Public Speaking for the Terminally Nervous

“Just imagine they’re all naked” is possibly the worst advice that has ever been given.  I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure the only thing more nerve-wracking than speaking in front of a group of people, would be speaking in front of a group of naked people.

Recently, I did a demonstration for a group that I belong to. I was extra nervous because I would not only be speaking, I would be speaking while making a glass pendant over an open flame. It seemed like there was a lot of potential for things to go wrong. However, it went pretty well. I was a little shaky, but I managed to pull it off without serious injury or embarrassment. The the time I was done, I realized that I have learned a lot over the years about how to deal with the nerves and be myself with an audience. On my journey from a whispering, stammering, shaking teenager to a fairly entertaining adult, I have come up with three cardinal rules, and I thought I might share them with you.

1.  Don’t pretend you’re fine. I think one of the most destructive things you can do is try to ignore your anxiety. When you try to push a fear away, or deny it, you never actually deal with it and, more often than not, it pops up right before you are due to speak with a vengeance. My mother prefers to change “nervous” to “excited” in her mind. So instead of thinking “I’m so nervous about tomorrow,” she says “I’m so excited about tomorrow!” I don’t bother with semantics, I just own it. Unless it is completely inappropriate, I will start any speech with some sort of acknowledgement of my jitters, usually as a joke. So many people are afraid of speaking to a group that they will have sympathy if you just fess up at the outset. For example, I started my demo last week by saying “You’ll have to pardon me.  This is my first demo in front of a large group and I’m pretty nervous.  If I start dropping things or accidentally set myself on fire, those are not required steps.  You don’t have to try and duplicate them at home.” Everybody laughed, the guy running the video camera promised to put me out if I caught fire, and a lot of my tension diffused. They say “Start with a joke,” well I say turn your fears into that joke.

2.  Know your stuff, but don’t over-rehearse.  Obviously it’s important to know what you’re going to say.  My worst public speaking disasters are the result of thinking “I know the subject pretty well, I’ll just wing it.” Those days usually end with a lot of stammering and sweating. Still, I really hate writing out a whole speech. What works best for me is to come up with a general outline of what I want to say with a few key lines written out and/or memorized so I sound good.  

If you are more comfortable writing everything out beforehand, don’t over-rehearse. The dangers here are twofold. The first issue is aesthetic. If you drill a presentation to death, it will probably come across stilted and rushed. You lose a sense of what you are trying to say because it becomes a group of words that you need to say in the right order. The other danger is more practical. You get so hung up on saying the words just the right way, that if you drop a word or sentence it can derail your whole speech. Again, over-practicing turns a sentence into a group of words in a particular order. You can get so hung up on the word that got dropped, you forget what was supposed to come next. Practice enough that you are comfortable, but leave yourself some room to be flexible.  

3.  What’s the worst that could happen? This is a game I play before a presentation – usually the night before while I am staring at the ceiling and wishing I could sleep. Stage fright, for all that it is tied up with a specific event, is actually a pretty vague thing. Ask yourself what, exactly, you are afraid of. In most circumstances there are no real consequences if you give a bad speech.  Will people throw things at you? No. Will they  hate you after? No. Will someone run up from the audience and punch you in the face? No. Will you pass out, throw up or urinate on the stage?  Highly unlikely. Typically, the worst thing that could happen is that you feel a little embarrassed. We all get embarrassed from time to time and, to my knowledge, it has never killed anyone.

If there are possible negative consequences, if you’re defending a thesis for example, then your best bet is to face your fear and do some reassuring. You will not forget everything you’ve ever known. Your professors have seen nervous grad students before. By the time you have written your dissertation and are ready to defend it, you have been living with your subject for so long, and studying it in enough depth, that you will be fine. At that point, you probably know more about the subject than anyone in the room. My mother, who gets nervous about giving a birthday toast, said it was the easiest presentation she had ever given. 

My last piece of advice is simple: Enjoy yourself. The more fun you have, the more fun your audience will have, and a group of people who are having fun will forgive all sorts of mistakes.

By [E]SaraB

Glass artisan by day, blogger by night (and sometimes vice versa). SaraB has three kids, three pets, one husband and a bizarre sense of humor. Her glass pendants can be found at if you're interested in checking it out.

