The Ultimate Guide to Public Speaking

20 May 2017

Even the most confident among us suffer from nervousness to some degree. Weddings, exams, job interviews; there are few people who can claim there’s nothing in life that gives them butterflies. For many, the thought of standing up and talking in front of an audience falls high on the list of situations that triggers anxiety – a rapid heart, shaking hands and trembling voice are sure to make the situation worse!

While some people seem to experience only a mild flutter of nerves before leaping enthusiastically onto a podium, for sufferers of Glossophobia, the fear of speaking publically, the thought of having to deliver a formal speech or a work presentation causes such severe symptoms that they dread public speaking, often avoiding it entirely. This avoidance of speaking in front of people can be limiting and frustrating at work or in education  so we’ve put together this guide to public speaking to help you understand and conquer your nerves.

Understanding the fear of public speaking

“We have all developed this conscious mind where we are aware that not only do we perceive ourselves but that others perceive us,” explains   Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos . “If we begin to identify the third person too much – that is, to stand outside and wonder how we appear to others - instead of actually engaging in the moment, it doesn’t become something natural and fluid. It becomes something that feels contrived, something that you feel you are going to be judged or assessed on.”

Dr. Linda Papadopoulos

Dr. Papadopoulos, who an expert on perception, body image and leadership  in the workplace, explains that speaking publically often feels like a 'do or die' moment and, unlike a dialogue, it is solely down to the speaker to keep the flow of information going while remaining interesting and engaging: “Standing up and holding court isn’t something that is natural to most of us and as such it elicits anxiety. The way we react to things that worry us and that we fear is the ‘fight or flight’ response.”

This adrenalin-charged reaction is very useful in dangerous situations where we might need to fight or run away but when it comes to something as harmless as public speaking, Dr. Linda explains that the reaction can become self-perpetuating.

“I get nervous, I have this physiological response – then I get nervous about having this physiological response and then that self-awareness further complicates and grows- so ultimately we get anxious about becoming anxious!” she says.

“If you perceive a small group... as being more important – then the value you place on that is going to be a function of how you feel about it."

Confidence and public speaking survey findings

A survey into confidence and public speaking conducted by Speakers Corner found that men tend to be more nervous about speaking at family events, such as weddings, than women. Traditionally it is the men who make the speeches at weddings – the groom, best man, father of the bride – which might go some way to explaining why they feel the pressure in such a situation. Linda explains, “If you perceive a small group as being more judgmental, if you perceive that group as being more important – then the value you place on that is going to be a function of how you feel about it."

The hardest part of standing up and talking are the symptoms of fear that can be difficult to hide. “Physiologically we begin to breathe differently and that often means that we speak much faster – and speed through what we are saying… [the speaker] may be breathing unnaturally or get a very dry mouth – then they make poor eye contact as a means of not engaging with the situation," Dr. Linda reveals. "You might find a lot of shifting and self-comforting – so whether that is holding hands, touching their face or playing with a ring – these body languages  are self-soothing behaviours.”

Age and experience appear to be influential in matters of confidence and nervousness. The survey suggests those aged 45 and over are the most confident when it comes to public speaking, while those aged 35–44 are the least nervous. Those aged 16-24 years of age are the most nervous and the least confident.

Fear of Public Speaking Tips

To avoid these nerves and increase your confidence, at any age, Linda simply advises: “Prepare – the more prepared you are the easier you will find it.”

Dr Linda Papadopoulos  suggests you:

  • Think about what you are going to say and what the environment will be like
  • Look at people who have done it before
  • Speak about something you know - that excites you, that you feel comfortable talking about
  • Focus on one or two people who are engaging with you positively
  • Wear comfortable clothing that you feel confident in, not something that will make you hot and sweaty
  • Don’t wear shoes that make your feet hurt
  • Remember to pace yourself – this will mean you're breathing better, and if you're breathing better you're going to be much more relaxed
  • Let yourself off the hook if something goes wrong.  Smile and just get your points across

Hayley and Annie’s Public Speaking Stories

Annie, a social media  consultant, hasn’t always been confident enough to stand up and talk in front of people. “In the school play I would be the one hiding at the back, looking at my feet,” she explains. But she built up her confidence at the age of 21, when she worked as an air hostess and had to make announcements to sometimes disgruntled passengers.

