Conquer your fear of public speaking with Toni Kent’s top tips

Did you know that fear of public speaking sits alongside snakes and spiders as one of the things that most terrifies people? Research suggests that 75% of all adults fear speaking in public and – for 10% – prompts feelings of genuine terror that may be more commonly associated with threat to life.

On the one hand, it makes sense. Fear exists as a protective measure, hardwired into us throughout our evolution. It is natural to be alert to threats that could cause harm, or situations where our safety depends upon another person (fear of flying is up there too). But speaking in public? What’s so scary about that?

Social Conditioning

Alongside our predecessors being rightfully wary of predators, their lives depended on being part of a tight social group to provide warmth, food, water, and safety. Rejection or exclusion from the tribe could mean certain death – a story still played out in wildlife documentaries that have us in tears at the plight of a meerkat or lion cast out of its group.

This ancient instinct not to upset the social order manifests itself today as social anxiety, which, in the context of public speaking, has its own term: “glossophobia”.

You’re Not Alone

The irony is that fear of public speaking and being ostracised is something that unites a vast number of people. So, if you are someone with glossophobia, it will reassure you to know you’re not alone – in fact, given the numbers, it is likely that at least some of the executives you work with will experience it too!

It may also give you comfort to know that LOTS of professional performers started out life experiencing fear, frustration, and setbacks. We know that failure is part of any learning process, and yet, in this area, we seem determined to give ourselves a hard time.

Drawing Unfair Comparisons

Part of this willingness to undermine our own abilities stems from living in a society in which oratory and performance skills are celebrated as gifts you’re born with, rather than skills that can be learned and honed. You wouldn’t compare your running ability to that of Usain Bolt, so why make the speaking stakes so high?

A proportion of the blame must sit with media platforms. If you look at LinkedIn, it seems like every other person is doing a TED Talk, while TikTok and TV talent shows are full of 15-year-olds who are apparently as funny as Peter Kay or as talented as Taylor Swift. When this is the narrative we’re offered, it’s unsurprising that we shy away from speaking in public before we’ve even tried it.

However, if you scratch the surface, you’ll learn that TED Talks are tightly scripted and edited, talent shows feature contestants that are already professionals, and even legendary performers struggle with stage fright. Check out this post where the likes of Adele, Andrea Bocelli, and Rihanna talk about their experiences.

A Uniquely Human Skill

With communication being at the core of human connection – and something that artificial intelligence cannot replace (see this Forbes article for some great examples of where human creativity and ingenuity is irreplaceable) – it is in your best professional interest to get comfortable with your uniquely human voice.

And the only way to do this is to focus on developing that voice as you would any other skill. Take it from me, it’s not always a straightforward journey.

From Glossophobia to Glossy Performer

As someone who was a chatterbox from an incredibly early age, I didn’t have the easiest route to becoming a professional speaker. I grew up at a time (and attended a school) where children were expected to “be quiet”, and my style of performing didn’t fit with what the drama teachers wanted – I was too noisy, too excitable, too easily distracted.

But I persisted, putting myself forward for speaking opportunities at work and in my personal life. When amongst friends, I thrived – being asked to create and recite poetry at weddings and pay tributes on birthdays. But the same couldn’t always be said at work – in my early twenties, I made some big mistakes! Note to self: Don’t single out the audience member whose phone is ringing and tell them to switch it off…

Whilst my confidence was knocked, my desire to perform was too strong to ignore. In the years that followed, I worked hard on creating the kind of speaking career I wanted, and that I enjoy today.

So how do you go from feeling you can’t possibly speak in public to feeling confident enough to be yourself in front of an audience? To answer this question, I’ve devised a simple mnemonic that you can use: SPEAK.

How to SPEAK

S – Subject

First things first – you’ve got to be clear on what you want to talk about. Clarity on the subject matter is vital if you want your audience to connect with what you’re going to say.

If you’ve been given a topic, how can you make it your own or bring a unique perspective? If you’re talking on a subject you’re an expert in, but to a new audience, how can you make it relevant to their industry or job role?

P – Practice, practice, practice

It takes a lot of hard work to make something look easy. If you have a dog to walk or a daily commute, use these times to rehearse what you’re going to say. If you can get uninterrupted time to yourself, deliver your talk or presentation as if it’s in real life. Visualise the audience. Imagine the questions they may ask. Picture them (and you) having a great time!

E – Energy

You’ve got to bring it – and it doesn’t have to be in a crazy way. It’s likely that before speaking you’ll have some nervous energy that needs channelling into something that serves you, so here are some things you can do:

Breathe deeply – focus on the out breath. This will calm your nervous system and help you pay attention to the task at hand. Box Breathing is used by US Navy SEALS and another great technique.

Get your posture right. Whether you’re standing or seated, imagine you have an invisible thread reaching from the crown of your head all the way up into the universe. It’s a neat little trick that will lengthen your spine, improve your posture, and make it easier to speak.

Smile. Smiling is proven to act as a cue to your body that everything will be okay. It will also send a signal to your audience that they can relax.

Bonus point for online talks: You need to bring as much (if not more) energy as if you were presenting face to face. Your voice will be doing the hard work that eye contact and audience proximity would usually do.

A – Acknowledge your audience

Audience experience is everything. They may not remember everything you say, but they’ll definitely remember how you made them feel.

Start with a question or a statement that creates connection. Make sure you say a cheery “Hello!” before you dive on in! I often begin my talks with 30 seconds on something I’ve observed or learned about their company – it shows you care and creates connection.

K – Keep it simple

This is not a lecture (unless it is a lecture, in which case… still keep it simple!). People will only remember so much and – crucially – no-one will know which points you have forgotten. Using a line like “If you only take away one thing…” offers you a great way to keep on track and land your point with the audience.

Don’t Give Up

If there’s one thing I’d love for you to remember, it’s not to give up. Not all of us have the benefit of school systems, networks, or jobs where public speaking and debating is the norm. Treat public speaking as any other new skill to learn – take your time, go easy on yourself, and seek help and advice from those whom you perceive to be doing a great job.

So, next time you’re called on to speak and feel nervous or weak at the knees (or if your executive feels this way – and I know some of them do), give these SPEAK tips a try and let me know the difference that they make. I look forward to seeing more Executive Assistants go from glossophobia to glossy performer!


75% of people fear public speaking:

10% of people who fear public speaking are genuinely terrified:

Glossophobia definition:

TED Talks are scripted and edited:

BGT contestants included professional acts:

Famous artists with stage fright:

Why AI won’t replace human communication:

Box breathing technique:

How smiling tricks your brain!

Toni Kent is a keynote speaker, stand-up, writer and podcast host who specialises in social mobility. She is trusted by organisations across the UK to deliver empowering, humorous talks on why social mobility is important, breaking cycles and embracing ... (Read More)

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