Getting a grip on public speaking jitters

Dear Joan:

I am only in high school right now, but I get nervous when I publicly speak. I was fine with speaking in front of anyone up until freshman year. I don’t know what it is, a mental block or thinking too much. But when I have to speak I get really nervous. Do you have any information or any strategies to reduce my nervousness?



Prior to high school, we are all pretty oblivious to the judgment of others. The realization that others might make fun of us, or we may make fools of ourselves, dawns on us in our teens. Is it any surprise that most kids dress and act alike, just to avoid standing out and risk criticism?


Speaking in front of a group puts you front and center—for all to see—and potentially judge. Is it any wonder that the fear of public speaking ranks high on the list of fears? Most adults will tell you it scares them, too. And when we’re frightened, our bodies do what they are designed to do when threatened—fight or run.


Here are some physical things you can do to manage your body’s flight or fight response.

  • Breathe with your abdomen instead of high in your chest. When you’re nervous, you will tend to do shallow panting instead of deep breathing. Panting makes you light headed and tingly. It also makes it tough to think—let alone speak. One trick I use is to rest my hand on my abdomen while I’m waiting to go before an audience. If my hand moves in and out, I know I’m controlling my breathing properly and it keeps my air flowing which helps to calm me.


  • Here’s another trick I’ve found to be a great help in managing nerves. It’s a way to burn off the excess adrenaline your body is producing. If you don’t find an inconspicuous way to drain off some of this energy, it will just build up and make you shake because it has nowhere to go. Here’s how it works: I grab both sides of the chair seat I’m sitting on and pull myself down into the seat as hard as I can for several seconds. I do this with as much force as I can (without any obvious body motions, of course) and then I release. I repeat this several times just before—and during—my introduction and I find my body is much calmer as I stand up.


  • If you’re worried about your voice cracking (and believe me, it happens to adults just as often as it does to high school students), here is another tip. If you are being applauded as you are walking up to the front of the room, try humming a low tone that is close to your natural speaking voice. Singers and professional speakers do this so they don’t start out with a nervous squeak when they open their mouths.


  • You’ve probably heard the advice about picturing your audience naked. It’s never worked for me. In fact, I think it would make me even more nervous—especially if you had ever seen some of my audiences!


I have found that two other strategies produce even stronger results. One is mental and the other is structural.


Managing your mind takes practice but it’s your mind that is getting you into this tizzy in the first place. After all, these are only people, just like you, who have to get up in front of a group and don’t like it any more than you do. They feel your pain. Why, then, do we get so freaked out about it? The answer is simple; we don’t want to make fools of ourselves.


Learn some simple “self talk” lines that will calm you down. Here are some examples:

§         “I am the best person to be speaking to them about this because (pick one or more)

§         They all have to speak and they empathize with me. They really want me to succeed.

§         I know more than they do about this topic and they will learn.

§         They need to know about this topic for their own well being.

§         They will be able to relate their own personal experiences to this topic.

§         They will find this topic entertaining and fun.”


 As soon as you realize that the audience wants or needs this information, it will calm you, because you won’t feel that you are pushing it on them, or boring them. If you feel wanted, you will start to focus on their needs, rather than on your own.


Structurally, there is something you can do to make your audience feel like partners instead of evaluators. That technique is involvement. Within the first few minutes, survey the audience and ask them for comments when they raise their hands. Or, pair them up and ask them to discuss one experience related to your topic and then ask some of them to briefly share their experience or opinions with the entire group. Design the exercise to be brief and use the output to make your points. Audience participation is magic because it makes you all feel like you are discussing the topic together. You won’t be nervous because you won’t be alone.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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