Today, she admits: “I’m fortunate that the digital sector and social media changes constantly so when presenting there’s always something new to talk about.” But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t still exhibit symptoms of nervousness, in fact the survey found that although women tend to be more confident when it comes to public speaking, they actually exhibit more symptoms of nervousness than men, with 41% of women experiencing butterflies, compared to just 26% of men as well as a higher number sweating, fidgeting, stuttering, feeling nauseous and laughing nervously. Annie says: “I always get butterflies and I hope I always do. My mantra in life is that ‘If you’re not a bit scared it’s not worth doing’ and the butterflies are a reminder that life is for living.”

She explains that while she is comfortable speaking about work she wouldn’t feel as comfortable speaking about herself. “I’m very comfortable speaking to large groups about work related topics because the focus is not on me as an individual, it’s on the subject matter. If you asked me to walk on stage and talk about my personal views on life I’d find that uncomfortable and shy away.”

Annie explains that it is best to assume that something will go wrong so it doesn’t catch you out but to focus on the things that can go right. Her advice is: "To find out who the audience are and prepare, prepare, prepare! Being human is perfectly acceptable, usually it’s what wins the audience over. But positive thinking and self-belief work wonders.”

Meanwhile, Hayley has always been nervous about public speaking. “I have always been confident, but put me in front of a group of people where I have to talk on my own and I used to freeze,” she admits. That was until she had to face her fear and do a TEDx Talk last year. “My talk was at 3pm, and I couldn’t eat for the entire day. I was a nervous wreck. I don’t remember a thing about being on stage and I was shaking. My palms always get extra sweaty, and I babble when I am nervous, so I always have to make sure I am fully prepared and follow script.”

"I prepared for over six months for my TEDx talk and learned my talk by heart - the full 18 minutes."

Much like Annie, Hayley says preparation is key. “I make sure I am fully prepared and confident in what I am speaking about. I prepared for over six months for my TEDx talk and learned my talk by heart - the full 18 minutes. Being prepared and knowing your talk helps, as it acts as a guide for the duration. It stops you from faltering and babbling, which can lead to a lack of confidence.”

She explains that training for her TEDx Talk gave her some much-needed confidence. “It also taught me how to structure a talk, which has improved my speaking skills and talks. Although the experience was terrifying, it was also liberating and exciting, and has given me the confidence to pursue other speaking opportunities.”

Hayley also prefers to speak in front of a large crowd. “I prefer larger groups, in larger venues. Intimate groups can be intimidating and can me feel more nervous, and that I have more to prove. Even though it isn’t always the case, I feel more judged with smaller groups because I can see them all.” Similarly, she says, “I much prefer speaking to people I don’t know, there is less expectation.”

Interestingly, the survey found that both men and women feel more nervous at an external event or conference compared to in front of family, but compared to women, men feel more nervous about family occasions. This may well be down to the fact that women are still struggling to smash the glass ceiling, as Linda said, it depends how we perceive the situation and for women the importance could be put on advancing in their career as this is still harder for them to do than men. Hayley, quite rightly, says: “We have to shout louder to get our message across, and to be listened to. So we have to be doubly confident in speaking.”

Top Public Speaking Tips from Hayley and Annie:

  • Prepare
  • Find out who the audience are
  • Face the fear and do it anyway… with a little research
  • Buy a book and watch ‘how to’ videos
  • Invest in a few hours with a coach
  • Use your mobile phone to record yourself and play it back
  • Don’t be afraid to take a break
  • Have a bottle of water to hand
  • Take a drink if you need time to gather your thoughts

Ben's Public Speaking Story

The survey found that men are more confident than women with 40% saying they are quite or very confident compared to just 24% of women but when it comes to public speaking women tend to be confident while men feel more nervous. Which leads us on to Ben, who would describe himself as confident in general but not when it comes to public speaking - so much so that he has told his girlfriend that if they were to get married he would need to pre-record the speech.

“I get nervous about speaking in public anyway," he admits. "The thought of making such an important speech, in front of the people that mean the most, terrifies me.”

Ben explains that he has been nervous speaking in public since he was at school. “I can remember having to read out in school lessons and my voice cracking, since then I have always tried to avoid this sort of scenario if I can,” he recalls.

