Stage fright: How to overcome your fear of public speaking


It’s a biggie. And it even has its own name: glossophobia.

But the term “public speaking” no longer refers to just talking in front of a physical audience. It can also mean presenting to a virtual audience through online events, meetings, conferences — however you call it.

Now I hate speaking in front of large groups of people, yet I love picturing that standing ovation after delivering a great speech. (You have to dream big, right?)

And if you’ve ever seen a documentary about people with phobias, they’re always told to face their fears. So after trying to think of anything other than doing just that, I challenged myself to go and speak at large events in order to overcome my fear of public speaking.

I know — why would someone do that?

But it worked. Here are a few things I learnt on my quest for presentation zen.


What are the common fears when it comes to public speaking?

  1. Looking like a fool
  2. Boring the audience
  3. Being lost for words
  4. People noticing your nervousness
  5. People hating the presentation or, worse, getting up to leave

Now all of these are valid concerns, but what if I told you that there’s a way to avoid them? Nothing will happen to you if you follow my four-step plan to public-speaking invincibility.

Step #1: Prepare your environment in advance so you can concentrate on delivery

Ultimately, you want to calm your nerves. Knowing that you’ve spent the necessary amount of time preparing not only your presentation but also your environment will ease that nervous feeling.

Here are a few things to check before the big day:

What exactly will be available to you?

  • Laptop/tablet (do you need to bring your own?)
  • Microphone
  • Projector or display
  • Presentation clicker
  • Lectern
  • Power point to plug in your laptop

For online presentations

  • Will you present from your machine or control the presentation via someone else’s computer?
  • Will you need a webcam?
  • Have you got a headset with a built-in microphone?
  • If no headset, have you got a telephone with loudspeaker capability so your hands will be free to control the presentation?
  • Have you got the log-in details?

Rehearsal time

  • Have you set up a rehearsal beforehand so you can become familiar with your technology and surroundings?

Presentation back up

  • Have you got the presentation saved in more than one place? For example, try multiple memory sticks in case one doesn’t work. You can also email the presentation to yourself or save it to a cloud storage service so it’s quick to find in case you’re in a rush.


  • Is your laptop fully charged and have you got the power cable?

Slides and notes

  • Have you printed out your slides and notes in case of some sort of technical failure? In the worse-case scenario, you will still be able to present, even if people can’t see your presentation.

Now that you’ve got the external factors under control, it’s time to talk topic.

Step #2: Don’t allow the topic to petrify you

The one thing you’ll need most when speaking publicly is confidence. And nothing undermines your confidence more than being absolutely clueless about the topic you’re supposed to present on.

There’s two ways to avoid cluelessness:

  1. Pick a topic you’re an expert on.
  2. If that is not an option and you’re stuck with a topic you know zilch about, speed-cram as much knowledge into your brain before the speech as possible. Ideally, even get some hands-on experience with whatever it is you’ll need to talk about.

Phew! Now that you know your stuff and you’re more prepared, the likelihood of looking like an utter fool has just decreased tenfold.

Step #3: Have a stunning presentation ready

Before you even open your mouth, your audience will have an impression of you just by looking at your slides. It is therefore imperative that you spend time crafting a stunning presentation — it’s just as important as the speech you give is.

Here are some tips that work for me:

Use one idea per slide
Add a new slide for each idea you have until you’re out of ideas. Make sure it’s one idea per slide. Ideally, summarise the idea in fewer than five words. Three if you feel up to it. One if you like a challenge. Or if you’re feeling really brave, use no words at all.

Conjure up a matching image for each idea
If you’re looking for pictures, there is a great post here with over 50 free image sources.

For each idea, take your matching image and make it fill your whole slide. Then add the words (if any) in big bold letters (30+ font size). This can look really effective. Having just a few words on your slides will enable your audience to focus on what you’re saying, rather than trying to read and listen at the same time.



