Have to Publicly Speak? You Freak! One-on-One (or One-to-Five)? You Thrive! What Do You Do?

Posted by on Nov 23, 2011 in General, Public Speaking | 9 comments

(Happy almost Thanksgiving, all! I’m going to lighten things up since some of you may be prepping for presentations after the holiday. This week and next, I’m going to tackle some student questions. Be prepared for next Tuesday when I answer a question on profs behaving badly. In the meantime, I hope your holiday is incredible! PS: In follow up to my last post, I’d be glad to update with a photo once the construction next door is finished. For now, the building continues!).
I love, love, love student questions! Keep them coming!!!!
Here’s one I just received and, boy, if I only had a quarter for every student who feels this exact same way! 
Dear Ellen,

I’m a university student from another country, an extrovert, and an eloquent, humorous person when with my friends, or networking with unfamiliar people (groups under 5 people are no problem). My problem with speaking arises only in a public context, for example when participating in a classroom discussion, or when forced to give presentations. I get so nervous that I’m physically unable to speak coherently. My heart beats really fast and I can’t catch my breath to articulate my words. I sweat and tremble, and my mind also goes blank so I don’t have the words to begin with. The bottom line is, people I interact with outside of class often assume that I’m a confident and fluent communicator, only to be surprised when I have to speak in class.

I know I have the verbal skills and wit to perform, but it’s just the psychological/emotional aspect of speaking to an audience that really gets to me. How do I overcome this obstacle? I’ve already been practicing a lot, but it seems to be of no use once people’s eyes are turned on me. I have a presentation coming up to a very large class. Help!!!!!!!!


Wow, I have had many students who are extremely articulate and comfortable in interpersonal settings, but put them in front of a group? Their entire persona changes and nerves set in.

Let’s start by celebrating what’s awesome:  This student (and so many other interpersonally comfortable students…) are eloquent, humorous and innately extroverted. This says that the skills, dynamism, and personality are there… we just need to comfortably transition these qualities to a larger crowd (and, preferably, while standing!)!

Here are my suggestions for the student, and questions that you can ask yourself: 

-I completely empathize with that feeling of being physically unable to speak and having those physiological signs take over. So, to start, what anxiety-reducing strategies are you trying? We need to get your body working with you, rather than flying away from you in panic. The best method I know of is called “cognitive reciting.” So, when you start to feel symptomatic before the speech, go off to a quiet space (outside of the room, etc.) and begin to say (even whisper) everything you see in front of you out loud i.e., “There’s the door. It’s painted peach and has a silver handle. The room number is on the outside, number 14…”

The actual act of talking takes a lot of effort from our minds and bodies. Therefore, if you can try this technique, the physical symptoms may very well abate. I did a guest post on this subject for a public speaking coach’s blog called Speak Schmeak.

-When you approach your speaking area, what do you typically do? Do you put your notes down and just begin? Where are your eyes? On your notes? Or on the audience? Believe it or not, setting down your notes, taking a step back, dropping your shoulders, and looking at your audience for a second or two (and smiling, of course) can decrease nervousness. Nervousness is typically far worse when a speaker looks at notes and then suddenly decides to look up:  Whoa! A flood of eyes, which would freak anyone out!

-Speaking of notes, tell me about them… Are you using note cards? Full text notes? The notes you use can be the single biggest stressor for you as a speaker, and can definitely create more apprehension and physical symptoms. Think about it:  If you’re looking down and grappling for what to say next, or if your font is too small, your heart will start racing, you may have trouble breathing, and you’ll find it difficult to actually squeak words out.

I always recommend that speakers use key word, large font notes and only practice from those notes. This way, you are more conversational with the audience, less scripted, and you don’t feel the stress of having to remember every single word. The key word notes free you up to ad-lib and embrace natural conversational (extemporaneous) flow. I have a Camtasia presentation on how to use this technique in this post.

-You mentioned that your mind goes blank immediately. I will reference the key word notes here, once again. It’s totally fine to look down and get your first word to trigger you… the audience won’t have a problem with this as long as your eye contact returns to them… quickly! If you would feel more comfortable saying something like, “Welcome, everyone!” or “I hope everyone is well today!” or even “I’m so glad to be here” to break the ice a little bit, that’s also just fine. It may feel more comfortable than launching right into your speech content.

Let’s also talk about a quick reality check because mind blanking is one of the largest fears a speaker has:  Remember, the audience has absolutely no idea what you were going to say. So, whatever you say, in the audience’s mind, will sound like it was supposed to be there.

-How much are you moving around during your speech? It sounds like you have a lot of physical anxiety happening and more movement i.e., deliberate steps–maybe two or three–and hand gestures can help your body work out some of that nervous energy. It will also give you a feeling of talking “with” your audience, rather than “at” your audience.

-I hear you saying that you are very comfortable in interpersonal situations, even with as many as five people. How can we turn the perception of public speaking (or even class discussion) into one big conversation for you? Is there a way to reframe the energy you’re giving it? Because, really, depending on your delivery style (conversational is ideal…), you are having one huge conversation with your audience. Sure, they may not be talking back, but they are giving you those nonverbal signals… smiling, nodding, upper torso leaning forward to indicate interest, etc.

