English & EAL

How To ‘Overcome’ Your Fear of Public Speaking

Olivia Hurley

January 10, 2021

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If you are anything like me, the thought of standing up in front of a classroom, or even a small panel of teachers, having to hold the floor for five minutes, and being assessed on your performance is just about as terrifying as it gets. Where other students thrived on the oral presentation SAC, embracing its change of pace in comparison to the other written tasks, I dreaded it. I knew the feeling all too well: legs jelly-like and quivering, breath short and rapid, palms sweating, tongue uncomfortably heavy as the words tumble out too fast to keep up with…essentially (as I, a true master of the English language, would put it) the absolute worst. 

Fast forward to the present day and, I hate to break it to you, I am still not a fan of public speaking. But guess what? I did my oral presentation and I’m still alive to tell the tale. Plus, as a bonus, it did not involve me passing out, and as a double bonus, I still ended up with a great result. So I am here, my fellow members of the ‘Might Go Ahead and Drop Out of VCE so I Don’t Have To Do My Oral’ club, as proof that it can be done and to help you get through it. 

What Do We Mean by ‘Overcoming’?

As I have already mentioned, emerging triumphant from your oral does not require you to magically become a public speaking fanatic. Let me manage your expectations right now: that probably isn’t going to happen overnight, and likely never will. But you can still be good at public speaking, perhaps great at it, even if it scares you. Trying to figure out a magical formula of preparation that will have you breezing through the oral in total zen-mode is not only going to waste your time, but will likely also make you more frightened when you realise that you can’t completely shake the nerves. So, by accepting the reality that the fear probably isn’t going to go away any time soon we can start to learn how to manage it, at least succeed in spite of it, and hopefully even use it to our advantage. 

Selecting a ‘WOW’ Topic

Arguably the best way to improve the delivery, and overall quality, of your oral presentation is to choose a topic and contention that you actually care about. In our eBook How to Write a Killer Oral Presentation we cite the first pillar of the process as being to choose a ‘WOW’ topic and contention. As Lisa says,

“an inherently interesting topic means that you’ll showcase your opinions in an authentic way, which is incredibly important when it comes to presentation time.”

This becomes particularly significant for someone dealing with a fear of public speaking because of this basic principle: when you care about something it is easier to talk about, even in front of other people. This means that you don’t just need to choose a topic that will engage your audience, but also one that you yourself find engaging. 

Fear is an intense emotional response to a situation, and as we know it can easily consume us in the moment. If your oral topic is boring and does not interest you on a personal level then what is going to be the strongest emotion you feel when delivering it? Fear. However, passion is another intense emotional response, and so if you are passionate about the arguments you are making then, although your fear will still be there, you will feel another strong emotion that can balance it out. 

So how do you find a contention that you care about? Often the best place to start is to think about the things that affect your life. We know that your topic has to have been in the media since September of last year, but lots of things are on the news and they don’t only matter to the older generations. Think about issues that relate to schools, jobs, climate change, animals, drug-taking, fashion – these are all aspects of our lives that you might be able to form a personal connection to, and that personal connection will help you find the passion you need to get through the speech, and also get through to your audience. Check out our 2021 Oral Presentation Topics for some topic inspiration, and then learn how to create a killer contention here

More About the Voice, Less About the Words

It is quite likely that if you know you struggle with the delivery of oral presentations, you might try to compensate by overreaching with your script. For someone who feels more comfortable with written assessments, it can be easy to try to make the oral as close to one as possible by writing it almost as you would an essay – using lots of impressive vocabulary, complex sentences and a formal structure. This approach is all well and good until you try to say it all out loud. This isn’t to say that your command of language isn’t important to the oral, but by trying to craft a safety net of eloquent, written words you are simply distracting yourself from what makes this SAC unique; you can’t avoid the fear by avoiding the task altogether. So, you need to write a speech that you can say, not just one that sounds good on paper. Writing with the wrong sense of tone is one of the points we touch on in 5 Common Oral Presentation Mistakes.