Arrange your ideas into a story arc

A story arc is a way of telling a story over various chapters or episodes. It can be particularly effective in public speaking. Here are three examples from my own speeches:

  • In a speech about lead management, I used the circle of life as an analogy, telling the life story of a lead from conception to birth, to death and finally to resurrection.
  • Talking about a website relaunch, I used a photo of myself stretching for an unattainable goal pictured as a castle in the sky. I then told the story of how we put that goal within reach and ended with another photo, the castle in the sky firmly in my grip.
  • In a speech about flexible working, I told micro stories of how workshifting has impacted my daily life.

The benefit: You’ll have a much easier time memorising your speech and remembering what’s next. Presenting all of it as part of an overarching story will also help hold everybody’s attention, so boredom will be less likely.

And if that wasn’t reason enough to try stories, your heroic presentation will make a great impression on your audience, and you’ll be on your way to winning them over.

Step #4: Practice as if your life were at stake

When I prepped for my first big speech, I read up on presenting. I was blown away when I learned Steve Jobs rehearsed his presentations weeks in advance and two days straight leading up to the event.

If Steve Jobs managed to get that into his undoubtedly super-busy schedule, what was my excuse for not being able to?

Ever since then, I’ve rehearsed my presentations at least five times out loud, sometimes coercing my wife or colleagues to listen and provide feedback. Then I spend extra time on polishing the opening and closing sequences and rearranging words and sentences until they feel just right.

It all ties back to confidence. If you’ve rehearsed well, your confidence is high and that shows when you present. A smooth opening. No awkward pauses.

Best of all, feeling secure about the opening line takes away much of the nervousness immediately before you go on stage. And once you’re past your first sentence, you’re in the flow.

Works every time!

Are you daunted by speaking in public?
What about you? Are you daunted by speaking publicly? How do you cope? Let me know in the comments below.


Do's and Don'ts of giving a killer presentation

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About the author

Daniel Waas is Director of Product Marketing for the Communications Cloud here at Citrix. He’s a geek at heart who loves LEGO, sci-fi and the occasional video game if time permits. Despite these severe dating handicaps, he was lucky enough to get married and even luckier to have a son. You can connect with Daniel on Google+, LinkedIn or Twitter. More blog posts by Daniel Waas ››
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  • Robbie Sure

    I think the 3 biggest potential areas for failure are:
    Being too smart
    Going off-piste
    Talking about subject you know nothing about
    That little one-liner that has just appeared in the back of your head ?
    Leave it there, it didn’t come you during rehearsals so why would it be a good idea now ?

    Don’t patronise the audience, keep to the facts in a nuetral manner.
    Don’t wander off into self praise or be tempted to talk about something you did just so you can brag about it. Don’t through in a little anecdote to illustrate a point – unless its well rehearsed and part of the core message.
    I know the article mentions cramming about a topic you know nothing about. But really, if you truely know nothing about it then you are the wrong presenter.
    Finally, if you are still nervous running up to the event just remember you are there to inform the audience, its not a test, they are not trying to catch you out, they are not the emeny, go into if feeling they are on your side – even if its a sales pitch or a competitor debate, always believe people are wishing you well

    • Daniel Waas

      That’s a really good point. I believe it’s true, the audience wants you to succeed, otherwise they’d just have wasted x minutes in their life. As you say, they’re on your side.
      I agree with the expert being the ideal speaker, but on the corporate level I’ve frequently seen someone nominated to speak on a company topic that they were relatively clueless about. I think if you’re in that spot and can’t decline the assignment speed-reading is your only viable way out :-)

  • Ashok

    I do say if you prepare too much, the experience is 10 times more stressful. Just do the necessary to get the job done. This works great for small groups of say 20 or so.

    When it comes to larger venues, (i.e. best man’s speech etc..etc…), that requires all the inner strength and rehearsals you can get.

  • Rose Parker

    Some great advice here thanks Daniel. I completely agree with the first point about environment. If you can rehearse in the physical space you will use for your presentation, it makes it very much less scary on the day, especially if you have to use unfamiliar technology!

    • Daniel Waas

      Funny habit that fits in with this: Most time when I arrive at the venue I’ll go all the way to the stage and look at the (still empty, or sparsely populated) auditorium. It’s probably just superstition, but it helps me keep calmer when I have to go up there for real later in the day.

