Mastering the fear of public speaking

Until a couple of years ago, the thing that frightened me more than anything else - even more than my childhood terror of bats making a nest in my hair - was standing up before a group of benign people and opening my mouth.

My fear of public speaking was as irrational as it was extreme. So much so that I spent the first two decades of my working life going to great lengths to ensure I never had to do it. Then, around my 40th birthday, I decided this was not only career-limiting but also pathetic, and so started to force myself to accept invitations.

The night before my first big speech I was so nervous I failed to sleep at all, and in the morning put on bright pink shoes in the hope that the jauntiness of my feet would trick the audience into thinking their owner felt the same way. Fifteen years on I have dispensed with the pink shoes and speak with almost no fear. My body generates just about enough adrenalin so that I focus on what I am meant to be doing, but that's about it.

My history, and my sympathy for the millions similarly afflicted, means I get cross every time I see dud advice. The Harvard Business Review recently published a piece on the subject in which it suggested the trick is to "leverage our physical bodies to be more present". I have no idea what leveraging your body involves, but it does not sound comfortable. In any case, being "present" before a speech is a bad idea. What you want to do is to absent yourself as much as possible in the hope of calming down a bit.

Even more laughable is the "tip" that you get a good night's sleep beforehand. Quite how one is supposed to do that when the whole point about nerves is that they are incompatible with sleep is not made clear. The more interesting question is which is worse: to zonk yourself with sleeping pills and be groggy in the morning, or to be sleepless and jangly with exhaustion?

Over time I have found an answer to this question and now have a five-step approach to mastering the panic of presentations.

First, I have found that sleeping pills not only remove nerves but also remove all feeling altogether. Being shattered beats being a zombie. Beta blockers, in extremis, work better for calming nerves. So does a small amount of alcohol. For a morning speech, a nip from a hip flask may not be quite the thing, but for evening speeches one (or two) glasses of wine take the edge off.

The next tip is to offset the fear of speaking with a larger, more rational one. Once, when cycling to the place where I was due to speak, I narrowly avoided being squashed by a cement mixer. The reminder that I felt no fear at the very real risk of death, and every fear at the risk of giving a slightly lame talk, shamed me into being less afraid.

My third tip is to remind yourself how awful most business people are at speaking. The usual advice, ensure your speech goes before other people's, only works if the others are unusually good. Otherwise it is better to go later and calm yourself before by watching their poor performances and noting the audience's boredom. The bar is low: you can clear it.

The fourth piece of advice is to arrive unfeasibly early. Reduce to zero the risk that speech nerves are compounded by lateness ones.

Finally, practise in front of the world's most unforgiving audience - a yawning teenager who never laughs at any of the jokes and keeps asking, "How much more of this is there?" Bad rehearsal, good performance.

In the long term, there are two things that work better than these five tips put together. The first is experience. The more talks you give the less nervous you get - partly because you improve, but mainly because you work out that the world does not end if things do not go quite to plan.

Better still is getting old. One of the beauties of being over 50 is that you go post-fear, at least at work. I am still frightened about what is happening in the world, and for my children, but I am no longer frightened about myself.

As for standing up in front of a friendly audience and talking on something I know about - I can hardly remember why it seemed so scary.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Mastering the fear of public speaking'. Print Edition | Subscribe