How to handle public speaking nerves

On 3 June 2017, professional rock climber Alex Honnold accomplished something that few people thought could be done. He climbed the 3,000-foot granite wall of Yosemite Park’s famous El Capitan, the vertical wall in the photo above.


Without ropes or any other safety apparatus. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

This achievement has been celebrated as one of the most difficult, one of the most dangerous athletic feats ever. By “free soloing” El Captain in 3 hours and 56 minutes, Honnold has forever placed himself in the Pantheon of rock climbers. What he accomplished was truly epic.

To give you just a taste of what it was like, watch this two-minute trailer of the documentary Free Solo which is about Honnold’s climb.

Catch your breath. I’ll wait.

In April 2018, Honnold spoke at the TED Conference in Vancouver to share his insights about the climb. There are valuable lessons from his exploit for public speakers.

After all, when we are on stage in front of an audience, we are also performing without a safety net. True, there is no risk of us plunging hundreds of metres to our death—although I have seen people fall off the stage and injure themselves—but metaphorically, we are alone in our efforts to scale the wall of our speech and ensure that we reach our goal of having an impact on the audience.


Honnold’s free solo climb up El Capitan was the culmination of a ten-year dream. The reason it took him that long to attempt the climb? He was afraid.

[I]n the video I’m over 2,500 feet off the ground. Seems scary? Yeah, it is, which is why I spent so many years dreaming about soloing El Cap and not actually doing it. But on the day that that video was taken, it didn’t feel scary at all. It felt as comfortable and natural as a walk in the park, which is what most folks were doing in Yosemite that day. Today I’d like to talk about how I was able to feel so comfortable and how I overcame my fear.

The idea of standing up in front of an audience and speaking is a scary prospect for many people. And you know what? It’s natural. But you have to put things into perspective and learn to harness the nervous energy and channel it in a way that is constructive.

In a great post on Presentation Guru, Jim Harvey gives some excellent advice that every nervous speaker should hear. I encourage you to read the post, particularly if speaking in public makes you nervous, but in essence, Jim’s advice is as follows:

  • Nobody cares if you make a mistake unless you make them care.
  • Nobody is going to die so keep your perspective.
  • Get over yourself and focus on the audience.

This might seem like tough love—and it is—but it’s also true.

And think about this advice from the perspective of Alex Honnold as clung to the side of a cliff, hundreds of metres above the ground.

  • A lot of people would care if he made a mistake.
  • Death was a real possibility.
  • He had to get over himself and focus 100% on climbing that wall.

So fear and nerves are normal when it comes to public speaking, but you have to learn to deal with them.


Over the years, Honnold constantly challenged himself to climb in different environments. What began as indoor climbing turned into outdoor climbing where he followed the paths of other climbers. But eventually, Honnold began to yearn for something different.

After nearly a decade of climbing mostly indoors, I made the transition to the outdoors and gradually started free soloing. I built up my comfort over time and slowly took on bigger and more challenging walls. And there have been many free soloists before me, so I had plenty of inspiration to draw from. But by 2008, I’d repeated most of their previous solos in Yosemite and was starting to imagine breaking into new terrain.

Many people speak to the same kind of audience over and over, and thus become comfortable speaking in that situation. It could be the same people, such as work colleagues, but it could also be the size of the audience or location of the talk or the subject matter.

In 2017, I wrote a post called The Public Speaking Fear Grid in which I created a simple 2X2 grid based on audience size and how well the speaker knows the audience. It has always fascinated me how some people love to speak in certain “quadrants” on the grid but detest speaking in others.

Some people only want to speak to people whom they know; others prefer speaking to strangers. Some like a small audience where they see everyone up close; others would much rather have a big group of people in front of them so they don’t have to focus on any one person.

The challenge that I set speakers in that post is to seek out speaking opportunities in those “quadrants” that make you uncomfortable. Like Alex Honnold, you need to break into new terrain.


It took Honnold years of practice in order to become one of the best climbers in the world. He has spent countless hours climbing, stretching, practising and occasionally falling (with a rope). He even did roped climbs on El Capitan with a friend to collect loose rocks in a backpack so that his free solo ascent path would be clear!

Honnold’s preparation for his ascent of El Capitan did not take a few weeks or months; it took years.

3,000 feet of climbing represents thousands of distinct hand and foot movements, which is a lot to remember. Many of the moves I knew through sheer repetition. I’d climbed El Cap maybe 50 times over the previous decade with a rope. But … my preferred method of rehearsing the moves [was] to rappel down the face with over a thousand feet of rope to spend the day practicing by myself. Once I found sequences that felt secure and repeatable, I had to memorize them. I had to make sure that they were so deeply ingrained within me that there was no possibility of error. I didn’t want to be up on the wall wondering if I was going the right way or using the best holds.

Fifty times! Honnold climbed that wall 50 times with a rope—and spent many more times starting from the top and practising different sections of the climb—before he made his free solo attempt. That’s preparation!

And there were subtler, more focused degrees of his preparation. For example, for the most difficult part of the climb, known as the Boulder Problem, Honnold had to make karate kick with his left leg to reach the toehold. To make sure that he was flexible enough, he did nightly stretching for a year.

