Public speaking anxiety, also known as glossophobia, is one of the most commonly reported social fears. While some people may feel nervous about giving a speech or presentation, if you have social anxiety disorder (SAD), public speaking anxiety may take over your life.
Public Speaking Anxiety
Symptoms of public speaking anxiety are the same as those that occur for social anxiety disorder, but they only happen in the context of speaking in public. If you live with public speaking anxiety, you may worry weeks or months in advance of a speech or presentation, and you probably have severe physical symptoms of anxiety during a speech such as the following:2
- A pounding heart
- Quivering voice
- Shortness of breath
- Upset stomach
These symptoms are a result of the fight or flight response—a rush of adrenaline that prepares you for danger. When there is no real physical threat, it can feel as though you have lost control of your body. This makes it very hard to do well during public speaking and may cause you to avoid situations in which you may have to speak in public.3Understanding the Causes of Social Anxiety Disorder
Public speaking anxiety may be diagnosed as SAD if it significantly interferes with your life. Below are some examples of how public speaking anxiety can cause problems:
- Changing courses at college to avoid a required oral presentation
- Changing jobs or careers
- Turning down promotions because of public speaking obligations
- Failing to give a speech when it would be appropriate (e.g., best man at a wedding)
If you have intense anxiety symptoms while speaking in public and your ability to live your life the way that you would like is affected by it, you may have SAD.2
Fortunately, public speaking anxiety is relatively easily managed using medication and/or therapy.
Short-term therapy such as systematic desensitization and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful to learn how to manage anxiety symptoms and anxious thoughts that trigger them. Ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist who can offer this type of therapy; in particular, it will be helpful if the therapist has experience in treating social anxiety and/or public speaking anxiety.
If you live with public speaking anxiety that is causing you significant distress, ask your doctor about medication that can help. Short-term medications known as beta-blockers (e.g., propranolol) can be taken prior to a speech or presentation to block the symptoms of anxiety. When used in conjunction with therapy, you may find the medication helps to reduce your phobia of public speaking.5
Tips on Preparing for a Speech
In addition to traditional treatment, there are a number of strategies that you can use to cope with speech anxiety and become better at public speaking in general. Public speaking is like any activity—better preparation equals better performance. When you are better prepared, it will boost your confidence and make it easier to concentrate on delivering your message.
Whether you are giving a speech at a wedding, a shareholders’ convention, or in a college classroom, there are strategies that you can use when it comes to managing anxiety.6
Even if you have SAD, with proper treatment and time invested in preparation, you can deliver a successful speech or presentation.
Choose a topic that interests you. If you are able, choose a topic that you are excited about. If you are not able to choose the topic, try using an approach to the topic that you find interesting. For example, you could tell a personal story from your life that relates to the topic, as a way to introduce your speech. This will ensure that you are engaged in your topic and motivated to research and prepare. When you present, others will feel your enthusiasm and be interested in what you have to say.
Become familiar with the venue. Ideally, you should try to visit the conference room, classroom, auditorium, or banquet hall where you will be presenting before you give your speech. If possible, try practicing at least once in the environment that you will eventually be speaking in. Being familiar with the venue and knowing where needed audio-visual components are ahead of time will mean one less thing to worry about at the time of your speech.
Ask for accommodations. Accommodations are changes to your work environment that help you to manage your anxiety. If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder such as social anxiety disorder (SAD), you may be eligible for these through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
If there is something that would make you more comfortable during your speech or presentation, see if it’s a change that can be made. Ask for a podium, have a pitcher of ice water handy, bring in audiovisual equipment, or even choose to stay seated if appropriate—whatever might make it easier for you to manage your anxiety.
Don’t script it. Have you ever sat through a speech where someone read from a prepared script word for word? You probably don’t recall much of what was said. Instead, prepare a list of key points on 8.5” X 11” paper that you can refer to. Although using cue cards might be tempting, flipping through a stack of cards can be a distraction for your audience.
Prepare for hecklers. Although it’s not likely that you’ll have hecklers at your wedding or 50th-anniversary party, criticism or difficult questions are always possibilities in a business setting. Deal with a difficult audience member by paying him a compliment or finding something that you can agree on.
Say something like, “Thanks for that important question” or “I really appreciate your comment.” Convey that you are open-minded and relaxed. If you don’t know how to answer the question, say you will look into it. Before your presentation, try to anticipate hard questions and critical comments that might arise and prepare responses ahead of time.
Practice, practice, practice! Even people who are comfortable speaking in public rehearse their speeches many times to get them right. Practicing your speech 10, 20, or even 30 times will give you confidence in your ability to deliver. If your talk has a time limit, time yourself during practice runs and adjust your content as needed to fit within the time that you have. Lots of practice will help boost your self-confidence.
Get some perspective. During a practice run, speak in front of a mirror or record yourself on a smartphone. Make note of how you appear and identify any nervous habits to avoid. This step is best done after you have received therapy or medication to manage your anxiety.
Imagine yourself succeeding. Did you know your brain can’t tell the difference between an imagined activity and a real one? That is why elite athletes use visualization to improve athletic performance. As you practice your speech (remember 10, 20, or even 30 times!), imagine yourself wowing the audience with your amazing oratorical skills.
Over time, what you imagine will be translated into what you are capable of. Not sure whether this would really work? Well, let’s consider the opposite. If you imagine giving a horrible speech and having terrible anxiety—what do you think is going to happen? The cycle of anxiety in SAD is as much a self-fulfilling prophecy as it is a reaction to an event. Learn to visualize success and your body will follow suit.
Develop a routine. Put together a routine for managing anxiety on the day of a speech or presentation. This routine should help to put you in the proper frame of mind and allow you to maintain a relaxed state. An example might be exercising or practicing meditation on the morning of a speech.
Putting It All Together
- Learn to accept some anxiety. Even professional performers experience a bit of nervous excitement before a performance—in fact, most believe that a little anxiety actually makes you a better speaker. Learn to accept that you will always be a little anxious about giving a speech, but that it is normal and common to feel this way.
- Set goals. Instead of trying to just scrape by, make it a personal goal to become an excellent public speaker. With proper treatment and lots of practice, you can become good at speaking in public. Who knows, you might even end up enjoying it.
- Put things into perspective. If you find that public speaking isn’t one of your strengths, remember that it is only one aspect of your life. We all have strengths in different areas. Instead, make it a goal simply to be more comfortable in front of an audience, so that public speaking anxiety doesn’t prevent you from achieving other goals in life.
A Word From Verywell
In the end, preparing well for a speech or presentation gives you confidence that you have done everything possible to succeed. Give yourself the tools and the ability to succeed, add in some strategies for managing anxiety, and see how well you do. For those in recovery from social anxiety disorder (SAD), these tips should be used to complement traditional treatment methods.