The Truth About Stage Fright in Public Speaking


man looking scared

Stage fright in public speaking is real and universal.

Knowing that throughout history, some of the world’s most famous people struggled with stage fright doesn’t help much.

A partner or colleague telling you, ‘It’ll be fine’ or ‘You’ll be great, don’t worry’, doesn’t help much either.

How about:

‘Imagine your audience naked’

‘Picture your audience applauding’

‘Just pull yourself together’

How does that work for you?

Anyone who has ever suffered with stage fright will know that it’s symptoms are real and punishing:

Pounding heart

Sweaty palms


Shaky legs




The urge to escape

Have I mentioned the trembling hands and voice, dry mouth or tightness in the throat?

What about the endless worry, sleepless nights and dread?

I’d love to tell you that, ‘You’ll be fine if you just believe in yourself’, but I know that, on it’s own, it’s not enough.

There are of course, many different types of therapy available.

The truth

You have a number of very good reasons to be nervous.

Firstly, it’s a normal reaction to a stressful situation. The truth is, we have primordial roots.

We may be living in modern times but we are still met with situations which can feel dangerous and threatening. Sadly, public speaking is one of them.

The moment we stand to speak, the Reptilian Brain wakes up. Once upon a time, we lived in tribes and as well as our ancestors being vulnerable to prehistoric large animals, surviving from each other was often a challenge too. Being rejected from the group for any reason threatened our survival.

Fast forward to today and presenting to an audience whether we know them or not, can leave us feeling vulnerable to rejection.

Secondly, we now live in an information age where everyone is overwhelmed with data. We are all so busy and yet we are still compelled to endure terrible presentations. We’ve all been on the receiving end of speakers boring us with bullet points and irrelevant information. In that knowledge, we know how hard it can be to capture and keep an audience’s attention interest and curiosity.

Thirdly, in an increasingly challenging and demanding world of work, many people are perfectionists. That means that if they can’t be certain their presentation will be perfect, they will be affected by stage fright.

If it’s not perfectionism, it may be:

– Unrealistic perspectives of what is expected of them

– Limited or unhealthy beliefs about their capability

– Placing to much importance and value on the opinion of others

– Inexperience

– Low self confidence

– A difficult or upsetting past experience

– Poor preparation and practice

– A lack of knowledge

– The fear of failure or rejection

– An overactive imagination which catastrophises

– A habit of comparing ourselves to others

– Past criticism or judgement

Stage fright does not discriminate. It doesn’t care about your age, position, experience or status. Stage fright affects all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.

The solution

The truth is, there is no quick fix. It takes mindfulness, commitment and effort to overcome stage fright but it is possible.

Here’s another truth; what works for one person may not work for another. It’s incumbent on us to explore all of the possibilities and opportunities to see what does. Often, you’ll find it’s a combination or techniques that will work best for you.

Here are some of my favourites:

Set an intention

The clearer you are on what you are trying to achieve, the less fear, doubt and confusion there will be.

Be absolutely clear on how you can help your audience and how you want them to feel. Don’t focus on the data, idea or message to begin with. Start with clarity of your intention. In other words, how does what you have to say help your audience.

Stage fright can be triggered and greatly exacerbated by focusing how much you have to say rather than what your audience needs to hear.

I wrote an article relating the late Dr. Wayne Dyers ‘Seven Faces of Intention’ to public speaking; ‘Powerful Public Speaking Lessons: Inspired by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer’

Instead of asking yourself how you can impress your audience, ask how you can help them.

Set an intention.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness can help us to focus our attention on being in the present moment. Stage fright often involves so much energy, projecting out thoughts into the future. The ability to place our awareness without judgement on the moment can be very liberating.

Rather than judging, worrying, anticipating and assuming, a practice of mindfulness helps you to regulate stress and anxiety.

Practice mindfulness

Slow your breath

Practicing relaxation techniques are another great way to manage stage fright. Some common ones include, breathing exercises and meditation.

