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5 lies that make you fear public speaking (and how to get over them)

I’m not qualified. I’m not educated. I’m not experienced. I haven’t lived through it. I’m not an expert. Somebody else could say it better. They’ll see right through me.

Do these thoughts flash through your head every time you prepare a presentation? Even worse, do they flash through your head while you’re standing in front of your audience?

We’re here today to nip public speaking fear in the bud. The lies you’re telling yourself are getting you nowhere in preparing for the talk you need to give. In fact, they’re likely derailing you by feeding your anxiety.

When I coach speakers, the first thing they always want is a strategy that helps them feel more confident. And besides my favorite advice (practice!) which everyone hates, I like to help speakers stop lying to themselves about speaking. I’m calling these “lies” because with the right strategies and preparation, none of them have to be true no matter how comfortable you are with public speaking.

Below, I’m listing the five most common lies people tell themselves that make them fear and hate public speaking. And, I’m giving fixes that have helped some of my most anxious students get over their speaking anxiety.

Lie #1: I'm not the right person to talk about this topic.

The Fix: Don’t talk about a topic, share an idea.

This lie comes down to what we perceive to be valuable to an audience. If you think someone else is better suited to talk about a topic than you are, it’s probably because you think they have more value to offer the audience by way of experience, knowledge, or expertise.

That’s why you need to think beyond your “topic” or “genre,” and consider the unique value only you can offer an audience: your idea.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say I assign my students an informative speech. One of them comes into my office to discuss the topic she’s chosen: sharks.

What is the first thing I’m going to say to her? “What about sharks?”

Sharks is a topic, but it isn’t an idea. Sharks isn’t valuable to the audience. I want to know instead, what she has to say about sharks. Here are some examples of ideas, not topics.

  • Your fear of sharks is irrational. Here’s why you should fear jellyfish instead.

  • 5 fascinating things about sharks even Shark Week won’t teach you

  • How Katy Perry’s Left Shark forever changed our relationship with the beasts of the sea

  • Why losing my leg in a shark attack turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to me

Great speeches are focused on ideas that are personal, clear, and specific. They provide an angle we haven’t thought about before. Being loyal to your one concise idea will allow you to describe with more detail, tell more stories, maintain more structure, and generate more interest and credibility. Anyone can speak for five minutes about sharks if they have to. They can describe what they are, where they live, and why people fear them. But the thing that qualifies you to talk about sharks more than anyone else is the unique perspective only you can offer. And you have to be able to articulate your perspective and experience through one clear, concise idea.

Lie #2: The audience won’t care about my idea.

The Fix: Give them a reason to.  

When preparing to speak, we jump right into our heads (or Google) to make a mental list of all the information we’re going to need to talk about. This is the wrong approach. It’s not only time consuming, but it’s also totally ineffective.

The best speeches don’t start in our heads; they start in our audience’s heads.

The audience absolutely will care about what you’re saying--if you give them a reason to. We do that by considering the one question all audiences need answered before they actively tune out of their 500 other thoughts to listen to your speech:

What’s in it for me?

Look. We are busy, distracted people with a lot of options and long to-do lists. We are not going to listen to your speech, click on a video, read a blog, listen to a podcast, or jump into a new Netflix series unless we think it is going to serve us in some way. Will we learn something new and interesting? Will we be entertained? Will we feel a connection? Will we walk away with a helpful tool or strategy? If there’s nothing in it for us (or if we can’t see that there’s something in it for us), we’ll choose something else. (Probably Instagram.)

Begin with the end in mind. Before you start writing your speech, ask yourself what you want your audience to walk away with. What do you want them to do with the information? How do you want them to feel about it? What are you giving them that they didn’t have before?

Basically: What’s the point?

If you write your speech with this kind of empathy toward your audience, they will have a reason to care about your idea.

Don’t start with, “Today I’m going to talk about sharks. “ It just doesn’t serve me in any way. Do this instead: “By the time I’m done with this talk, you will walk away knowing how to save your child from a shark attack.” Now, you have my attention.

Lie #3: I’m not a “natural” speaker.

The Fix: Play up your strengths.

So many of us, especially women, think that if our stage presence isn’t *naturally* charismatic, commanding, funny, or loud, we can’t be good speakers. I’m here to say that there is no magic trait or formula to being a great public speaker.

Brene Brown is funny and smart and blunt. Oprah is bellowing and dramatic and strong. Stephen Hawking was a genius who could make complicated ideas seem simple. Some speakers have groundbreaking research to share, others have amazing stories to tell, and some can just plain work a crowd.

To deliver a speech well, all you need to do is find your strength and lean into it. Are you a beautiful writer or a designer with amazing visuals? Can you dazzle me with humor or make me cry? Do you have a fantastic idea that no one else is sharing? Rather than trying to look or sound like somebody else, think about why you are the right person to be telling this story. Why do your friends love to talk to you? Amplify your strengths, then stay in your lane. You don’t want to bounce around the stage like Tony Robbins? Don’t! If you’re not a *naturally bouncy* person, you’d probably look really awkward, anyway. I know I would.

Lie #4: I’m so awkward.

The Fix: Clean up distractions.

Speaking of awkward…

Once you’ve identified your strengths and created a presentation that allows you to showcase them, you want to clean up anything that distracts from you, your awesome self, and your message. This step can only be accomplished through practice, revision, and experience. If you want to do it well, take a couple of tried and true steps:

  • Give yourself a “content” deadline (where you stop writing and start practicing your speech)

  • Film yourself and watch it back (it hurts so good)

  • Practice your speech in front of other people (real live humans)

If you are writing your speech until the night before you have to deliver it, this is the step you’re going to miss. You may have written the most beautiful, eloquent, innovative talk of all time, but if you deliver it in a monotone voice while tapping your foot and reading to us from your PowerPoint slides (upon which you cursed us with Papyrus and Comic Sans), we are going to be too distracted to see the magic. Here’s a quick list of other distractions. Cleaning them out of your speech will help you appear more polished and less awkward. (But keep your quirkiness--people will love it.)

Distraction list:

Unnatural movements (wringing hands, swaying, playing with jewelry, shifting from hip to hip)

Filler words

Robot voice

Tangents or unorganized content

Poorly designed visual aids

READING to your audience

Incorrect information

Being tone deaf toward your audience and what they value

Here’s the last thing about distractions: many of them are subconscious. That means that if you haven’t practiced in front of a camera or a human being, you may not even be aware of them. Don’t forget this essential step in preparing your speech.

Repeat after me: 99% of the time, awkward is the result of unrehearsed.

Lie #5: I’m a boring speaker.

The fix: Be a human, not a spreadsheet.

If you say, “I’m bored,” in front of my grandma, she will respond, “Intelligent people are never bored.”

Well, I’m here to say that if you spend your eight minutes on stage reading me statistics, I’m going to be bored.

If I wanted a list of data, I’d just read a spreadsheet. But you know what? There’s a reason why people watch TED talks online instead of browsing through Excel files: it’s because we like stories. We like the people who tell them. Your scatter plot chart is cool, but if you don’t back it up with a story about who that little dot represents, it’s not going to land for me.

You need to insert anecdotes, tell me personal stories, provide examples, create clear metaphors, and speak to me in my language. Your job as a speaker isn’t to show us the chart, graph, spreadsheet, or statistic; you could do that with an email. Instead, your job is to breathe life into the information, make it relevant, and tell us why it matters.

Truth bomb:You are qualified, important, relevant, engaging, and interesting. And if you take these five common lies out of your head and replace them with strategies, you will be seen and heard for what you really are: a kick ass speaker.

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