-I think your upcoming persuasive speech angle sounds fascinating and like a lot of fun (I omitted this in the question for anonymity). Be a little selfish about your speech content: Add some of the wit that you mentioned; phrases that you will enjoy sharing and feel excited about. Getting a positive reaction from your audience can help your confidence in the moment! 

Really, it sounds like there isn’t as far to go as you might think. If you had severe communication anxiety in all settings, then I would say we need to determine other strategies. However, there are many strong communication attributes in place to draw upon for speaking.

Believe it or not, if you could find a way to feel even 1% better about your upcoming presentation and own that excellence, it will create further confidence for you and you may find that you actually enjoy presenting to more people. 

I’m going to think good thoughts for your next presentation!

Students, how are your presentations going this term? I’d love to hear about this… or any other class-related challenges! Other public speaking aficionados out there? What advice do you have for students who are interpersonally comfortable, but publicly hesitant?


  1. I love the idea of owning your excellence! Calling out everything that you see around you forces you "into the moment" rather than being controlled by fear or nerves. Sometimes, giving a great speech is as simple as giving yourself permission to do so – allowing yourself to be as clear and carefree as when you are talking to friends. Typically, if you are passionate about the subject, that emotion can become more important than the fear…again, if you let that passion triumph over nerves! Amazing things can happen when we allow ourselves to "own our excellence" and feel better about a presentation! Great post

  2. If it's any consolation, your professor probably feels nervous speaking in front of his or her peers. After 20 years as a professor, I still get a little nervous speaking at conferences. The larger the group, the more nervous I am. Once I get started, I'm usually fine, though. The anticipation is much worse than the experience itself.

    Professional American football players have the same experience. Mark Schelerth said, "When I was with the Broncos, we were vomiters. Before every game, myself included. It's nerves. It gets you. You constantly have to pee. All pregame you're back and forth to the bathroom… My stomach is upset right now as I talk about it."

    It's such a common experience among musicians, beta blockers have become their drug of choice. The drug is used to treat heart conditions. It keeps the heart rate down in the presence of adrenaline. If your heart rate doesn't increase, you don't feel nervous. I'm certainly not recommending it as a solution, however! There are some serious side effects. See the website below for some good alternatives.


    Gargano, A.L. (2010). NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football


  3. Excellent resource, Ellen. I've Stumbled this post to help other speakers.

    Personally, I love to speak. I do a powerpoint presentation, or product demo, and I never use note cards. I may glance down at the powerpoint presentation occasionally. I'm also a big-time mover, so no podium for me. I get pretty expressive with my hands and overall body language…which sometimes runs counter to conventional "public speaking protocol". However, it works for me ;)

  4. Brilliant tips! Ellen you are sooo right :) I love that you start with what’s awesome :) Plus, like you say, anything that can make you feel even a tiny bit better about your presentation will translate into greater confidence next time :)

    I’m a (partially!) converted introvert… My tip for anyone working through this? Consider joining Toastmasters. Not only will it help you become more comfortable in groups, it will also give you a fun and supportive environment to practice your speaking skills. I worked through the manuals and went from heart-pounding-palm-sweating-mind-racing-repeating “omigodomigod” during my first presentation, to achieving Toastmaster’s highest honor – the Distinguished Toastmaster (I was one of the youngest in the world to achieve it:)) I still get the heart pounding – but now it’s because I’m excited!

    Mastering speaking skills can help you bring more of your articulate, witty, awesome self through to the world :) Bring it on!

  5. Chris,

    Thank you, as always, for commenting and I really loved what you said about the emotion being stronger than the fear. This reminds me of something I saw in Toastmaster Magazine some years ago. The speaker would look in the mirror and say, "This audience has no idea how amazing this presentation is going to be!" So, essentially, pumping up how "lucky" the audience is. I thought it was an interesting approach, and helpful to conjure up that kind of "excellence embracing" :-) .


  6. Sue,

    Thanks so much for your comment and tips! I'm going to keep this post current a little longer because what you said has much truth. I STILL get a little nervous before the first day of school… even after being in front of a classroom for so long. That is also true for presentations. I'm thankful for those feelings. It means that I still have much appreciation and respect for this craft :-) .


  7. Brian,

    So many thanks to you for sharing. I'm with you: I LOVE public speaking and feel a high from it even. And I'm also with you that I move around, I'm expressive, and if that's wrong in the public speaking world, then let's just say I don't want to be right. I teach my students that appropriate speaker animation creates energy for the audience. And what audience doesn't want to feel energized?

    Happy presenting to you!!!!

  8. Jolene,

    Yay! Yay! Yay! You accomplished the DTM! That's an amazing feat, particularly with the governance involved. I'm so excited for you and you must be so proud. Huge congratulations and I'm so glad you shared that!!!! I bet you have a lot to teach others, particularly with how far you've come.


  9. *Squeals* Thank you!!!! It was an awesome journey (world domination always is, right?) I'm definitely one of those "if-I-can-do-it-anyone-can" examples :) And being able to now support others in doing the same is a total dream come true :)

    Thanks for taking the time to respond!

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