  • Nouman Bantan

    I like what Robbie said about not to patronize the audience. One major solution for me was to not concentrate on the audience behavior whatsoever.

    if you can’t, then scan the audience for a friendly face who smiles a lot and nod her/his face frequently. Then, every time you face difficulty with your thoughts, look at that person for comfort. Don’t worry if you do it too much but you have to try give everyone in the audience their face-time share.

    I consider rehearsal important but not too much because I have faced many times where I have to present in a few hours in-front of as many as 3000 people.

    I find the idea presented by that author about making the presentation in a form of story. This will help a lot with audience engagement.

    • Daniel Waas

      Hi Nouman,

      Thanks for chiming in! I very much agree. Find someone positive in the audience you can anchor your eyes to. What I’ve found works when I’m at an event with multiple speakers in the line-up is to use the breaks before I am on to chat with a couple of people in the audience. I’ve found having had a personal interaction gets you a guaranteed smile if you make eye contact with them while you present.

  • Jorg Borgwardt

    A very comprehensive article and some equally good comments. I’d add just these three points: train to stand tall (so you can be seen), practice to speak loud (so you can be heard), be comfortable with wearing something that stands out (so you will be rememebred as a person). It was this latter point that made David Ogilvy wear red suspender belts when nobody else did. So even if people didn’t remember his name they remembered the red suspenders.

    • Gemma, Citrix Interactions

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jorg – I think it’s time I invested in some new clothes :o)

    • Belsay Bugle

      Do you mean braces?
      He would certainly stand out if he wore a red suspender belt.

  • Thanks for such a generous article about speaking and for such helpful responses and comments. Know your beginning and your ending so that you can say them without notes and with a smile are two small things I would add

  • Chris Taylor

    I couldn’t agree more with all the advice and guidance post so far. I practice all that has being mentioned, and if you follow all the advice, people new to public speaking will be fine.
    When I first started public speaking I had several freezes and the way I dealt with that was simply to be honest with the audience. The exact words I used to say were ‘bear with me everyone, slight brain block, I’m human and not perfect’, then I would quickly refer to my notes, which are still there nowadays even though I can’t remember the last time I referred to them.
    I have never had a negative react to doing this, in fact I would say it built more of a rapport with the audience, I think it helped to relay that I wasn’t considering myself to be any better than anyone else, and that seemed to generate more attention and sometimes interaction depending on what I was informing people of or presenting about – that’s my experience, if it helps any one great!
    One thing I would like to echo on previous posts is, never to speak on a topic that you are not fully comfortable or knowledgeable with – my opinion is its a disaster waiting to happen – I know I’ve done it before, when trying to helpful and help someone out!

    • Gemma, Citrix Interactions

      That’s a great phrase to use Chris: ‘bear with me everyone, slight brain block, I’m human and not perfect’. I’ll be using that myself! Thanks for contributing.

    • Daniel Waas

      Thanks to both of you for adding your thoughts. Great tips. I love it when the comments provide as much or more value than the post itself and that’s exactly the interaction we were looking for when we started the blog two weeks ago (and is also the reason it’s called the “Interations” blog). Thank you so much everybody for joining the conversation!

  • Gemma, Citrix Interactions

    Great tips Liza. And that’s very true about people not realising if you missed a point you were planning to make. I like the idea of using that extra bit of info when following up.

  • mikehousley

    Excellent advice Daniel!
    Practice makes perfect as they say!
    I attended a presentation skills course on public speaking a couple of years ago. It featured professional actors who talked about the importance of deep breathing and projecting the voice from the stomach area. Also slowing down the delivery and pausing for effect.
    Ultimately confidence comes from good preparation and practice and self belief. Also avoiding the traditional late night if you’re at a conference. It really isn’t cool to be the last to leave the bar!

    • Daniel Waas

      Thanks for the feedback, Mike! I had a similar experience when it comes to preparing your voice for a great delivery. I saw a presentation a guy gave who was a speaker on a radio show, He recommended grimacing, making loud nonsense noises and stretching right before you go on stage, This also helps. I’ve also found a glass of water to come in quite handy when you feel you’re going too fast. Just take a sip and you’ve created an effective pause without feeling awkward.

