Getting Over Fear of Public Speaking

I was recently scheduled to speak at a local conference here in Toronto, but a shift in event schedule made me unavailable at the last minute.

I hit up our Abacus team chat and I asked the team if anyone wanted to take my place.  

Kat volunteered. I was shocked. Kat is afraid of public speaking, doesn’t enjoy it and (her words not mine) tends to shake when she talks in public. But she’s been taking small opportunities to practice and improve.

I figured the least I could do is give her a pep talk, and while I was thinking about what advice to give, I relived my 5 years of public speaking and how I’ve been able to gain the confidence to do it regularly.

To complicate matters, I have social anxiety and am somewhat introverted, so the idea of getting up in front of hundreds has never been exciting. I’ve had to train myself to turn on my extrovert, and it wasn’t always easy.

In thinking of what to tell Kat, I came to a conclusion – public speaking is scary to people because they assess the risk incorrectly.


What’s the worst that can happen?


Anyone who’s done the conference circuit knows that 80% of talks are boring and unmemorable. That’s the secret. Your worst case is not mortification and shame – it’s boredom and LACK of memorability.
You’ll be forgotten. You won’t fall down the stairs. Statistically speaking that is.

Try to keep it as simple as possible.
When I’m speaking, time goes by 4x fast. If I speak for 20 mins, it feels like 5 minutes. Time goes by really quickly, so keep it simple.
The way I keep it simple is I speak about what I want to speak about. I speak about the things that make me curious. I try to speak about one thing per slide.
Don’t be a slave to your slides. Use them as a rough guide. I use very general, high level, simple slides to serve as reminders for my stories and ideas.

Be confident.
Being confident is a quick fix.  A get rich scheme of words. People believe confident people. People look up to confident people. Confident people drive change.
I’m not saying talk bullshit. I’m saying be confident in your point of view. Since you’ll be presenting your points of view, it’s ok if people disagree with you. In fact, usually it’s better if they do.
And like the Dude says in The Big Lebowski “That’s, like, your opinion, man!”. Be confident in your opinions.  Also be confident in your content. There’s a direct relationship between your confidence in your POV and your performance as a speaker.

Be comfortable and authentic.
No one cares what you’re wearing if you’re helpful and insightful. No one is looking at your socks. Take the opportunity to be yourself. People that come of as authentic are trusted.
I’ll wear a hoodie. I’ll pick my sneakers carefully. If I’m feeling particularly socially anxious, I may even wear an Abacus hat.
But I’m always myself.  Love it or don’t. I like to think this comes through in my speeches.

Be prepared for the roller coaster.
5 days out from the event, I’m convinced it’s the best presentation ever created.
2 days out, I’m not so sure.
2 hours out, I’m positive it’s the worst presentation ever created.
This is normal. This is the creative roller coaster. Now when the doubt creeps in, I remind myself that it’s normal.

Answering audience questions.
A common fear is having to answer hard questions. This rarely happens.
Most questions are straightforward and can be answered easily and clearly.
Some questions are tricky, but I can deflect it to a related question that I want to answer.
One time I was telling my 9 year old son that I was going to speak to a couple hundred people that day. He was skeptical at best, he didn’t think this was a great idea. It got worse when I told him that I had to answer questions after.
He asked me the most amazing question – he said “daddy, are you allowed to tell them that you don’t know?”.
You are! You’re allowed not to know an answer. Tell them you’ll get back to them with the answer. It’s totally fine.
This is another great example of how people assess the risk of public speaking incorrectly.
And if all else fails, picture the audience naked.  I’ve heard somewhere that this works too.