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Overcoming fear of public speaking

I was always terrified of public speaking. When I worked in advertising, I would feel physically sick, get tongue tied and feel my face going bright red whenever I had to do a client presentation. I was never really passionate about what I was presenting and suffered from imposter syndrome. It was funny because I've always been great one-on-one, and even talking amongst a group of people, but standing up with all eyes on me was nerve-racking.

Recently, I presented a talk on sleep, in a corporate setting. I was honored to be asked but felt those nagging fears resurfacing; “Who am I to speak on this topic?” and “What if I fail?” I knew I needed to overcome this fear so I worked on some coping mechanisms to make that possible.

woman speaking about health in front of a screen

Here are my top three tips for overcoming fear - whether it’s a fear of public speaking, or something else:

1. Know your content

I once had a boss who told us to practice what we were going to say in the mirror: seven minutes for every one minute you are going to be talking. I'm not sure why seven is the magic number, but feeling comfortable that I knew what I was talking about really helped. I started with a script and practised it until I was able to do the whole presentation without notes. Feeling confident in what you are saying is key.

2. Mental rehearsal

Studies show that mentally rehearsing something is just as good as performing the task itself, because it activates the same parts in your brain. You can rehearse how you want to tackle obstacles, particularly how you want to feel - before, during and after. For my sleep presentation, I visualised all of the details - for example, how I felt walking into the room, standing up in front of the group, giving the talk,and the feedback I would receive afterwards. The same technique will work for anything, from going to a job interview to sitting an exam. To visualise, you need a relaxed mind and body, and you should focus on realistic imagery - picture yourself doing the task as if you are in your body, not watching yourself on TV.

3. Breathe

Breathing is really simple but is something we forget to do properly. When we are anxious or stressed we tend to take shallow breaths, which can activate our fight-or-flight response. This is exactly what would happen to me before a client presentation. A technique I often used was to find a quiet space (often a bathroom stall) before the clients arrived and take ten deep belly breaths through the nose. Concentrating on your breath reminds you to be present and stop worrying about the future.

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