Science-Backed Tips for Mastering Public Speaking, According to 5 Mental Health Professionals

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Caroline Forsey
Caroline Forsey


Welcome to The Science Behind Success — a blog series that explores the best ways to help our brains perform better at work. With psychological research and interviews with leaders in the field, we're showing you how psychology can help you overcome workplace obstacles and excel in your career. Because a little mindset change could go a long way.

person on zoom call practicing public speaking

If you're anything like me, there's little in this world that scares you more than the daunting idea of public speaking (besides spiders, of course, but that's another issue altogether … ).

However, as marketers, most of our roles require public speaking. Perhaps you need to report on monthly campaign numbers to your team, share the results of an exciting marketing experiment with the company, or make a pitch to an external team with whom you'd like to partner.

Ultimately, in the marketing field, public speaking is often unavoidable.

Additionally, even if you could hide from it, you probably don't want to — speaking to large groups makes you more visible at your company and strengthens your own personal brand, as well as your ability to network and be seen as a leader.

Over the past few years, I've personally come to terms with the necessity of public speaking. But that doesn't mean I still don't get sweaty palms and shaky breath moments before walking on-stage (or, in this case, turning my Zoom camera on ... ).

I spoke with a few mental health professionals to get to the bottom of why public speaking is so scary in the first place and am sharing their takeaways below. Plus, we'll dive into a few science-backed tips for mastering public speaking, so you can feel at-ease the next time you're speaking to a room full of people.

Now, as for spiders … that, I can't help you with.

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Tip 1: Get Curious About Your Fears

Alexis Verbin, LCSW, LICSW, told me: "I always recommend taking time to self-reflect and approach fears without judgement and with curiosity. It can be difficult to reduce symptoms if you are unaware of why you're experiencing them or what is triggering this type of reaction."

The fear of public speaking occurs for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • Biological fight-or-flight response that can get activated
  • Past public speaking experiences
  • Lack of experience or knowledge on the topic being presented
  • Low self-esteem and/or imposter syndrome
  • Audience makeup (i.e., high-level executives)

Verbin adds, "By identifying the 'whys' behind your fear, you can help alleviate some of the distress associated with the unknown."

"These 'whys' can also help you identify which specific tools to try to address your individualized needs. I would encourage the use of journaling to start this process of discovery. Write down your history of public speaking, past experiences (+, neutral, -), positive & constructive feedback, triggers, negative self-talk, somatic complaints, etc."

By identifying the reason behind your fear, you can start to tackle that more unique, personalized fear head-on. For instance, if you're dealing with a case of imposter syndrome, perhaps you can create a quick "Fact Sheet" of all your past accomplishments and praise you've received to glance at before making a speech.

Tip 2: Take Advantage of Familiar Surroundings

Jenna Halloran Karl, LICSW, says: "You are likely to feel less anxious when you are familiar and comfortable in your environment. If you are presenting virtually and working from home, use this to your advantage!"

"Try grounding yourself to the room you are in by noticing things that are soothing. Focus on what you can see in the room, hear, feel, taste, and smell."

"Focus on things you can control, like being prepared, being on time, and how much you practice your speech."

If you're presenting in an unfamiliar room, you could try to spend some time working in the room ahead of time to develop a familiarity with your surroundings. Alternatively, if you're presenting from your home office, take comfort in the picture of your family on your desk, or the plant you love in the corner. These little details can remind you that you are, indeed, safe.

Additionally, comforting internal phrases can help, as well. For instance, Karl suggests, "Develop 'coping thoughts' ahead of time to recite to yourself before and during your speech (examples: 'I am well prepared for this speech', 'I am doing the best I can right now', 'If I turn red, it will only be temporary.')."

Tip 3: Increase Acceptance of Your Fears

Alexis Verbin encourages anyone suffering from anxiety related to public speaking to try some methods related to ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which was developed by Dr. Steven C. Hayes: "This empirically-based model increases 'psychological flexibility' by using a unique combination of mindfulness skills with acceptance, commitment, and behavior change strategies. The goal is not to avoid or replace thoughts or emotions, but rather to change your relationship to them."

To do this, Verbin provides seven tactics you might try:

  • Notice and Observe: Take a step back and just notice your anxious thoughts about going on stage, without trying to control them. Next, label them as just thoughts. Work on becoming an observer of your experience rather than staying stuck thinking about your anxiety-provoking thoughts.
  • Visualize: Take time to sit quietly, close your eyes, and visualize yourself placing the unhelpful anxious thoughts on leaves. Then, take these leaves and place them on a stream of water where you watch them calmly float away into the distance. (Full version of this exercise here.)
  • It's Just a Thought: Put the phrase: "I am having the thought that…" in front of your negative or anxious thought to remind yourself it is just a thought.
    • A. Unhelpful Thought Example: I'm going to mess up my speech.
    • B. Cognitive Defusion Example: I'm having the thought that I’m going to mess up my speech.
  • Story Time: Anytime an anxiety-provoking thought comes up, kindly say to yourself "there my brain goes again telling that unhelpful public speaking story."
  • Get Silly: Say your thoughts out loud in a completely different way. This can help reduce the level of seriousness you are placing on the thoughts so you can actually start to view them as thoughts. (For instance, you might verbalize the thoughts out loud using the melody of a funny song like happy birthday; use silly cartoon voices while saying your thoughts; or say your thought very slowly.)
  • Be Mindful and Ground Yourself: Practice present moment awareness, try the five senses activity (below), and practice acceptance.

For the last technique regarding mindfulness, Verbin suggests three alternative methods you might try. Let's dive into those in more detail:

1. Present Moment Awareness: Before walking into the spotlight, look around and remind yourself that in your present moment, everything is actually okay, and that you are safe.

