Five tips to help you lose your fear of speaking in public, and the Hong Kong student who fainted from nerves after giving a speech

Most people are nervous when it comes to public speaking, and for some it’s a fate worse than death. We speak to the experts to get ideas on how to relax, speak naturally and influence people

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 August, 2017, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 6:47pm

Bertha Chan had all the symptoms – shakes, sweats, increased heart rate and a heavy pain in her stomach. Then she fainted.

“My nerves got the better of me,” says Chan as she settles into a chair at a coffee shop in Hong Kong’s Central business district.

“I had just finished giving a speech in front of a large crowd and really struggled to keep the shakes and the sweats under control. As I walked back to my seat I fainted,” says the 18-year-old.

Chan was suffering from anxiety associated with public speaking. And she’s not alone. It’s estimated that 75 per cent of all people experience some degree of anxiety/nervousness (official name glossophobia) when speaking in public, according to the self-help book Communicating for Results: A Guide for Business and the Professions.

Public speaking helps youth find a voice

And people from all walks of life – business, political and celebrity – have struggled, from US investor Warren Buffett to Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi. Film stars Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts have also battled their own public speaking demons.

Chan, a biotechnology student at Hong Kong Baptist University, also found working in a male-dominated environment added to her insecurity. To boost her confidence, she turned to Toastmasters, a global organisation that helps members develop communication and leadership skills.

“I can’t say enough good things about Toastmasters,” says Chan, sitting upright, not a hint of nerves, her words rolling off her tongue with articulate ease. “It taught me to understand that things are not always going to be perfect, the importance of proper planning and preparation and how positive thought can go a long way.

She says people who want to boost their confidence should join. “The Hong Kong branch is about to launch a section for juniors which is great, to start kids young.”

Clinical psychologist and family therapist Melanie Bryan says not every public speaker experiences the same anxiety.

“Some are okay in a small group, others dread round-table business meetings while some can speak fairly well before 30 to 50 people but panic at the thought of speaking before a larger group,” says Hong Kong-based Bryan.

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There is a reason why some people suffer more than others.

“Many who fear public speaking can often trace it to a specific situation in which they became tongue-tied when asked to speak, their mind went blank, their voice squeaked [to their ears], their hands and body shook, and they felt humiliated.”

Bryan says it’s these experiences that haunt the fearful speaker. Such people can also imagine, in vivid detail, making a fool of themselves (classic anticipatory anxiety). “If they are forced to speak publicly, they tend to bring these fears to life.”

In contrast, comfortable public speakers focus on what they want to convey to their audience, rather than what they fear.

Hong Kong-based executive coach Malcolm Andrews says delivering presentations is a challenge many workers dread, but one that people need to overcome.

“Ask most office workers what their top work-related fear is and public speaking or delivering presentations are likely to come out top,” says Andrews. “Research shows that almost one in five of the population lists their fear of public speaking as greater than death, spiders, heights, and the dark.

“But with the right formula and preparation, employees can inform, engage, influence and entertain the audience in a way that is authentic.”

Andrews says the most common concern he hears from clients is that for them to make a successful presentation, they will have to become someone completely different. “They think that ‘If I’m ‘just’ myself, I won’t be taken seriously, I won’t sound convincing, nobody will feel that they’ve got anything of value’.”

He says as a person’s speaking skills improve, so will their chances of achieving their career ambitions.

Toastmasters’ public-speaking demonstration the talk of the town

Bryan agrees. She says a big concern among clients is that their anxiety will hamper career advancement. “They see confident public speakers given opportunities for appearances that they, too, are qualified for, but are overlooked.”

Hong Kong’s strong corporate environment means presentations and public speaking are common. But the city’s multicultural landscapes raises another challenge – that of speaking in a second, or even third language.

“It’s difficult enough for native speakers to come across as authentic, confident, persuasive and engaged in their own language,” Andrews says. “Second language speakers have the advantage of starting afresh, without the constraints of habit and culture which can inhibit the development of a different way of speaking in line with best presentation. Paradoxically, non-native speakers can learn to be more authentic and persuasive than native speakers of a language.

“Intonation, speed, pausing, all play a part in creating a presentation style which achieves our objectives. With experienced coaching, these can be achieved by both native and non-native speakers alike.

Jim Wan, public relations manager of Toastmasters District 89 that covers the west and south of China, Hong Kong and Macau, says communication is vital in almost every career – talking to colleagues, management, clients and suppliers.

“If fear is preventing us from effectively delivering what we want to say, then that can be a real barrier to us getting what we want from meetings, presentations, and even small talk,” says Wan.

“A confident speaker will be taken seriously, people will want to listen, and remember what was being communicated, while if a speaker appears extremely nervous, that is the feeling that listeners will take away with them about the speaker.”

Wan says members have gained valuable experience that has aided personal and career development, and even launched new careers using the skills learned.

“There are many Toastmasters Clubs in Hong Kong open to the public to join, while a range of blue-chip companies run in-house clubs for staff, and professional and educational institutions house clubs for their members and students. “

Toastmasters’ five-step guide to overcoming fear

1. Be prepared

Practise what you will say, and check how long it will take you to cover all the necessary points. Feeling confident that you know what you are going to say, and not rushing to fit everything in, is a big step forwards.

2. Prompts

Write out key words on a cue card, but avoid bringing a full transcript to read word-for-word, unless you want listeners to fall asleep.

3. Believe in yourself

If you don’t, no one else will. Tell yourself that you are ready to take the challenge.

4. Relax

Before stepping up, take a moment to calm yourself. Deep breaths can work wonders for slowing a fast-beating heart.

5. Smile

When you step up, smile. It shows confidence, relaxes the audience, and immediately builds a connection. With the audience on your side from the start, the battle is half won.