We naturally breathe faster when we are feeling anxious. Adopting a practice of slowing our breath sends a message to our mind and body that we are not in danger and can relax.  Practice taking long, slow, deep breaths in through your nose breathing out longer through your mouth. Make your exhale twice as long as your inhale.

Slow your breath

Talk to Nancy

Stage fright often takes the form of an unhelpful and annoying voice in your mind.

You know the one, it says things like:

‘I’m a terrible public speaker’

‘I just know I’ll freeze’

‘What if they don’t like me’

Are you aware of your own inner voice?

Do you talk to it or just let it say whatever it wants to you?

Many of us let our inner voice say horrible things to us that we wouldn’t dream of letting our best friends tell us. Don’t ignore this inner voice, give it a name and talk to it.

I wrote about this voice in a previous article; ‘The Presenters Inner Critic – 3 steps to taming it’.

In this article I share the following advice:

‘Often, I’ll listen carefully and then tell him what I think. I will tell him he is simply exaggerating or even lying to me. Sometimes I tell him that what he is saying is nonsense. A great deal of the time I simply tell him to leave me alone because I’m not in the mood for his antics.

Sometimes I thank him for his opinion and for keeping me on my guard. I now know that it’s just his strange way of reminding me to be the best that I can. I always, always close our conversation by reminding him that I’m the boss.  We now have an understanding that he gets to do what I tell him and not the other way around.’

I recently came across another writer who has named her voice and talks to it.

Talk to Nancy

Don’t be selfish

We all want to look good.

Often, in our zest for doing so we become a little selfish and make our presentation or speech all about us.

This is one of the biggest and most harmful triggers of stage fright. The truth is, your presentation is not for you and it’s not about you; it’s for your audience.

Focusing exclusively on your audience is an empowering and anxiety releasing solution to stage fright.

The brilliant actor, Jonathan Pryce explains it beautifully in this short 4-minute talk.

Speak often

The most common solution to stage fright is to avoid putting ourselves in the situation in the first place.

It’s been suggested that as much as 77% of the population has some level of anxiety regarding public speaking and presenting.

Stage fright pushes many people to avoid the idea of public speaking altogether. Many will go out of their way to find any excuse to decline the offer. The payback in doing so is often instant relief. The trouble is, the cycle of avoidance continues each time they are asked to speak.

As you can imagine, it’s not a helpful strategy. Whilst it feels counterintuitive, the solution is to seek out opportunities to speak.

Start out by looking for small, short and low risk opportunities to present. As you do so, you’ll begin to realize that it wasn’t as bad as you had imagined it to be. You may even feel greater relief and pride of having put yourself forward.

The truth is: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality. Seneca

TEDx speaker, Anwesha Banerjee, explains it nicely in this short TED Talk:

Stop presenting

Here at Mindful Presenter, we meet very few people who like presenting. We meet even fewer who enjoy attending presentations.

I wrote about this some time ago when I suggested that:

‘When it comes to presenting and communicating with each other in meetings, professionals in businesses all over the world are crying out for a revolution.

Yes, they want the information.

They want the facts.

Your knowledge is important to them.

Yes, they want insights.

That will never change, but the time has come when they want all of that wrapped up in something very few presenters are currently offering.

They want you to help them to feel something. They want to connect with you on a human, emotional, and personal level.’

It’s time for us to stop presenting and to start connecting.

Everyone gets nervous

The truth is, everyone gets nervous:

If you need help with stage fright:

– Book yourself onto a powerful public speaking course.

– Invest in some really good one to one public speaking coaching.

– Get yourself some excellent presentation training

Image courtesy of



Share this article

Leave a comment

Download our Free Guide

Sign up for our newsletter and download your free guide to authentic public speaking.

When you sign up, you’ll get a link to our free guide, plus helpful public speaking articles posted on our site. You can unsubscribe at any time.