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The highest rating answers to similar questions over at music.SE recommend that to overcome stage fright, you should master your recital to perfection (here and here). I find that in workplace situations this often does not apply. When I'm presenting something to colleagues, I am usually not the master of a monologue and they the passive audience, but rather we are discussing something that I don't know everything about and that I therefore cannot perform to perfection.

Business situations, like those of politicians talking to journalists or scientists presenting results to other specialists, ask for a mastery not (only) of the subject but of the self, that allows for spontaneity and open interaction and is not undermined by the errors and ignorance that are a natural part of such situations.

At my job, I often have to stand in front of an audience of co-workers or customers and hold a presentation. I do this reasonably well, still I am mortally afraid of their judgment on me. The fear in itself does not bother me too much, what really hinders my interaction with the audience are the visible symptoms of my fear. Some people blush, in my case my head starts to shake. This shaking is easily visible for the audience, and it is this public signal of my fear that makes me feel deeply ashamed and hinders my performance. What I deeply desire is to be able to look someone asking a question in the eye and answer him or her while holding this gaze. But the shaking is worst when I look at my audience, so I stare at the floor or pace back and forth and stare out the window while I talk. Or I hold my hand to my chin in a "thinking about it"-gesture, even when I speak.

This social phobia is a general trait of mine that affects all aspects of my life. A psychotherapy might help me, but outside of that:

What techniques help you to overcome fear of your audience, or still your shaking? Please, only report what you have experience with and know to work for you.

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I have spoken to groups as large as 2000 in person (larger electronic audiences) and as small and terrifying as my thesis defense committee. I still occasionally get a little nervous. Here are my suggestions:

  • prepare, but don't overprepare. Unlike a musical performance you are not one-way performing a memorized "piece" and you will react to the way they react
  • get enough sleep and eat properly before you speak
  • take two Tylenol about 30 minutes before. This actually suppresses the "butterflies" you feel in your stomach, which can reinforce "ooh, I'm scared" and make you more scared
  • if your nerves are overwhelming you and your voice is trembling or misbehaving, just stop for a moment and swallow. You can cover this by taking a sip of water or some other drink, which people will not think is odd. Your voice should be more normal after swallowing.
  • if you have paper notes, do not hold them in your hand if you might be shaking, since that will show everyone what is happening
  • after each presentation reinforce to yourself that you did not die, you were not fired on the spot, and so on - whatever you feared did not happen.
  • have something with you to remind you of the larger world and that this presentation is not your whole world. For example at my thesis defense I had a prenatal vitamin in my pocket :-)

These days I LOVE audiences. I didn't at the beginning, that's for sure.

  • 1
    Thanks, I actually misread your last point at first, and it reminded me of something that used to help me but is not always available: Have someone with you who loves you and who you trust, to remind you of the appreciation (some) people hold for you. I held one presentation once (at university) with my girl-friend in the audience (she didn't study with me and only sat in on this one session) and this time I was totally relaxed and gave the best presentation of my life. But I can't bring my girl everywhere, and your tips are great. Thanks again. – user4698 Nov 30 '13 at 14:34
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    'at my thesis defense I had a prenatal vitamin in my pocket' ... +1. That was beautiful. – もしもし Dec 2 '13 at 14:07
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    I like this answer, but I would like it much more if it didn't involve drugs. Over-use of Tylenol leads to liver damage. You shouldn't rely on drugs to do a presentation. – MrFox Dec 2 '13 at 15:11
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    A normal dose of Tylenol, taken a few times a year to help suppress the symptoms of stage fright, is not "over use" and nor is it "relying on drugs". It reduces fever and pain, and taking it for that isn't magically overuse either. If someone took Tylenol daily for stage fright that might be an issue (though some people take it daily for pain) but anyone who had to speak to an audience daily would probably get over the stage fright or get a new job. – Kate Gregory Dec 2 '13 at 15:55
  • I've known quite a few musicians that had stage fright. They would take a shot to 'calm the nerves', (which totally works). The problem is that they would never stop doing that because they never learned to control that fear, they just suppressed it with a substance. I have no argument that taking a Tylenol once in a while is totally fine. But, this is an SE answer that will be read by many people from hereon until eternity. It seems to me that at least some people will keep following this advice for every presentation they have. – MrFox Dec 2 '13 at 17:48
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This is something when you practice becomes easier. Groups such as Toastmasters are really worth while and you should consider attending some of their work shops. Other things you can do is get some friends and practice in front of them. Tell them they can be jerks for experience.

