Scared of public speaking? Try these tips

  • Sonal Kalra, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 19, 2015 19:15 IST
The first step to doing it right is to accept your fear instead of fighting it or thinking of it as a problem with you. (Shutterstock)

Bansuri Chaddha thinks she has Glossophobia. So does her father, but just that Chaddhaji thinks it means the fear of not being able to find a glass when it is time for him to have his Patiala peg. “I need therapy,” Bansuri declared the other day, with a serious expression that made her look even funnier.

“Oye tujhe glass kyon chahiye? Aur usko dhoondne ke liye physiotherapy karni hai?” Chaddhaji began. I realised just how random this conversation could become in the next 30 seconds or so. “Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking, and by ‘therapy’, she means getting psychological counselling,” I intervened. “Speaking mein toh yeh aur iski mummy experts hain. 20 saal se toh chup hi nahi huye,” Chaddhaji took a potshot, and before their next family Mahabharat could officially kick-off, I took Bansuri away from the battleground.

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Not every fear in life is a phobia, and not every problem requires fancy counsellors. Though quite a few do and it’s only wise to know when to seek professional help. Not being able to speak confidently in front of people, however, remains one of the most common fears in the universe, cutting across cultures. In fact, a survey reveals that more people are scared of public speaking than they are of death. I’ve written about it earlier as well, but Bansuri mere bagal mein baj rahi hai, with a constant demand for calmness tips, so let us revisit this. As you know, mujhe complicated advice dena nahi aata. Here’s how I look at the whole issue of butterflies in the stomach before one has to give a speech, a presentation, a lecture etc in front of ‘live’ audience (as opposed to a congregation of ... err ... spirits and souls, perhaps!).

The first step to doing it right is to accept your fear instead of fighting it or thinking of it as a problem with you. Understand, and truly so, that almost every one - right from a fidgety fourth standard student in an inter-school competition, to the head of a state addressing the United Nations - everyone has butterflies in their tummy when on the stage. It’s as normal as the reflex action of flinching if some one punches you. And when it’s that common, it has to be okay to feel nervous about. Right?

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Stage pe kaun hai? ... Aap. Presentation kaun de raha hai? ... Aap (not Kejriwal’s party, yaar. Tum!) Toh, you must be better than the audience in some way for you to be standing there and not them. The moment you focus on the fact that you’ve been chosen to do this because you’re better, confidence has to trickle in. Uske liye darwaaza toh kholo. Don’t keep your mind blocked only by fears ... leave room for a positive feeling about yourself to come in too.

Not being able to speak confidently in front of people remains one of the most common fears in the universe, cutting across cultures. (Shutterstock)

1. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse: Even top actors do it. And it helps. The mirror is not just to comb your hair and appreciate your own beauty a million times through the day. It’s a great tool to do a mock speech and see how impressive or idiotic you look while giving a speech. Improvise accordingly. Always run through the main points, and particularly the introduction of your speech, aloud in a rehearsal, without feeling conscious. I don’t know why some people take so much pride in claiming that they come unprepared to give a speech and still deliver so well. It’s great to not read from a paper, but to come ‘unprepared’ is disrespectful to the act, to the audience, and to your own ­capability. Practice, yaar. It shows.

2. Find that smiling, attentive face: I said this earlier too. There’s ALWAYS at least one face in the audience who’s very receptive. That person is like a gift from God to all public speakers. He smiles, nods at the right interval, and is generally the one to ask the easiest question. I call him the genie, who I miraculously find in every audience I’ve ever addressed. Find your genie. It’s better to look at him than look over peoples’ heads (something that a lot of people advise). Someone once told me the trick to imagine that everyone in the audience has a donkey’s head. I found that too weird and forgot what I was going to say. Then someone else once told me that one doesn’t feel nervous if you imagine that everyone in the audience is sitting naked. Well. He may just be right. Pervert.

3. Ask the positive question: Instead of asking yourself, and others, negative questions like what will happen if I forget my lines? ... Or what will happen if I start rambling or stammering etc ... ask your positive questions. What will happen if I rock the presentation? Remember, good questions bring good answers.

4. Don’t read from your slides: This one’s particularly for those who make corporate presentations using the Powerpoint and projection tools. It seems like an easy way out to write everything on the slides, look at the screen instead of the audience, and read it out verbatim. Let me tell you that this is the biggest and most common mistake presenters do. If you are reading out the entire sentence from what is projected on the big screen, one of you is completely unnecessary - the slide or you. It’s the fastest way to get the audience irritated. And unless that’s the intent for some weird reason, write only pointers on the slide and justify your existence on the stage by elaborating on those. Please.

5. Breathe deep, pause often, smile frequently: People like smiling faces, and your mistakes will be forgiven sooner than others. Take deep breaths, and don’t go into the supersonic mode of speaking non-stop. For some strange reason, we mistake fluency in English with the tendency to speak fast. Woh fatafat English bolta hai, bina rukey, toh woh smart hai, no matter whether the audience can make any head or tail out of what the genius is saying. Get out of this perception. A better speaker is the one who is able to take the maximum people from the audience along, on his chain of thoughts. And the audience have diverse understanding capabilities. Don’t run faster than their minds. Speak slow, speak firm, speak clear. Confidence ka toh baap bhi aa jayega.

Sonal Kalra kept smiling non-stop at a recent seminar she addressed on sexual harassment at workplace. Someone has referred her to a psychiatrist now. Mail her at or Follow on Twitter @sonalkalra

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