How to overcome the three zones of public speaking fear

Have you noticed how one anxiety often leads to another?

If you have a heightened fear of aggressive people you might avoid going out to pubs and bars; a fear of meeting new people could lead you to avoid parties. If you fear speaking to groups then you might avoid training courses, social events, or anywhere that could put you in the spotlight. You might even decline a chance to promote your own business. The best way to face our fears is often to ‘fear the fear and do it anyway’, but that can be easier said than done. In this post I’ll be looking at when we get anxious and some ways to work on it.

Preparing to speak with less stress

We often expect to feel a bit stressed about something before we do it. A fear of the unknown is quite normal, even if it’s wrapped up in excitement. But when we let our imagination run wild we can create a vision of outlandish events that have little chance of coming true. These visions can keep us awake, reduce our ability to cope with stress and distract us from our daily tasks. A common tactic I used for a long time was to avoid thinking about it at all. The problem with this approach was the stress didn’t go away, it just delayed and increased it. When the event happened I felt more anxious and unprepared. I found the following approaches to be more effective and know they help many.

Effective speech preparation

Not preparing is always a big mistake. Even if you only have a few minutes you can prepare by reflecting on a your key points. If you are creating a presentation don’t use slide preparation as procrastination, you need to be clear on what you are going to actually say. Could you say your points without the slides? If you can, then you will be more prepared if anything does goes wrong. Don’t rely on following a script word for word either; if you are confident on your points the exact words won’t matter to your audience.

Pre-speech relaxation

When someone tells me to ‘just relax’ it usually leads me to be more uptight than I was before. When we are stressed relaxation isn’t usually easy and needs to be worked at, but there are techniques you can use.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a method for controlling stress and insomnia which can reduce nigh-time dread. You can read more about that in this  article

Positive visualisation

Positive visualisation can be a highly effective tool in building confidence. Purposefully visualise the best outcomes happening rather than the worst. Ask yourself what would you look like, how would you stand, speak and react as a confident speaker. Picture your audience warmly receiving and engaging with your presentation, visualise them thanking you afterwards and asking questions. Visualising in as much detail as possible will strengthen your confidence. If you question the validity of this approach, remember that your mind has already made you anxious by seeing an imagined bad outcome, it can also give you confidence as you picture success.

Anxiety while speaking

Well meaning friends often tell us that we’ll feel much better when we’re actually speaking but what happens when that isn’t true? Sometimes our fears increase during the event and there are various reasons for this.

Dealing with the audience

You might find that your audience isn’t as friendly or receptive as you hoped. I’ll address this first as you are probably thinking it already. 

Every stand-up or professional speaker has ‘died on stage’ at least once, so it would be foolish to say that this can’t happen to you, however take comfort that it is very rare. Most people just want to hear what you have to say. If you are delivering bad news or know you have a difficult audience then look up techniques for dealing with those in advance. The best thing you can do is to keep your cool; you cannot be responsible for other people’s reactions only your own and bad behaviour reflects on them not you. On the whole you will find that audiences are sympathetic and often just happy that they weren’t asked to be the speaker themselves.

Anxious about our anxiety while speaking

Many nervous speakers becoming hyper aware while they are speaking. They feel themselves blushing and blush more, they stumble on a word and stumble more. Here are two grounding techniques that can help

Take a pause

Take a pause and breath. When we pause it always feels longer to us than to our audience. A pause allows them to reflect on what you have just said and can add emphasis to what comes next. You can make it more natural by using the pause to take a sip of water. During this time breath slowly and consider the next thing to say. If you refer to notes don’t apologise for it, if you need to say something just let your audience know that you are checking that you are on track.


Use the 5,4,3,2,1 grounding technique. Look for 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.

Post-speech stress

Having coped with the pre-speech nerves, and the anxiety of the speech itself you may find that you are still stressed, sometimes more so. This can often be a surprise to speakers, it was to me. I learnt to prepare with confidence, get myself ‘in the zone’ for speaking, then crumbled when it was over. I later found out I’m not alone in doing this. Our perception of how things went isn’t always positive. I stressed that I had missed a bit, or stumbled over my words, or paused for an eternity and believed I had just proved myself to be a terrible speaker. In reality these things didn’t reflect the what my audience saw, but it didn’t mean that I felt them any less.
Its a strange reality that we can often support others better than we support ourselves. Remember that this is a skill you are learning so when you review try to do the following

🤗 Ask a friend or colleague what they thought went well, rather than focusing on what you think went badly.

🤗 Appreciate yourself for showing courage.

🤗 Count at least three things that went right, from your content, your delivery, the audience reaction or any combination of these.

🤗 Choose just one thing that you will work on for next time. When you speak again review how you improved on that one thing. This can stop you getting paralysed by perfection and help you acknowledge your progress.

🤗 Overall be kind to yourself.,

Understanding the three zones of fear

The before, during, and after speaking are what I often refer to as the three zones of fear. Depending on our personalities we can get bogged down in any one or a combination of these and it’s useful to acknowledge that they exist and to have techniques for dealing with each. Each zone is affected by the four pillars of confident speaking I explained in my previous blog