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Feel the Fear - Do It Anyway
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Fear of having to speak in public consistently rates as the number one phobia for most people. It is ranked higher even than the fear of dying. On the Internet one can even find hypnotherapists offering “cures” or ten week courses in overcoming social anxiety phobia. Perhaps in extreme cases such approaches are necessary but for most people a number of simple rules are enough to help them get past their anxiety and on to delivering a quality bit of public speaking.

Overcoming your nerves

Remember the audience is with you – Nine times out of ten your audience is sympathetic and interested in what you have to say. If you are speaking at a wedding the goodwill in the room is enough to overcome any mistakes that you might make. If you are speaking before work colleagues their interest is in the information you have to convey and not in whether you are a top flight public speaker. Not only are audiences generally sympathetic they are also realistic in their expectations. An audience does not expect to get another Oscar Wilde rising up to entertain them – you should not therefore expect that they will be disappointed if your speech is not Wildean in its wit and panache.

Keep the audience with you – “To be seen – stand up; to be heard – speak up; to be appreciated – shut up.” The recipe for keeping the audience with you is simple – be brief. No audience ever complained about a short speech but many an audience complained about a long one. Leaving them wanting more is much better than having them secretly wishing you would wind up. It is, however, easy to overrun. The key to ensuring that you do not is first, limit your material to at most three main points – it is hard to convey more than three central concepts in a short speech. Second, practice the speech at least once so as to know how long it will run and edit it once you know if you were overrunning. Third, have some method of telling the time when you are speaking or get someone in the audience to indicate what the time is for you. So important is this factor that I like to begin my speeches by informing the audience that I will be brief – it sets them at their ease (even if ultimately it is not true.)

Have faith – If you appear confident then both you and your audience will believe that the speech will be good and it will become a self-fulfilling attitude. The source of that confidence is faith in your material. If you know your material is good then as long as you stick to it you will be just fine. How can you tell if your material is good? It will be clearly structured, with a beginning, middle and end. It will only make a limited number of points – I suggest no more than three. It will be relatively short: for “social” speeches such as at a wedding or a leaving do I recommend no more than 10 minutes. For other speaking events the length of the speech will probably be dictated by the format of the presentation and the time that is allotted for it. If possible write out your speech in full and practice reading it. Then reduce your speech to note form so that you don’t just read it out. Whatever else, you must have practiced your speech at least once before delivering it.

Drink – I don’t mean have a shot of whisky before beginning. That’s a recipe for embarrassment. I do mean have some water to hand and feel free to pause to take a sip if your mouth starts to dry. The perception of time can go haywire when speaking and people are inclined to believe that pausing for a sip of water puts an agonizing pause into their speech. It doesn’t and the benefit of lubricating a cotton-mouth cannot be overstated.

Hints and tips for a good speech

Humor – It’s a common misconception that a speech is only good if it is humorous. Not so. Even speeches that are traditionally comic, such as a best man’s speech, can be perfectly successful without any jokes in them at all. Therefore, I suggest that you only incorporate humor into your speech if you would do so normally. By that I mean that if, in everyday conversation, you tend to pepper your dialogue with gags continue to do so in the speech. But if you don’t normally do jokes don’t change that just because you are now public speaking. Humor can be very successful if done well – but it can be a disaster if it goes wrong. It becomes a disaster not because the audience are upset by a bad gag but because the speaker who expects laughs and does not get them can feel fatally undermined, lose their way and stumble. Having said all that if you have a sure-fire gag to hand – it should be appropriate for the topic and in no circumstances should it be risqué (you might get away with it but, dear God, what if you don’t?) – then it is best to stick it in right at the beginning. If it goes well then the audience and you relax. If it goes badly – then you can move on to the meat of your speech and by the end the audience will have forgotten it.

Slow down – A speech is only appreciated if it can be heard. Speak up, speak clearly and speak slowly. Nerves will make you want to rush and mumble. Take conscious steps to avoid this fate. A speech is not like a conversation. The audience will take longer to absorb the information coming at them than they will in a simple dialogue. This is because the fact that they are listening to a speech puts an audience into a special mode where their brains insist on filing away the information received in a proper order. Whereas in ordinary chat they will probably just skim over whatever they didn’t catch. I find it helpful to write “slow down” in large letters at the top of my notes in order to remind myself that nerves will make me race unintelligibly through my material.

Engage with your audience - In practice this simply means making eye contact with the audience. Don’t look down at your notes all the time. Don’t stare at one person only; make sure to scan the whole audience. It can be helpful to write “Eye Contact” at the top of your notes in order to remind you to engage with the audience. Equally, not having a full text of your speech in front of you will make it less likely that you just read out your material. Doing so means that you project no interest out into the audience and they are left wondering why they didn’t just read the lecture handouts.


  1. Don’t panic – your audience wants you to succeed.
  2. Be brief – that’s ultimately every audience’s main criteria of a good speech.
  3. Have faith in your material – it’s your crutch and it will get you through this.
  4. Practice your speech at least once – its important for confidence and timing.
  5. Speak slowly and clearly and look at your audience from time to time and your audience will think you a good speaker whatever you say.

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