Overcome your fear of public speaking

David Nihill, founder of FunnyBizz and author of Do You Talk Funny? 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (And Funnier) Public Speaker, dedicated a year of his life to getting over his terrible fear of public speaking by doing stand-up comedy. Below, he shares lessons learned and honed during his quest to stop being “a nervous, sweaty mess” on stage.

Understanding Stage Fright

Stage fright is your body’s way of telling you that it’s ready. The thought of negative consequences triggers glands to secrete the hormone ACTH. This hormone results in the release of adrenaline into your blood, and that’s what causes these uncomfortable feelings. It’s essentially your body’s most alert and heightened state – and ideally, you want to embrace this feeling. When you feel it, be happy. It means your body is in its peak condition to face a challenging or worrying situation.

How do you make sure this powerful feeling doesn’t overtake your body just as you’re taking the stage?

1 - Start Strong – Focus on the First 30 Seconds

When creating your presentation, you’ll want to spend a disproportionate amount of time on the first 30 seconds. As any 100-meter sprinter knows, it’s much harder to win if you get off to a weak start. Likewise, the first thirty seconds of your presentation can determine the rest of your talk. You want to start off well or it will affect your performance as much as a sprinter’s slow time off the block.

The first thirty seconds is your time to build your confidence and grab the audience’s attention. Tell them who you are, why they must listen to you, and do it in a manner that makes them like you.  That means you must rehearse these first thirty seconds the most.

2 - Don’t Bring Visible Notes Onstage with You

Not reading from notes when you’re nervous may seem counterintuitive. But spiked adrenaline in high-pressure situations can make it very hard to hold a sheet of paper steady.  Notes also force you to break flow and eye contact, and you might find yourself fumbling to find your place in the presentation.

Podiums are becoming a thing of the past as most organizers realize they create a barrier between the speaker and audience. So sooner or later, you’ll have nowhere to put notes. It’s best not to rely on them at all, but if you must have something, be sneaky about it. Write a few notes on a water bottle label or a napkin –  or just to know that they’re there, keep them in your back pocket throughout. If you don’t have a back pocket, get creative.

3 - Avoid Going Blank Onstage

No visible notes means knowing your presentation by heart. For this, I recommend using the “Memory Palace” memorization technique. Start your talk or pitch as a series of bullet points. Then create a story for each point and place that story within the layout of a building that's familiar to you, like the home or apartment you live in or the house you grew up in. Your talk then becomes a sequential walk through this house or space meeting story items (bullet points) you need to include along the way. Now if you go blank, you’re searching your mind not for a word, but a location, which is much easier to recall.

4 - Run Through Your Presentation in Fast Forward

Once you have the presentation memorized, your goal is to sound natural – like you’re simply telling a story. Saying the words out loud as quickly as possible is a great technique to identify words and parts of your talk that may trip you up the day of your talk when your nerves can get the best of you.

5 - Wear Sweat-Proof Clothing

Presenting in front of an audience takes energy and focus, which means you will perspire – especially if you’re nervous. Instead of feeling uncomfortable with visible sweat stains, dress for success. Make sure your presentation wardrobe includes fabrics like 100 percent cotton, linen, lightweight, merino wool, jersey, chambray, rayon, silk or moisture wick fabric in colors that hide perspiration.

6 - Acknowledge the Obvious

If you’re visibly nervous, have a fresh stain on your shirt, or if there’s anything unusual about you physically—anything that the audience might fixate on at the start—now is the time to address it, get a laugh, and move on so the audience can focus.

Acknowledging the obvious is known in comedy as “Calling The Room.” It means vocalizing exactly what’s going on in the room or what people are likely thinking. If there are tech problems, the same wisdom applies. Call attention to it to show your audience you know it’s an issue and move on.

 

Finally, right before you go on stage, tell yourself that you aren’t nervous, but excited. This small change in mindset makes a big difference in delivery. Put your hands above your head in a full stretch to calm your nerves and remind yourself: You’re ready.

Learn more

For more of David Nihill's public speaking tips from stand-up comedy, visit his website, get 80 Free Tips, or check out his book Do You Talk Funny? 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (And Funnier) Public Speaker.