During the writing process, you need to make your speech work for you rather than make yourself work for it. This means constantly thinking about what the words will sound like in front of an audience, and not making the performance unnecessarily hard for yourself before you even start practicing. When you’re already nervous about speaking in front of other people, the last thing you want to have to worry about is tripping over difficult language to make convoluted arguments. So, simplicity and punch is always better than verbosity and pretence. Here are some ideas of how to use this strategy:

  • Make your arguments short, sharp, and to the point. Avoid going off on any tangents, and just stick to the main points you need to get across. You are trying to persuade your audience, not confuse them. 
  • Use a mixture of long and short sentences, because a script that uses varied sentence structures is easier to say out loud without stumbling due to nerves. Short, bold statements are both less prone to being mangled by nerves and more memorable for your listeners – just make sure you don’t only use short sentences and prevent your oral from flowing. 
  • Think about where you can schedule in pauses for emphasis, because these will give you space to stop and catch your breath without revealing your nervousness. 
  • Write like you speak! Of course you want your tone to be assertive and intelligent, but it is possible to maintain this whilst also incorporating some relaxed language. You are allowed to use the first person in this task, so take the opportunity to personalise what you say, which will help you appear more comfortable and also form a personal connection with your audience. Remember that an oral is essentially a conversation with your audience, even if they don’t get to speak back, and this means that as long as you don’t use slang you can have some fun with your delivery. 
  • Don’t rely on an essay-like structure. Your audience won’t know when a paragraph ends, so the way the script looks on the page is largely irrelevant. Make it easy for yourself to follow. 

Remember, when you struggle with a fear of public speaking it is difficult to make what you say in the spotlight sound natural. To overcome this, you want to prepare yourself to almost sound unscripted (as ironic as that sounds). Without slipping into an overly casual or informal voice, it is best if you sound comfortable and relaxed when addressing your audience. This is of course the exact opposite of how you might feel going into the assessment, so you write a speech that will make you seem like you aren’t worried about passing out. The ancient adage ‘fake it ‘til you make it baby’ definitely rings true here. However, that said, really believing what you are saying and caring that the audience believes it too, as we advised earlier, will also help you avoid sounding forced and uncomfortable. 

Preparation and Memorisation

Another mistake often made when attempting to compensate for a fear of public speaking is to rely too heavily on cue cards in the oral. Having your entire speech on hand when you complete the assessment just in case you get lost might seem like a good idea, but it is most likely actually going to hold you back from giving your best performance. Ideally, you want to have done enough preparation so that you do not need to look at your notes at all. As we discussed earlier, having a script that is as simple as possible, and that mimics your speech patterns, will help you sound less fearful – and will also be easier to memorise.

Memorise your speech by practicing it as much as possible. Make sure to get your script written as far in advance as you can, so you have plenty of time to practice without stressing yourself out further. When you do practice, do so standing up, envision an audience in front of you (or practice in front of friends or family), and rehearse how you might move around the space as you talk. You can start by having your whole script with you, but eventually you should work up to only needing a few dot points for each section that can jog your memory if you forget. This strategy might seem to make the speech even scarier, but in reality not reading off a script will help you relax into the performance, and allow you to focus on your movements and voice. Practicing enough to have the speech memorised will also help build your confidence. 

Making the Most of Your Nerves

As much as I would love to tell you that you can be ‘cured’ of your fear of public speaking, it is best to accept that the nerves are going to be there and learn how to succeed in tandem with them, rather than just hoping that they go away. Instead of being convinced that fear is going to be your downfall, try to think about how, as impossible as it sounds, you can use the nerves to your advantage. Apart from making you jittery and uncomfortable, nerves also boost your energy and adrenaline, and with the right attitude you can turn this energy into confidence. Instead of letting your nerves cause you to close up, you can use them to help you open up. Often those of us who fear feeling exposed in front of a crowd have quiet, reserved personalities that we might think of as preventing us from being able to perform. However, when our bodies are flooded with nerves this ‘wired’ feeling can be used to help us project our voices and to take up space, therefore driving us to appear more outgoing. Instead of just making you feel ‘on edge’, a manageable amount of nervous energy can give you an edge that will amp up your performance. 

Even if all of this sounds completely different to your experience of fear, what I am trying to communicate is that the way you frame the oral, and the nerves that come with it, in your mind makes all the difference. If you convince yourself that you are too scared of public speaking to ever succeed with this task, you are severely limiting your chances of achieving a positive outcome. So, focussing on retraining your mindset in the lead up to delivering your speech is very important. Try not to think of this one assessment task as being a make or break five minutes, and instead view it as a learning experience that you can use to your advantage. After all, public speaking is something most of us will have to deal with multiple times over the course of our lives, so you may as well work on getting better at it. That said, my number one piece of advice about the oral presentation is to…*drumroll please*...not take it too seriously! This might sound unrealistic, and I am definitely not telling you to put in less effort, but the more pressure you put on yourself the more nervous you are going to be. Choose a topic that interests you, believe in your contention, make use of humour and personal anecdotes, and just have fun with what you say! Your fear is probably going to be your biggest obstacle, so make it as easy as you can on yourself and the rest should fall into place…as long as you put in the work. 

Finally, our Ultimate Guide to Oral Presentations is a must-read for anybody who is doing an Oral Presentation!

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