Terrified by Public Speaking? Conquer Your Fear One Breath at a Time

As Jerry Seinfeld notes, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death.” Seinfeld asks, “Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Speaking in front of others terrifies most of us. Indeed, few of us can brave speaking to large audiences, let alone trying to be funny to a crowd of unfamiliar faces as comedians like Seinfeld do. Our hearts batter our ribs, our palms slicken with sweat, our mouths dry, and our stomachs churn like boiling water. Worse yet, our thoughts scatter like threads in a hurricane, leaving us struggling to stitch together a complete sentence, much less a whole speech.

Telling ourselves to calm down does nothing. In fact, doing this can exacerbate our anxiety as our failure to control our thoughts heightens our sense of helplessness. If you have the presence of mind, you could try the old trick of picturing people in the crowd naked. However, if you are like me and many others, odds are that you’re more likely to sweat and fret as you choke on your anxiety.

While scripting and rehearsing can certainly help with the speech, there’s another technique that will calm your nerves and give you the poise you need to deliver your message eloquently. You can achieve presence of mind without resorting to self-talk or old tricks.

One Breath at a Time

Having presence of mind just amounts to being present, or focusing on what’s right in front of you at this moment. Acquiring this presence of mind doesn’t require a significant time commitment or a herculean effort. Rather, becoming present through practicing mindfulness can be as simple as focusing on your breathing, one breath at a time for a few minutes per day (see instructions below).

While practicing mindfulness won’t completely erase your fear, it will give you some perspective on your emotions so they don’t snowball and so you can stay in control to perform better. You can apply this practice to deal with other difficult emotions, such as anger or sorrow.

Start with what you can handle, perhaps five minutes a day, and experiment as time progresses to see what the optimal duration is for you.

Breath Practice

  1. Find a quiet space. Sit comfortably with your spine straight and away from the back of the chair but your shoulders relaxed.

  2. Close your eyes if you think you’ll be distracted with what you see. Otherwise, just lower your gaze.

  3. Breathe normally. Focus on the changing physical sensations of each in breath and each out breath. Where do you feel it the most? In your abdomen? Focus on those sensations.

  4. If it helps to keep you focused, count each in breath and each out breath, and start over when you hit ten until you’re finished.

  5. When your mind wanders, don’t beat yourself up. Just bring your attention back to your breathing.