It began in my stomach: an unanticipated flutter that became a tight knot. Then the skin, muscle and bone of my hands appeared to have turned into lettuce.
A red face followed, along with a stuttering breathlessness.
I picked up my notebook and ran from the room.
So what prompted this anxiety attack? I’d been asked to do the thing I dreaded most: delivering a presentation to a group of fellow undergraduates, for five whole minutes.
When I decided to go into teaching, I assumed that I’d find talking in front of classes of 35 really scary. But I didn’t. Speaking in front of children came naturally to me.
But as soon as I had to make an announcement in the staffroom, or speak at a celebration evening, the pumping in my chest and large damp patches beneath my armpits returned.
Fast -orward a decade and I now do lots of public speaking: assemblies, parent forums, whole-school briefings, CPD sessions and, perhaps most daunting of all, educational conferences.
Public speaking: how to get over your fear
I’ve been told that I come across as articulate, confident and even funny. I still get nervous beforehand, but the panic-stricken shakes are a distant memory. So what happened? How did I transform from terrified mumbler to competent public speaker?
Here are five things that helped:
Practice makes perfect
Planning what you’re going to say in advance and practising saying it is by far the most important aspect of public speaking. I begin with a script, which I adapt to sound more natural when spoken aloud.
The script gradually becomes bullet-pointed notes, then after daily rehearsals I find that I’ve memorised the bulk of my talk. This takes work but makes me feel much more relaxed and confident.
Let body language talk
There are giveaway signs of an uncomfortable public speaker: hands in pockets, arms crossed as if in a straitjacket, trembling hands, sombre expression, and so on. So think about how you are holding yourself.
Move your arms about (but don’t overdo it), so that your gesticulations appear emphatic and decisive, rather than nervous. Put your notes on a lectern to avoid having to hold something that might betray your shakes.
Smile, even if you’re shaking inside. The more you fake these gestures of confidence, the more likely you’ll start to feel them for real.
Imagining ourselves in a scenario can help us to deal with nerves and improve our performance. For this reason, try to get access to the room in which you will be speaking. Visualise it full of people and think positive thoughts: people smiling at your jokes and nodding their heads at your sage wisdom.
When the time comes, welcome people as the room fills. Find a friendly and reassuring face to focus on if the butterflies begin to take hold.
Avoid annoying fillers
Fillers like “umm” and “er” are unavoidable features of spoken language; even the best orators fall back on them at times. But they become a problem when they punctuate every other word.
Likewise, using “OK” and “right” at the end of each sentence is a guaranteed way of irritating your audience. Ask a trusted colleague to point out your annoying verbal tics and consciously cut them.
Laugh it up
We all love listening to anecdotes. Give a bit of your life story away and the audience will warm to you. Constructing an interesting narrative for your talk will keep the crowd engaged and convey your message powerfully.
Well-chosen humour – particularly of the self-deprecating kind – can also endear you to an audience. And laughter relaxes your nerves.
Follow these five tips and you’ll find yourself dreading public speaking less. If you’ve been on a similar trajectory to mine and have overcome your public speaking woes, I’d love to hear your own advice.
Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher in the South West of England