2. Five Senses Activity: If you are struggling to ground into your present moment, try the "Five Senses" Mindfulness activity. The goal is to help guide yourself out of your thoughts and to focus on your environment (i.e., what is actually going on outside of your head). *While taking slow deep breaths, notice and name the following:

  • Five things you see
  • Four things you touch
  • Three things you hear
  • Two things you smell
  • One thing you taste
3. Accept: While public speaking isn't pleasant for many, remind yourself that fueling the negative self-talk and anxiety is not going to make the situation any easier. It will likely do the opposite. Instead, work on acceptance by creating a safe space for these unpleasant thoughts to come and go like the wind. Try not to give your thoughts too much undeserving attention.

Tip 4: Master Mental Rehearsal

Joann Toporowski, Psy.D., a psychologist and executive coach, suggests "A strategy that I speak to my clients about may sound counterintuitive, but it has an impressive impact on their mindset and performance. This strategy is called mental rehearsal. Once you have mastered this simple strategy, you can harness it to your advantage."

"We know from studies of professional athletes that the same regions of the brain will light up when quarterbacks imagine throwing a football and when they are actually throwing a football."

"This phenomenon has also shown to be present when professional basketball players watch footage of a basketball game — the parts of the brain that were activated are specific to hand muscles. Athletes have long known the positive effect of visualization and mental rehearsal."

To practice mental rehearsal, Toporowski told me: "There are two steps to using mental rehearsal. The first step is to see yourself in the meeting room or on stage before their company doing horribly, being pointed at, and then being fired — the more absurd, the better. Feel the embarrassment, the shame, and the rejection. A part of you will quickly realize how extreme this negative outcome will be, and at this moment, you can easily shake it off."

"Having mentally rehearsed the absolute worst outcome will allow you to deal with the outside chance that your talk did not go just as planned. If this should happen, you can at least say that you were not pointed and laughed at or fired."

"The second step is, after imagining the worst outcome, mentally rehearse the positive outcome. Picture yourself speaking eloquently and smoothly. Feel the pride, respect, and confidence well up inside of you. Imagine the praise you will receive from colleagues and management. If you repeatedly picture the talk going well, you move the needle towards a positive outcome in a small, yet inspiring, way."

Tip 5: Challenge Your Thinking

If you're preparing for an upcoming presentation and you feel yourself getting increasingly anxious, Jenna Halloran Karl suggests you notice and challenge those thoughts you're having.

She says, "Challenge negative and catastrophic thinking by checking the facts. Do you have any evidence to support these negative thoughts? What is an alternative, more realistic way to think about this situation?"

Karl adds, "Remember, worst case scenarios rarely ever happen."

For instance, if you're having the thought, "I'm going to fail and everyone is going to think I'm a failure", challenge that by asking yourself if a presentation has ever resulted in people saying to you, "You know, I think you're a failure."

Alternatively, challenge your perspective by asking yourself, "If someone else 'fails' during a presentation, do I really think they're a failure? Or do I just feel empathy?" Remember, most of your fears won't ever actually happen, and by challenging the validity of each, you can minimize your anxiety.

Tip 6: Move Your Body

When you walk into a gym and you're anxious about a stressful work day, have you ever noticed that by the time you leave, you feel much more rested and focused? There's a reason for that — so the next time you're gearing up to present, consider how you might tap into the physiological benefits of exercise. 

KieVonne King, LCSW, suggests, "Give yourself enough time prior to your speaking engagement to move your body. Many people have attested that physiological reactions to anxiety manifest in the abdomen region. Moving your body with the intention of releasing any physical discomfort can be helpful." 

"This can be done through dance, stretching and twisting, or any other form of physical activity that resonates with you. The most important thing is to couple movement with intentionality — what am I releasing and why — and deep breathing." 

Tip 7: Practice Your Breathing Ahead of Time

They say practice makes perfect … but have you ever considered practicing when, and how, you'll breathe during your presentation? 

Jonathan Walsh, LMHC, therapist, and coach told me, "What many of us experience as anxiety or panic around public speaking is actually hyperventilation due to altered breathing patterns at the beginning of presentations. The way to combat this is to write out and rehearse the first five minutes of the presentation out loud, with a particular emphasis on breathing at the punctuation spots."

"Keep practicing until you feel your breath normalizing and you have memorized both the text and your pauses for breath."

Additionally, he adds, "Remember that anxiety is not your primary identity. Work on shifting your internal language from an embodied 'I'm anxious' to 'I'm having some anxious thoughts right now.' Naming the emotion will remove some of the threat from it. Then commit to performing well, despite the presence of the inevitable anxious thoughts."

Tip 8: Remember Why You're Doing It

At the end of the day, you're presenting for a reason — and not just a superficial reason, like "I want to look good in front of my boss", but a larger, more meaningful reason, like "I want to help marketers grow in their roles."

Tap into your reason. As Joann Toporowski says, "Whenever I deliver a talk, whether it's to a small group of five or a room of hundreds, I think about what my goal is from the 10,000-foot view. As a psychologist and an executive coach, my overarching goal is perpetually to help and support others."

"This goal of helping others is at the forefront of my mind when I write my speech, practice it beforehand, set myself up for success by getting adequate sleep and eating well, and calming myself before I go on stage."

"My larger and more meaningful goal of helping others makes the anxiety, fear, and nervous energy so much more manageable."

"If you still feel like an imposter, or ill-prepared when the spotlight is on you, then pull your shoulders back, look people in the eyes all around the room, smile, breathe, and do the best you can do until the end. Good, bad, and for everything else in between, it is all going to be okay."

Ultimately, public speaking is scary for most people — but that doesn't mean you can't master it with some mindfulness, preparation, and perspective. Keep these tips in mind next time you're presenting. Over time, you'll find what works for you. Good luck! 

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