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    Thank you, I too believe that practice is a crucial element. – user4698 Dec 1 '13 at 18:33
  • +1: Toastmasters is a group that has helped many of my friends who have this problem. – Joel Etherton Dec 3 '13 at 21:16
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Executive Summary

This is your lizard brain taking over. The only way to get it to shut up is to practice until your lizard brain learns that the audience is not about to eat you. In the meantime, fake it 'til you make it.

Lizard Brain

So we have this natural instinct to be freaked out by unfamiliar situations. After all, who knows when a tiger will jump out and eat you?

Unfortunately, this part of our brain also makes us assume that the audience will consume us whole if we make a mistake or show weakness, which freaks us out, which makes us more likely to act like a nervous wreck. This is human nature -- just about everyone feels it in front of audiences. Some of us are just a bit better at hiding it (usually through practice).

Practice

The only way to quiet that horrible nagging voice in the back of your head is through practice. While you practice, there are a few things you can do to make your audience more receptive (and less scary looking) to make the process of practicing easier:

  1. Speak to your audience's interest
  2. Limit one-way speaking
  3. Rehearse your lines

Most of the people I see who are nervous speaking in front of others focus on what they need to say, instead of what the audience wants to hear. If you engage the audience, they are more likely to be interested, smile, lean forward, and otherwise give positive reinforcement that helps quell that unsettled feeling you have standing in front of them.

Try to make sure your presentation is actually interesting in content to the audience. One sure way to do that is to limit the amount of time you spend lecturing at them. People get bored listening to presentations (usually 15-20 minutes is the amount of time when people start nodding off), so keeping them engaged will mean that they take some of the attention, and give you breaks in between.

While Kate says that you can't make a script, I tend to disagree. You can make a script, and practice with the script (but not reading off it), and that will help make the story rote (even if you change up the words when you get in front of people). Having as many queues as you can, both on the slides and in the notes, will make it easier for you to focus on the act of giving the presentation, rather than the people you are giving it to.

I always write up notes, and practice for at least half the time it will consume for the audience (if I speak in front of 20 people for 20 minutes, I will practice for 20 x 20 / 2 = 200 minutes). This may seem like overkill, but when you've given the same presentation 10 times in a row, you definitely don't have trouble remembering what to say even if you discover halfway through the presentation that your fly is down.

Fake It 'Til You Make It

This was the best advice I ever got when it came to speaking in front of people. I used to be a wreck speaking in front of folks. New jobs, speaking in front of 5 people on my team would make me horribly nervous. In the comedy of errors that has been my professional career, I ended up with a job where 90% of my work was speaking in front of groups of 20-40 people daily.

I was tossed to the lions and was forced to sink or swim. So I did what I could and pretended that I was:

  1. Competent
  2. Confident

(I was neither)

But for whatever reason, playing the role of the confident public speaker was easier than trying to be the confident public speaker myself, and it made me more willing to get myself out there each time without entirely falling apart, and that got me better in the long run. Just imagine that you are playing the role of a famous public speaker. It won't fix everything, but it just may make the process of practice better.

Putting yourself out there time after time will breed real confidence, and competence. In the meantime, you may have to fake them, but we all start somewhere, right?

When you commit to doing it (even if you're faking the confidence), you may find out (as I did) that even if you have the worst speaking experience ever it isn't actually as bad as you imagined it was. Whenever I need to speak in public for something outside my comfort zone (speaking in a foreign language in front of 500 people on 3-day notice, for instance), I just fake it.

  • I completely agree with this one. I've dealt with serious but gradually-reducing stage fright over the years, and the conclusion I've come to is that it's an instinctive reaction, similar to a phobia, and like a phobia, you can't think yourself out of it. Desensitisation is the only strategy that works. – Tom W Jan 16 '14 at 19:20
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I'll have to admit, I really hate giving presentations. However, it's inevitable and sometimes a presentation (with two-way communication) is the best way of distributing knowledge.

What I've found that works for me is:

  • Be open and honest about you being nervous.
  • Remember to breathe.
  • Master the subject you're giving the presentation of.
  • Have a bottle of water ready.

And finally, in smaller groups, a presentation is really a conversation where you are standing in front of a whiteboard and/or projector.

  • I mostly agree with "remember to breathe", to which I would add: don't get driven, but consciously observe and control the situation, including your reactions to it. If you feel nervous, go slow, instead of what people ususally do: quicken their (speaking) pace. I don't think I need to appear unaffected, but I think I don't want to appeal to the empathy of the audience by mentioning my nervousness. That would put the focus of my presentation on me, which is like an actor in a movie telling the audience of his life on the set to explain his subpar performance. – user4698 Dec 1 '13 at 18:39
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First there is no substitute for the confidence you get from knowing your information in much more depth than what you are presenting. Never skimp on preparation. When preparing the presentation, take some time to think of the hardest questions anyone could ask you, especially the ones you would feel you were not prepraed for. And then prepare answers to them. You might even pretend you were listening to someone you don't respect give the presentation and list the questions you would ask if you wanted to make him look bad.