  • Yvonne Mpanga

    Thank you Daniel Waas and Citrix Int. for bringing this to my attention…Have looked for a supplementary point and it turns out I have none… All key points are sufficiently covered…A MUST SHARE with my students! Thanks again!

  • Great tips! will let you know if it works for me….

  • Theodore Ativor

    Superb insight I’m very grateful for this article Mr. Waas. I know it really going to help me in my professional career as a marketing executive.

  • Miriam Ramírez

    Thanks a lot Daniel. I will put this tips in practice the next time…

    • Daniel Waas

      Happy to. Let me know how it goes :-)

  • Craig Godfrey

    Hi Daniel, this is a great way to prepare for a public speaking experience but when the experience is a phobia then these tools only get you so far. Phobia’s take people into unchartered territory in their capacity to think clearly and take appropriate actions. In NLP, this is referred to as “maps” and when people access a phobic state rational thoughts leave the building!!!

    I think you’ve done a great piece of work here and I loved the story concept – I will use this in the future so thanks for this. I’m surprised that nobody has dedicated any discussion to one of the key points being glossophobia. For a lot of people this is the main issue as the experience is distanced from comfort.

    I have been studying NLP of late and can recommend a gentleman called Thom Shillaw who has a wealth of knowledge on phobia cures and more importantly bespoke personal solutions.

    cheers craig

  • Luis Contreras

    Great tips…I almost use all of them,,,thanks!!

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  • Joan

    Hi Daniel, thanks for sharing your experiences with us. I will try this in my next presentation.

    • Daniel Waas

      I’m happy you got some ideas out of the post and hope they’ll work for you :-)

  • Jayakrishnan

    Thanks a lot for inviting me … i think the bast way to become a good Stage speaker is to practice, practice and practice …. in front of your family, a mirror or to an open space… even though it can save you from stage fear the actual guts comes from the subject knowledge… so practicing with the specific subject in the initial stages will be the best practice to become a good speaker…

  • Nagesh

    Hi Daniel, good inputs. Went through your valuable tips and found that i follow most of them.
    There few other things which can also be kept in mind before one embark on a presentation/speech, like
    a. not to have image/content/words on the slide for which we have not prepared to explain OR have less knowledge
    b. Try gaining at-most knowledge about the topic/slide/content we are going to talk about
    c. be prepared thoroughly so that one will have confidence to answer any query posed during or at the end of session, last and less important

    d. having a background check of the audience and their knowledge on the topic will also give little of boost to the speaker.

    I enjoyed reading through the content and really helpful for public speeches.

  • Marcel

    Excellent tips Daniel-thank you and all the others for sharing what makes them confident.I sometimes use a self-deprecatory joke/one liner which makes the audience laugh or at least smile which gets them to identify with you as you start

    • Daniel Waas

      Hi Marcel. Yes, I do that too from time to time. I think people take well to the speaker not taking themselves too serious. I’ve found it a great confidence booster to get a laugh from the audience early. I sometimes pick one or two of the smiling people in the first rows and make eye contact with them again later in the presentation. Once that connection is established initially these folks usually smile back encouragingly later and I find that helps me stay confident when you have a stretch where engagement wanes a bit.

  • Denise Edmond

    There’s more. Practise won’t get you anywhere if you don’t understand your own body language and how you use it. Don’t just practise, but practise in front of a mirror – full-length – or film yourself, over and over if you have to. By about the tenth filming you will begin to like what you see. Avoid the high negativity of how you react to yourself, that’s not progressive. The reason people are afraid is because we all have a blind side; in other words, we can’t see ourselves as others see us. If speaking in public is something that you will need to do ongoing, then it pays to really want to watch how you perform. As I said, over and over, if you need to. And most people, even very good speakers, can develop little foibles… twisting of hands, avoiding the audience’s eyes and so on. It’s important to learn to look into people’s eyes as you speak and not at a dot in the distance, unless the auditorium is massive and then the dot becomes your alternative, but you still need to connect, and that comes from appearing to look at people by moving around a little, moving your head position, things like that. For people with a phobia, as in a real terror, it’s important to understand that it’s quite normal to be afraid and that you aren’t ‘the only one’. Public speaking requires effort, like any good performance.