“I can always remember being at university and having to present in front of a lecture theatre holding 200-plus students. At the time this was my idea of hell, and probably still would be to this day. I was reading from a pre-prepared script and can remember my hands trembling as I tried to get my words out. I was shaking and my voice went pitchy; although I only spoke for a few minutes it felt like everything had gone into slow motion.

"I also remember this day quite vividly as later on in the afternoon another student, with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair, took the stand. His condition meant that he fought to get every word out, yet he was so passionate and articulate in what we was saying, it honestly made me feel a bit ridiculous in how I approach and feel about public speaking. I always try to remember this moment and draw from it when I need to.”

"I wouldn't say I'm completely over my fear but I'm able to look back on my university experience and focus on what has worked for me at work to build my confidence up.”

Ben says his fear comes from not being knowledgeable enough on a subject, being wrong or wanting to impress. He feels that this has caused him to miss out on several opportunities. “I think there have been roles in the past I've avoided due to the amount of public speaking and general presenting expected that otherwise I would have really enjoyed," he admits.

The demands of his current role are helping Ben to slowly overcome his fear. “Where in the past the fear of speaking would have crippled me and I would have said the wrong thing, I was able to draw upon this and make sure I kept things simple and straight forward to recall," he says. "I use visual aids and I try to relax and keep things less serious yet still professional.

"I wouldn't say I'm completely over my fear but I'm able to look back on my university experience and focus on what has worked for me at work to build my confidence up.”

Ben’s Tips for Public Speaking: Practice is key and try to keep things simple and bite-sized.


You would expect  Sally Gunnell , Olympic  gold medallist turned motivational speaker , to be immune to nerves. However, she says: “My worst scenario was speech day at my boys' school. It was 2012 and they had a speech day and a presentation and they asked me. Because, of course, you have your family in there and you have these parents that you see on the school playground every morning and you have got your own kids in there – I think that was probably my most nerve-wracking experience –you don’t want to show your kids up.”

Sally Gunnell

Sally, the only woman to concurrently hold all four major championship gold medals - for 400m at the Olympics, World, European and Commonwealth level - says nerves were a big part of it. “I got to that point where the more nervous I was the better my performance and that is the same for me on stage as well," she admits. "When I’m presenting, I almost look to thrive off those nerves.”

Sally says sport helped her to understand what nerves are, why we have them and to not be scared of them. “When I first started out speaking I was absolutely petrified, I felt like I was in an arena that I didn’t really know. I think the first time I had to do a talk was to 3,000 people and I was absolutely petrified but I just thought, 'right, what would I have done if this was an Olympic final?'

So I made sure I had all the preparation done and then I visualised, so I actually worked out in my mind that walk on stage, where I was going to stand and where I was going to move to.”

Sally's top tips for motivational and public speaking:

"Don’t try and be somebody else that you're not – be true to yourself.”

Visualise yourself on stage. It is a scary place, but the more that you visualise and see it when you get up there it is just normal. Actually, see yourself up there, delivering it and standing there with confidence and nailing it.”

Deep breathing – I did that a lot before I used to walk out on to the track – it’s the same when I walk out on to the stage. I often shut my eyes – and think 'you can do this, get out there and show them what you are made of'. These are really positive words.”

Go for a walk. I'll often go for a walk and time my walk – for 45 minutes to an hour depending on how long I am speaking for and actually do it in my mind. I find the best way is to have a list of five points on the side, but nine times out of ten I won’t ever use them – they are only there as a backup. By doing the walking that has got it into my mind. Then I’ll get up there and try and deliver it without looking at the notes.”

A common theme throughout is that preparation is key, and although the research shows that women are more confident when public speaking than men, more men than women would feel confident enough to speak in front of 100 people at the last minute, while 70% of women would say no to speaking in just 7 days time, compared to 56% of men. This shows that women tend to prepare more - as stated by both Linda and Sally - and backs up why they feel more confident speaking in front of people but nervous when put on the spot.

Whether you are male or female, a confident speaker or not, Sally says we all have it in us - it's just about self-belief. Her role as a motivational speaker is 'giving people the real tools and belief in their own ability.'

We represent over 6000 speakers, with 1000 listed on our website. To book  Dr. Linda Papadopoulos  or  Sally Gunnell , or for more info., call us on +44 (0) 20 7607 7070 or email us at .

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