7 replies on “Public Speaking for the Terminally Nervous”

#3 is really helpful for me. I tend to really enjoy public speaking (a poetry reading, a conference paper presentation, etc) once I’ve gotten started, but leading up to it I always find myself thinking about what excuse I could make to get out of it. And thinking about what terrible things could happen if I botch it up and realizing that they’re really not so terrible at all helps me a lot.

Along the same lines, I also focus on how great I’ll feel when I’m finished – I always feel relieved and proud of myself, and hopefully I feel like it went well and I did myself and the material justice, and focusing on those positive feelings helps neutralize some of the nervousness.

Finally, I sort of do the opposite of #1 – I’m usually all about owning up to my feelings, but the most helpful thing I do when I’m nervous about a presentation is to pretend that I’m not. I get up there, I take a few seconds to take a deep breath and look around, and then I get started and I just pretend like I’m not nervous at all, and that gives me confidence, which helps me be not nervous, which makes me feel even better and more relaxed, etc. It seems to work – I gave a toast at a wedding with over 300 people and was really afraid I’d start crying and mess it up, and afterwards I was chatting with a woman who told me she was impressed by how calm and confident I was because she thought she would be really nervous giving a toast in front of so many people, and I told her I was glad she thought that because I actually was really nervous and was hoping I’d hidden it well! I totally see how this wouldn’t work for everyone, but it’s served me well. :)

I agree, I feel positively euphoric after speaking to a group.  It’s a big sense of accomplishment.

In a strange way, admitting I’m nervous to myself can help me act like I’m not nervous when I’m on stage.  I don’t know how it works, but it does.  And in situations where I don’t want to say anything about it to the audience, then I do my best to fake it like a boss.

I definitely agree with you, regarding doing the opposite of #1, at least in a professional setting.  In normal social interactions, owning my awkwardness and silliness is par for the course.  However, in presentations, I worry that I will not be taken seriously if I admit to nerves, for a multitude of reasons: I am a grad student in science, and therefore low on the totem pole; I am a small, very young-looking woman; I am an MDPhD student, and have encountered the attitude that I am therefore “not a real scientist.”  So, like you, I’ve found that taking a breath, and projecting an image of Not Nervous allows me to effectively get through my presentation, and convey confidence to the audience, even when I don’t feel confident.  Recently my PI told me at the last minute that I would be giving his talk at a conference (one which was largely commercial and at which no other students were presenting).  Despite being nervous, the feedback I received was mostly “wow, you were so calm!  I could never have been that confident as a grad student in this setting!”  Here, I do admit to nervousness, because on an individual basis, owning it can make you more relatable to someone who may have ideas or questions for you.  However, in front of a packed room of (mostly) stodgy old men?  Not so much.

This is really good advice. I did 8 years of competitive debate and public speaking and the tip about starting with a joke is gold. It makes you likable to your audience and softens the mood for any kind of presentation. Also, you can use this joke to keep you going. If you find yourself running out of breath, stop, take a deep one, and then say to your audience, “Whew! I bet you need one too!” People will laugh. As you said, the majority of people can relate to public speaking nerves.

Other tips I’ve learned over the years: anticipate questions. Write down possible answers. Identify the flaws in your argument and be prepared to account for them. If someone catches you and makes you look bad during feedback time, thank them kindly and accept their argument as if it were your own (act like it was the next thing on your list!) and answer as diplomatically as possible (ie. admit no fault!).

Like you said, Sara, keeping an outline on hand is useful! It’s a good way to find your place if you get lost. Writing down examples for each point will also help you keep on track rather than having to think of them on the spot. I always kept an outline for every speech I gave. It’s immensely useful.

If this is timed, never count down on a timer–a loud beeping noise going off will alert everyone that you’re over time and make you lose track. It will derail everything, so practice your speech with a timer counting up (kitchen timers generally work for this kind of thing).

Ah!  I knew there was something I was forgetting!  Yes, anticipate questions and figure out a way to say “I don’t know the answer to your exact question, but you can find the answer [here].” or something like that.  There’s nothing worse than getting caught bullshitting.  And don’t ever apologize for not knowing the answer.  If it isn’t in your presentation, it is an interesting point for you and your listeners to look into later.

Oooh, anticipate the questions!  Sometimes I know there is a question that can derail the presentation, especially in a group of egoists who love to hear themselves talk and argue about minutiae.  I usually say, “You might be thinking, ‘What about XYZ?’; well, XYZ doesn’t apply here because…” and take 10 seconds to head it off.  Works every time!


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