    • Daniel Waas

      Hey Denise, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree with you that posture is important and that practicing in front of a mirror or recording your practice runs on video helps. When I’ve attended presentation trainings in the past, I have found that the most valuable part of the training.

      That said I think overly focusing on posture and gesture can also add to the nervousness especially when you start out with speaking in public.

      As I’ve gained experience and confidence I’ve started to consciously build body language into my presentations, acting like an old man walking on a cane as I’m speaking about the time lost commuting, Throwing up my arms in an “I give up” motion to underscore a point. I’ve found it liberating and it definitely gets the audience’s attention. I’ve even included one line of singing in one of my presentations and linked it to a joke of my wife being mortified when I practiced the presentation with her (she really was ;-) – I guess I have a slightly questionable musical taste:

  • Surbhi Bhagat

    Nice thoughts….

  • Ray Bigger

    The points Daniel has made I agree with, The issue I have is they have been made over and over again by many presentation and coaches and yet the quality of presentations is still poor. I think the primary reason is people think a) they are good at presenting b) they do not seek honest feedback and they don’t as Daniel articulates practice, practice.
    The pointers I would give are:- The average attention span is 22 minutes, so focus on three key messages only and use 3/4 points to justify/support each of the three key messages. There is nothing wrong with PowerPoint. People use about 5% of its capability, it is the presenter that is the problem. Slides should not be self-explanatory otherwise why do you need a presenter. Most slides are mostly text and that text appears all at once. Build each slide – why? If all the info is on the slide at once the audience can read 7 time faster than you can read. The result – the audience disengages. As Daniel says use good compelling visuals that you can add context to just like good tv presenters do. You are telling a story. Also summarise after every message or 6/7 minutes. If you don’t people will only remember the first and last few minutes. Finally think about a compelling opening i.e. a video of 90/120 seconds and /or stand in the audience for your opening remark and/or ask a tough question. I’ll stop there suffice two other presenters worth watching are Sir Martin Sorrell ( he rarely uses any support at all) and Sir Ken Robinson both masters of their trade. I hope that helps

  • Jai Shukul

    Overcoming stage fear is a concern for most of us. It is not out of the ordinary that one cringes with the thought of being in the spot light and the audience scrutinizing every thing one says or every move one makes.

    Fear of public speaking, like other fears- say the fear of swimming, has to be approached with understanding and resolve in terms of what we are trying to accomplish. The awe of the environment around us is one key element that throws us off balance. ” What are people going to think of me”, ” Am I going to make a fool of myself in front of all these distinguished people”, ” what if I fail to impress”, ” What if people laugh at me or girls find me gaucky..” etc. etc. Such thoughts kill our confidence and thus the phobia. However, form the audiences view there are no such thoughts intended.

    There are definite recipes of growing out of ones fears of stage, the important one being understanding our fears and dealing with them.

    First of all we have to learn to feel comfortable on the stage. There are small exercises to develop the comfort with the audience. Once you begin to relax, the energies that left you earlier start to flow back and you warm up to the audience. Eye contact, exchange of smiles, well spaced nods etc. are used for beginners to relax.

    Practice is very important however practice should be from small to big, say from class room to auditorium and not vice versa. Class participation is an important first step to overcoming stage fears. Start with small and focused practice such as telling a joke or giving a short casual talk- say ‘ which recent movie or book did you like’? or ‘what makes you angry’.

    Once you graduate out of the basics then the important problem that needs to be addressed is organizing the speech and making it effective. And after that… how to connect with the audience and make your event memorable. Well… it would be difficult to write about all these in this short space. So I would say stick to the basics first which is overcoming your fear of the stage.

    Best wishes

  • Maurice

    This is a great article Daniel packed with some great and very helpful advice for the nervous speaker. Personally I would change the headline of step 4 slightly as practicing as if your life depends on it probably isn’t too helpful in reducing anxiety. Great stuff though, well done. Maurice


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