Next remember that, "I am not sure of the answer to that, I will research it and get back to you." is a valid answer (as long as you don't use it for every question.). Practice that line until you can comfortably say it. Other stock answers to practice might be (and you can think of more or use word choces that feel more natural to you.):

For when the question applies only to the person who asked it and you want some time to prepare: "This is something we need to discuss outside of this meeting. Let's get together afterward the meeting and set up a time to discuss."

For when the questioner is outright rude: "Calm down, I will get to the information you want in a minute." "Sir, your behavior is not acceptable. Please restrain yourself or leave." (Only use this one if things are way way out of hand.

For whe the questioner is off-topic: "That doesn't come under the scope of this presentation. I will try to find you an answer later if you email me your question."

It appears the question part of the presentation is what bothers you the most. I would suggest you start with taking the time to rehearse with some co-workers and have them agreggessively ask questions (much more so than a person probably would in a real presentation) and push you as hard as they can to get you rattled. Then practice the same thing repeatedly until you realize that you can handle it. It may take hours to get to this point (took me a full week of 8 hours a day of practice to get over my fears). Try to make a game of it. Have them ask you totally outrageous questions. Have them be rude and interrupting. Have them be downright nasty. Occasionally in your answers, deliberately make a mistake and see if they catch it. Since the mistake was deliberate, you can correct it if they do catch it and that too will give you confidence you can handle whatever they throw at you. The key is to exaggerate things to the point where they are far worse than anything you would get in a normal presentation. Once you have practiced handling those things, the easy stuff in the actual presentation is not nearly so intimidating.

I was lucky, I had a boss who was invested in making sure I could do presentations and he gave me that time to work on it. Talk to your boss and see if he can give you some time and some co-workers time to help you get past your fears. Consider looking for a public speakeing class (I had a training course that helped me tremendously and taught me any of the things I am sharing here.). Your boss might want you to work on it outside of work hours, in which case you may need to bribe some co-workers to help you with dinner or beer or something.

Another thing that helps (and boy is it hard) is to practice while a video recorder is running. Watch the video and make changes based on what you see. Exaggerate the gestures you want to use until they start to feel natural. After hours of practice, you will realize that you look fine and that will give you more confidence.

Edited to add:

If the things you are worried about are meetings as opposed to presentations, then knowing your own project in detail (knowing - not relying on looking things up) is critical. I can point to one occasion where we had a very unhappy client who came to our office for a meeting and asked some very hard, pointed questions. We turned that multi-million dollar account around in part due to our ability to think on our feet and answer questions without having to equiviocate or look things up. The only reason we could do that was because we knew our product and our database cold. The 3 of us in the meeting during the questions on the data end of things could answer all questions in detail immediately without having to look things up or think about it. That gave them the confidence they needed to know that we did know what we were talking about. There is no substitute for having in depth knowledge that you can talk about off the top of your head about your project or your technical skills or your profession in general. It takes a lot of effort to get this kind of knowledge (it gets easier as you have more experience), but it is never wasted time. I have never known a senior person who was considered competent who did not have this sort of in depth knowledge.

  • "First there is no substitute for the confidence you get from knowing your information in much more depth than what you are presenting." Many in-front-of-audience-situations are not presentations but ask for spontaneous competence and cannot be prepared for by rehearsal. E.g. being approached by a head hunter at a congress. – user4698 Dec 4 '13 at 20:08
  • @what and if you have mastery of your subject, you wil have teh confidence you need. However, if you are nervous during presentations which is what the question asked, then you need to fix that first and then you will be less nervous in genral when ad hoc things come up. But make no mistake, you will never be confident if you don't know your profession, your projects or your technical area of expertise in depth. There is no substitute for learning your profession, you can't rely on "I can look it up" in real life. – HLGEM Dec 4 '13 at 21:25
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One approach not mentioned here is to be honest with your audience. They do see that you are nervous, so trying to hide it is a waste of energy.

"Hello my name is .... Welcome to this presentation about .... There's one thing I should tell you in advance: I have given this presentation umpteen times but every time I have to step up here and tell you about ..., I'm a nervous wreck. (You could mention physical symptoms here) Having said that, let's go to the first slide."

This way you are acknowledging that you are only a normal human being, and they will understand that. You'll still have to deliver, but you already wrote that you do that reasonably well.

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    I highly recommend not doing this in front of customers. Human or not, there are plenty of customers out there who will think, "If this guy can't do it, why won't they send somebody who can?" – jmac Dec 1 '13 at 23:43

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