to do research, ensure you have the correct references and thank different people (especially important in charity).

But Sara, do I really have to write?

  • Writing down your speech will ensure you have an end and a beginning, good but not too lengthy facts and you avoid duplicated points. It allows you to check your flow and visualize your ideas;
  • If you are humble enough (like I have not always been), it also allows you to be checked by someone you trust. I find that having my speeches checked is a really hard one for me, because it has a direct impact on my self-confidence ahead of the speech. But I recognise that like everything in business, the second pair of eyes won’t hurt. We all have different voices and we should stay true to them, but a trusted advisor can sometimes feel the audience in a way that you can’t;
  • If you are doing it as part of a presentation, preparing and writing your speech will help you check your slide flow and also avoid just spelling out what is on the page while looking at the slides and not facing your audience;
  • If you do speeches often, you can also re-use parts that worked well, particular case studies or history sections. Simultaneously, you can also avoid repeat speeches to the same crowd.

Say it Out Loud

The benefits are immense. I remember the first time I did this. It was the summer of 2008 and I was doing my MBA internship in Maputo. I had found bliss that summer, working during the week for a microfinance institution helping re-org and evaluate their processes for growth while travelling to the UPG projects almost every weekend to spend time with the partners and children. As I was there, I ended up being invited to speak in an event that would help with some fundraising for the charity, in one of the largest events in Maputo. The crowd would be mostly Portuguese and I did not know how they would feel about it.

As I looked at the paper I went to a small cloakroom and just started saying the words by the mirror as Hubby B listened on the background. He was there for the week and encouraged me. But he knew how much I was shaking inside. When I finished I was disturbed by the fact that I did not say exactly what I wanted and frustrated that even the practice did not solve it. But Hubby B reminded me that only him and I knew that. The fact is I said the same concept, kept to the same flow and had ease remembering the rough words as I had just heard them myself when I practised.

Accept in life that all you can strive for is your best.

  • Practicing in advance will activate your memory to remember not only what you wrote from your paper but also your listening memory;
  • Saying it out loud will also allow you to suddenly find sentences that are too long, words that come too often. It is hard to check our own speech and listening to it can be a good aid. It can be even better if you are able to record it and then play it back to yourself (if you can withstand the experience);
  • Saying your speech also has the added benefit that you check for time. Often we write something thinking that it will be “only 3 minutes” and you have plenty of headroom for your 5 minute slot. Suddenly it takes you 10 minutes to actually say it outloud, assuming you are not reading straight from the piece of paper;

Location Location Location

We all know the importance of location for so many things – speech success is another one. It is key that you know your location, ideally in advance. If not with too much lead time then arrive early and check the place out. Will you be speaking from a desk or a podium or from nothing? The location is key to give you the confidence in how you want to deliver your speech.

  • If I find that I have nothing to support me, I know for a fact that I have to find an alternative to paper. In our Quiz Nights, I have recently started using iPad to bring my prepared notes. It not only helps in darker places but it also has the benefit that it is too heavy to shake in my hands;
  • If I find that I will be in the middle of a large room, I know I have to pick the place that will allow me to make eye contact with everyone without having to be turning and spinning all the time;
  • If I know I have a podium and a mic, I will probably want to test for sound and distance to the microphone so I don’t start with everyone in the room in an amateur fashion trying to figure out how the mic works.

Make it personal

I have found that my best speeches were those that were more personal to me. I believe this is why I get so complimented on them. Passion comes naturally when I speak about the children and the work we are doing in Mozambique.  I am not only a believer in what I am saying but I also experience it directly on the ground. We are a very hands-on charity. We address each child’s problem at a time, we try and provide support to each family in th specific way that they need. That is why we have not grown immensely but that is also why it is so easy for me to put names to faces and really make everything so personal.

Ideally, you want to reserve being a speaker on things that you truly care about. Another area I speak in public places is for recruitment. I truly care about this. I want people to know their possibilities, ask the right questions and really chose a career they are passionate about. As such, I tend to be very transparent in these events, giving real life examples that allow people to understand what the job is about.

I know you may not always get a choice in speaking only about topics you deeply care about. At work, I have sought to focus my work on things that I am passionate (and yes, I am passionate about analytics) so that when being asked to present, I don’t face the hurdle of making it personal.

In a random conversation at the latest children birthday party, one of the mothers there was talking about how she was re-invited to do a speech on improving child friendliness in hospitals, especially post-surgery. She said how much she did not like public speaking, but she was truly passionate about the cause because of her own personal circumstances. Associated with her technical knowledge, this certainly made her the best person to deliver this message.

Through the years, I have made quite a few speeches, mostly for charity. One of the most emotional ones must have been in our 10-year celebration for UPG in Portugal. I was not as intimidated as usual but it was a very special moment. The preparations for the event had been tough on everyone and we ended up rallying up a great group of sponsors that made it all possible. The venue had a special meaning to me, everything was on the emotional side. I also knew that 10 years on, it was time to thank my friends and family for believing in me when I first came back from Mozambique.

My focus for that night was not to cry (too much). I practised a lot. And my voice shook every time I got to the end, even when I practiced. So I accepted that would be the case in the event as well and embraced it.

The average speaker is pretty bad and all you have to do is to be better … and you are already ahead. You are more articulate, you have better analytical ability & logic, you have done your homework, and you care that your audience understands what you are saying.


Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash

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