Many of my clients tell me they “hate public speaking” and dread giving presentations to large groups. This is troubling because the ability to share one’s expertise, lessons learned, and vision can be crucial to career advancement and job satisfaction. It is the rare leader who is never called upon to present the organization’s strategy or explain a change the organization is undertaking. And speaking at conferences is great for networking, recruiting new talent, learning and sharing best practices, and gaining visibility in a company and an industry.
The first step in overcoming glossophobia is to stop giving it power. When you say you hate or fear something, you build up a resistance that gets stronger over time. But if instead, you say, “I don’t enjoy public speaking yet,” you lay the possibility for enjoying it eventually.
The next step to overcoming a fear is to gradually and increasingly expose yourself to it. Begin by identifying safe situations and low- to no-risk opportunities where your nascent public speaking skills won’t be marked against you. This can be in front of friends, in a presentation skills class, or at Toastmasters, a non-profit organization where members improve their public speaking skills through practice and educational support. The best public speakers built their skill over time and with practice. Your initial practice sessions may feel less intimidating if you speak about a subject you enjoy.

When I drill down on what is behind a client’s anxiety, I usually find they’re afraid of either the audience or the topic. If you fear the audience, plan ahead to meet some of the people who will attend your presentation. Ask them what they are interested in hearing and learning. This will give you insights to tailor your presentation to meet their needs. Another tip is to ask sympathetic friends to sit in the front rows so that you see encouraging faces as you look into the audience. Looking at people you know can feel more comfortable than looking out at a nameless audience.
There is only one way to overcome anxiety about the content: do the research and become grounded on the topic before you have to speak. Knowing you have a firm grasp on the topic goes a long way to allaying fears. Again, practice with friends who have knowledge of the topic and can give you feedback on both the substance and style of your presentation.
Even after preparation and practice, I find some people have built such a powerful negative mindset about presenting that they are still fearful. This was the case with Greg, a senior executive I coached who was a competent presenter and expert on the topic. But he was so afraid that he sweated profusely when presenting; don’t think hanky, he kept a towel within reach. When I asked him what he was thinking, feeling, seeing, and hearing when he imagined himself presenting, all of the images were negative. “Tough crowds?” I asked. “Not really,” he replied. It turned out that he never experienced negative responses when he presented. His fears were all a product of his imagination.
To help him prepare for an upcoming presentation to the company’s investors, I asked Greg to tell me about three successful presentations, describing what he saw, heard, said to himself, and how he felt so, I could create rich sensory descriptions of each presentation. Then I told him to close his eyes as I recounted his experiences with the presentations. After each instance, when he was fully immersed in the memory, I asked Greg to take a deep breath and anchor that positive experience in his mind and body by touching his watch.
When he had relived all three experiences, I asked Greg to imagine his upcoming presentation and describe it using some of the sensory language used to describe the past presentations. His positive experiences helped him imagine his future presentation going well. Greg reviewed the notes I had taken of his past positive experiences every day for three weeks leading up to the presentation to investors. On the day of his presentation, Greg brought his towel with him — just in case — and was overjoyed to find he didn’t need it.
Our brains are like computers, and we are the programmers. If you program your brain with positive thoughts, you will get better results. And when it comes to building any skill, practice may not make it perfect, but it does make it permanent.