It's commonly believed that the greatest fear common to humans is the fear of public speaking. Surprisingly, more people are afraid of standing before an audience than of dying--though I suppose the reason many are afraid is that they believe they will die on stage, at least metaphorically.
The symptoms of glossophobia can include intense anxiety leading to fight-or-flight sensations as well as physiological reactions, which may include nausea or panic attacks.
It's safe to say that reactions from all across the spectrum are quite common. But are there ways to overcome your fear and sleep well the night before you are to deliver a speech? In my 10 years as a professional speaker, I've experienced the gamut of emotional and physical reactions prior to taking the stage. While some have suggested that you imagine your audience being naked, I think that might actually be an unhelpful distraction. However, along the way I've discovered a few things that I believe may be helpful for anyone and keeps your audience fully clothed.
1. Remember that it's not about you. It's about your content.
Unless you are already a big celebrity, people are coming to hear your content. When you stress out on how well you are going to perform, you are putting the focus on yourself rather than your audience. Remember the reason you are giving a talk. In all likelihood, it is to teach, inspire, or entertain (or some combination of the three). It's not about you. Your audience is counting on you to deliver value. Simply give the people what they want.
2. Shake some hands before your talk.
I find it calming to visit with audience members before I speak. I'll shake hands, introduce myself and thank people for coming. The familiarity of friendly faces, warm smiles, and human contact can have a calming effect. There's something about humanizing your audience that makes them less intimidating. Unless you are speaking to a hostile audience, odds are people are eager to hear what you have to say.
3. Keep in mind that you're the only one who knows.
While you may not have slept the night before (or for an entire week prior to your speech), your audience doesn't know it. They are simply looking forward to what you have to share. The truth is that most people can't tell that you are nervous or afraid. And if you do show signs of anxiety by stammering or forgetting what you were about to say, recognize that your audience is pulling for you. Most people don't enjoy watching a train wreck. There's nothing wrong with saying, "I forgot where I was going with this." A polite audience member will probably gently remind you, and then you may continue.
4. It's OK to not be perfect.
Even presidents make mistakes when they speak. When they do, it often makes headlines. But no one is going to remember your mistakes. It's OK to be human and not get it completely perfect. Relax and go with the flow. And if you do put your foot in your mouth, it's completely appropriate and endearing to be self-deprecating about your faux pas. I find when I laugh at myself that the audience laughs with me, making it even easier to continue.
5. Audiences are made up of people just like you.
Whether you're speaking before a small group of 10 or a massive audience of 10,000, recognize that all audiences are essentially the same. They are just people, many of whom suffer from the same fear of public speaking. Applaud yourself for having the courage to overcome your fear and believe that you leave the stage having accomplished your goal.
6. Be gracious with yourself.
Most people are much harder on themselves than others are with them. Go easy on yourself, physically and emotionally. Get plenty of rest the night before your talk, have a good meal, and let it go. Unless your speech is truly a matter of life or death, recognize that you are embarking on a unique experience and that you are going to give it your best. Don't ask more of yourself than anyone would ask of you. Just be yourself and you'll be brilliant.
7. Your passion, knowledge, and experience can carry the day.
You will be speaking because you have something important to share. If you know what you are talking about, allow your passion for, and your knowledge of, your subject matter to be the driving force. Even as I hear my introduction happening, I make a conscious effort to get out of my own way so that my reason for being on stage won't be obscured by my own needs.
There's one more thing I've observed from the hundreds of talks I have delivered over the years. When I look out into the audience and see blank faces staring back at me, I used to think that I had completely lost people. But what I've discovered is those "blank" faces are actually people locked in on me and hanging on my every word.
Being invited to present to any audience is an honor and a privilege. It's social proof that there is an interest in your expertise. Allow that privilege to help you place your fear behind you so that your audience can learn, be inspired and/or have a few laughs. I believe you'll find it rewarding.