Combat the Fear of Public Speaking

Written by: Julie Cohn / Communication & Anxiety / February 2019

It’s often been said that the number one most common fear is public speaking; estimates of the population who share this fear varies, but it’s always listed as one of the more common fears or even phobias.

People may experience dread knowing they have a presentation coming up; they may feel clammy, sweaty, light headed, anxious, note a fast heart rate, and a general fight-or-flight type response.  According to Harvard Health Publishing, this response:

“… (E)volved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties.

When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.

The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper.”

- https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

So how do we combat that fear?

There are a variety of angles from which to approach this anxiety.  

As speech-language pathologists, we want to address the communication itself, and so provide strategies for how to speak in a calm, professional, and confident manner (even if that is just how it appears). 

We can share and practice strategies with our clients such as diaphragmatic breathing, in which we learn to use deeper breathing to physiologically relax the body and combat the fight-or-flight response and to support better voice quality, loudness, and clarity of speech.  We may also teach postural alignment for grounding, and physical poses in which to prepare for and/or speak during the presentation.

Additionally, we can pull from the psychological literature for evidence-based practice strategies.  One such strategy is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This type of therapy involves using a process of inquiry to better understand our thoughts and how they may contribute to our feelings.  By investigating and challenging negative, automatic thoughts, we can learn to find balanced thoughts, and in doing so, reduce anxiety levels.  For example, if an automatic thought about public speaking might be, “I am going to embarrass myself,” we may find ways that thought might not always be true, or examples of past occasions when public speaking has gone well.  These new thoughts may help us come to a more balanced idea about how public speaking may go, and in doing so, reduce the feelings of fear.

A speech-language pathologist can also share strategies for using non-verbal cues to convey confidence, such as strategic body language, arm and hand gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact. Non-verbal communication can make a big difference in the way a presentation is perceived and in the amount of confidence that is conveyed.  

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As someone with a background in the arts along with my work in speech-language pathology, I will also often pull from performance art theory to help my clients create meaningful and connected presentations. Thinking about the objective behind a phrase is a useful exercise in conveying clear intent.  Additionally, finding the right tactic for sharing information may be helpful; there are many ways to share a marketing catch-phrase, for example – but what do you want to do to your audience with that information? Do you want to excite them, reassure them, convince them…?  Finding ways to make the information you are conveying specific, not just in content, but in delivery, can also make a big difference in how your presentation is perceived, and how confident you may appear.

Practice makes perfect!  A speech-language pathologist can provide a non-judgmental audience for practicing a speech, pitch, dissertation, or other presentation, and can give objective and professional advice on areas for improvement. It is always best to practice a presentation with a real, live, person or people as a trial audience.  Having feedback and the opportunity to rehearse with an audience is a supportive way in which to prepare for a presentation.  


There are many benefits to working on public speaking with a speech-language pathologist, and we look forward to helping you! To speak with one of the speech-language pathologists at Well Said: Toronto Speech Therapy, schedule an initial consultation by clicking the link below or call (647) 795-5277.