How to handle performance anxiety, according to professional public speakers

Does the thought of public speaking make you feel sick to your stomach? You’re not alone.

“If you are a human being, presenting in front of large crowds of people, holding a tiny microphone that blasts your voice out to 20, 300 or thousands of people, it is totally normal and human to be having some anxiety,” says transformational coach and speaker Rachel Weinstock.

Yes, even professional speakers get nervous. But they’ve simply gotten better at managing the pre-speech jitters we all experience. And, whether you have an upcoming public speaking opportunity or simply want to improve your communication skills, learning how to handle your own performance anxiety should be a key part of your preparation process.

“If we do not manage performance anxiety, we might choose what is easier in the moment and simply avoid the tasks that we find uncomfortable. That avoidance leads to the erosion of our potential and the shrinking of our destiny,” says Joze Piranian, TEDx Speaker on resilience and inclusion.

“Managing performance anxiety (and fears in general) enables us to unlock our deepest potential at both a professional and a personal level.”

The amazing upside is that if we act in spite of our discomfort, we can turn fear into an asset, as Piranian shared in his TEDx talk. “Had I not dealt with what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle at first, I wouldn’t have had a burning desire to conquer my fears,” he says.

Ready to learn how to face your demons and crush your next presentation? We’ve asked Weinstock and Piranian, who’ve spoken in front of thousands and gone viral online, for their insights on the topic. Take notes and focus on baby steps.

“Remember these practices take time, so be loving, compassionate and give yourself grace. It’s about progress not perfection,” says Weinstock.

Redefine your relationship with fear

“I have good news and bad news about the fear of public speaking: it never goes away,” says Piranian, who went from avoiding speaking because of a debilitating stutter to becoming an international speaker in less than three years. “The fear never went away. My relationship with it changed drastically, however.

Now that you knot that fear is constant, you don’t need to wait until it magically disappears before taking an action that will benefit you professionally — even if it’s as small as voicing an opinion during a Zoom meeting. That kind of mindset can truly be career-altering in the long run.

“The next time you experience performance anxiety before public speaking, remember that fear and action can co-exist. Take a deep breath and walk through the fire,” says Piranian.

Change your self-talk

The most successful people master their self-talk. And the same can be said about people who’ve got a handle on public speaking.

“One of the most helpful things to do is to remind yourself it’s OK. Catch your thoughts of anxiety and literally talk to them, like, in the first person,” says Weinstock.

Weinstock was about to compete in one of North America’s largest speaking competitions when a friend gave her a piece of advice that changed her life. He suggested that she replace the words “I’m anxious” with “I’m excited.” She took this tidbit of wisdom to heart and has been using it ever since.

“It had such an amazing result because the message my brain was getting was much more positive instead of compounding my anxiety,” she says.

Call the elephant out

The next time you feel so nervous you might just pass out, be honest about it. It can make a world of difference in terms of easing tension. Even the pros do it.

“Sometimes during a presentation, I will say to the actual audience, ‘I was nervous to speak with you today but you are such an amazing audience. Thank you so much!’” says Weinstock.

“Humanizing yourself and bringing the audience into your world creates connection. It’s a win-win.”

Repetition is key

The only way out of your comfort zone is through, says Piranian, who worked on his stutter by challenging himself to talk to 100 complete strangers every single week.

“I’m often asked ‘Joze, what was the tipping moment when everything changed for you?’ The idea that we are one breakthrough away from a complete transformation is a myth. In my experience, it’s been millions of micro-moments of bravery that led to a gradual but radical transformation.”

Embrace that kind of practice-makes-perfect approach, get out of your comfort zone on a regular basis and you’ll be amazed at your own transformation as a speaker.

Visualize the best outcome

Weinstock uses visualization to deal with performance anxiety. She recommends telling yourself that you can do it and imagining yourself giving an amazing presentation.

Not satisfied after the fact? Don’t make it mean anything about your skills, give yourself grace and reflect on ways to improve. Then, keep going.

Adopt habits that ground you

It’s no secret that having good habits will help you excel professionally. And public speaking is no exception. Piranian recommends cultivating mindfulness habits such as meditation and breathwork to help manage nerves.

“At the end of the day, we’re not just trying to conquer a fear of public speaking, we have to gradually master our mind,” he says.

Weinstock is also a fan of meditation (she uses the Calm app) and says that sleep is paramount and a healthy diet will go a long way.

“Eating junk food and drinking pop all day is never going to allow anyone on this planet to perform at maximum capacity, so nourish your body with goodness,” she says.

Simple, but important. You may also find specific rituals useful to tame your anxiety before speaking.

“I know that sometimes wearing a special piece of clothing or jewelry helps me stay grounded and more confident. Sometimes I listen to inspiring podcasts or music I love before events, sometimes I give myself a pep talk or ask a trusted person to cheer me on,” says Weinstock.

Protect your dreams

Do yourself a favor and avoid naysayers at all costs — especially when preparing for a presentation. It’s about protecting your dreams.

“Speak with people who you feel good with and who believe in you. Keep the other people at bay, even if they might happen to be friends or family members,” says Weinstock.

“Protect your dreams and the work you are doing in this world. You want to build a team of cheerleaders and supporters who help reflect back to you your biggest and highest potential.”