walking on custard

Scared of Public Speaking? Tips from an Anxious Comedian

28 Jul 2020

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The first time I ever spoke in front of a large audience, I was terrified. Even the (ironic) comfort that the topic was “my fear of public speaking” didn’t help.

My legs trembled so hard that I worried I might fall over. I could barely concentrate on what I was saying, only able to concentrate on what everybody must be making of my uncontrollably jiggly legs.

But afterwards, to my surprise, many people told me I’d done well and that they’d related to what I’d said. Somehow I’d even managed to be entertaining.

Since that day, I’ve delivered hundreds of talks to audiences sized from dozens to thousands, and in places as diverse as conferences, schools and comedy clubs. But this has been a tough journey, and it’s not over yet.

For a long time, I was extremely aware of any upcoming talks. Months in advance, the date of the event would be seared into my brain. As it approached my nerves would wind more and more tightly. By the day itself, I’d be a wreck; anxious, stressed, unable to speak to anyone, a mess… right up until the moment I stepped onto stage, at which point everything would be more-or-less okay.

Luckily, over the years, this anxiety evolved away from this high-impact, long-term stress. Nowadays I’m barely anxious about public speaking this far in advance… but they do still disproportionately disrupt my life. For example, on days when I’m due to speak, I struggle to concentrate on anything else, and this means that even a brief, easy speaking engagement can lead to wasted time, lost productivity, and unnecessary stress.

So how did I reduce my anxiety of public speaking… and can it be reduced further?

How I Got Here

As with most things I’ve ever done, I have no idea how this improvement happened.

It’s not like I came up with a plan to alleviate the anxiety. I just kept repeatedly putting myself into the situation, and eventually things seemed to just get better. But after some reflection, I can see two ingredients which may have helped the most:

1. Gather Evidence

Each successful talk was evidence that they weren’t as scary as I thought. Of course, knowing this doesn’t magically reduce stress on its own, so I found that keeping a list of “times things were okay” helped to make my brain confront the growing weight of evidence that I shouldn’t be as scared as I was.

I originally used this idea to manage my health anxiety (a literal tally chart of “times I didn’t die”), but it could help with any repeat anxiety. Tallying, listing or charting all the times the fear was worse than the event forces even the most stubbornly anxious brain to update its belief that doom is inevitable.

2. Embrace Failure

I am not perfect. Nothing I do is perfect. Nothing I will do is perfect. And this is all okay.

It’s very easy to say this, but harder to believe it. So I’ve consciously tried to become comfortable with failure at all stages of the process.

Beforehand, I remind myself that it’s absolutely fine if this talk doesn’t go perfectly—or even if it goes actively badly. There are many ways to do this, but I’ve found it helpful to visualize the imaginary disaster in detail—as that is less scary than the vague anxiety I usually sit with—and pointing out to myself that failure would be okay. After all, after a terrible gig, most of the audience would have forgotten by tomorrow, so why should I torture myself over it for longer?

I also make backup plans for the situations my brain is most scared about—like, for example, “what if my mind goes blank?” In that case, I might plan to say something like “Sorry, I’ve forgotten what I’m saying, and I promised myself that if that happened I’d do a silly dance until what I’m saying comes back.” The specifics aren’t important, as having a plan at all releases the tension without my having to think, and that usually solves the problem entirely.

Where I Can Go Next

The above strategies have helped me to be less anxious, but I still struggle a little with public speaking. Much of this anxiety is rooted in a feeling that I don’t prepare enough, even when I am sufficiently ready. My brain seems to believe that any time spent not preparing is going to doom me to disaster when the event rolls around, which makes it hard to relax or work on something else.

I have met plenty of famous comics who still get nervous before every gig, so I’m under no illusion that it’s always possible to be completely free of nerves. But here are a couple of ideas I’m going to try to further reduce this anxiety:

Idea #1: Do The Work, and Do No More

Part of the problem is that there’s a literal infinite amount of work I could do beforehand.

I could rewrite and rewrite, memorize and memorize, practice and practice, and there’d never come a point at which I’m definitively finished. (In other situations, you might change outfit a thousand times, redo your hair again and again, pick out different shoe combinations… and never be finished.) 

To avoid this sort of overthinking, it would help to choose a stopping point in advance.

For example, I might decide that once I’ve redrafted a talk a couple of times, and practiced it, say, five times, then unless there’s a really good reason, I’ll allow myself to call it “done.” Depending on your personality type, setting these conditions may seem unnecessary–but for chronic overpreparers, deciding in advance what ‘finished’ means could be a real lifesaver.

Idea #2: Planned Distractions

Ironically, my other problem is down to a lack of planning. On any given day, unless I have a specific deadline, I usually decide which work to prioritise on the day itself. This is great for long periods of unstructured time, when I can follow my motivation and work on a new book, or some articles, or a coding project, according to which gives me the most energy on that particular day.

However, if I have nothing particular planned just before a talk then I fixate on it. Which means either sitting around worrying unproductively, or uselessly repeating preparation. (As an overthinker, it’s rare that I haven’t prepared enough in advance, so there’s a good chance I’ll just do nothing but sit in a big bubble of unnecessary worry.)

Planning further ahead would solve this problem. For example, I could save short tasks for the hours before a talk. That way, instead of wondering what to do and then falling into a habitual stress-hole, I could absorb myself usefully in the scheduled task instead. Whether it’s something mindless like chores, or something creative and exciting, it would help to remove the decision from the day itself.

I don’t have all the answers to this, but I hope that sharing what I’ve learned so far as well as what I’m planning to do next is helpful for your own reflections. We all have our means of handling anxiety-inducing events, and I’d love to hear your tips on managing them too.

This article was originally written for Puttylike

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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