The crux culminated in a karate kick with my left foot over to the inside of an adjacent corner, a manoeuvre that required a high degree of precision and flexibility, enough so that I’d been doing a nightly stretching routine for a full year ahead of time to make sure that I could comfortably make the reach with my leg.

Sun-Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and author of The Art of War, said that all battles are won before they are fought. It’s all in the preparation.

When it comes to presentations, how much preparation do you put in? Do you start working on the presentation weeks in advance or are you banging out PowerPoint slides at 11:00 pm the night before? Have you thought about your message and why it is relevant for your audience? Have you structured your presentation with an opening that hooks your audience, a structure that presents your ideas in a coherent manner, and a conclusion that nicely wraps things up?

And what about all those logistical things like computers and cables and batteries and such? Have you remembered them all? (If you find you often forget things, this checklist that I created will help.)

Alex Honnold could not have done his amazing climb without rigorous preparation. We don’t have to prepare for years for our presentations. Nevertheless, if we want to be successful, we need to prepare sufficiently. Our audiences deserve nothing less.


Visualization is a powerful technique that many athletes use to reach peak performance. Many elite athletes work with sports psychologists to help them visualize themselves the perfect match or perfect race. If you watch downhill skiing, you will often see athletes with their eyes closed, swaying back and forth as they do the perfect run in their minds.

Visualization was a key component of Honnold’s preparation for his climb.

[S]taying calm and performing at your best when you know that any mistake could mean death, requires a certain kind of mindset. I worked to cultivate that mindset through visualization, which basically just means imagining the entire experience of soloing the wall. Partially, that was to help me remember all the holds, but mostly visualization was about feeling the texture of each hold in my hand and imagining the sensation of my leg reaching out and placing my foot just so. I’d imagine it all like a choreographed dance thousands of feet up.

As I practiced the moves, my visualization turned to the emotional component of a potential solo. Basically, what if I got up there and it was too scary? What if I was too tired? What if I couldn’t quite make the kick? I had to consider every possibility while I was safely on the ground, so that when the time came and I was actually making the moves without a rope, there was no room for doubt to creep in. Doubt is the precursor to fear, and I knew that I couldn’t experience my perfect moment if I was afraid. I had to visualize and rehearse enough to remove all doubt.

Whenever I have a big speech or presentation, I always spend time visualizing myself giving a great talk. I see myself on stage, going through my material topic by topic. I imagine the audience giving me their full attention and a positive reaction.

If I have access to the speaking venue, I will visit it several weeks before the event. I will walk the stage and stand in various locations on it. I’ll sit in seats around the room and note the lighting, the sounds, the smells, the colour of the walls. All of this makes the visualization more real. And when the visualization is more real, the impact on the day is greater.

What if you don’t have access to the speaking beforehand? For example, what do you do if you have to fly to the event? You can usually find images of the venue online. If you are working with an organizer, ask them to send you photos from different angles. Any images are better than nothing.

For example, several years ago, I spoke at an event in Lisbon, Portugal. The conference organizers had helpfully put up images of the speaking area on their website. Below are some examples.

From these images, I learned several things: the stage was wider than it was deep; the auditorium was large, seating around 500 or so people; the seats rose to the back like in a movie theatre.

I visualized myself speaking on that stage over and over. When the day came for me to actually present and I walked into the room for the first time, it felt like I had been there before. I recognized several things and it all felt familiar. And that made me feel that much more comfortable when I walked on stage.

When you have a big speech or presentation, spend a bit of time visualizing yourself doing a great job. You might be surprised at how beneficial this exercise is.


This lesson is not so much from Honnold’s climb as it is from his TED Talk. At 11:25 of the video, he describes the final two hundred metres of his ascent.

With 600 feet to go, I felt like the mountain was offering me a victory lap. I climbed with a smooth precision and enjoyed the sounds of the birds swooping around the cliff. It all felt like a celebration. And then I reached the summit after three hours and 56 minutes of glorious climbing. It was the climb that I wanted, and it felt like mastery.

It’s a wonderful description and you can imagine how much Honnold must have relished the moment. Yet the conclusion to his TED Talk felt rushed. And when it was over, Honnold made a quick exit without even enjoying the standing ovation he received.

I suspect that he rushed because he was reaching the 12-minute limit for his talk. Nevertheless, it’s a good example of protecting your conclusions and making you have enough time to slow down and leave the audience with a message to take away. And please don’t rush off the stage, especially when the audience is applauding. If you do, you are depriving people of the ability to thank you. So stay put and enjoy the applause.


Alex Honnold is a remarkable young man and his feat is truly one for the ages. But even if we never attempt a free solo of El Capitan, we can apply some of the lessons that he learned to our own speeches and presentations.

The next time you climb the steps to get on stage, think of it has your personal El Capitan.

This post originally appeared in Presentation Guru on 7 November 2018.
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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 304) – Keanu Reeves

Photo of Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves – Canadian Actor, Director and Producer

“The simple act of paying attention can take you a long way.”

—  Keanu Reeves

Photo courtesy of Marybel Le Pape
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Patrick Stewart: A lesson from Shakespeare and Star Trek

Image of Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard

Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard

I do not consider myself to be a Trekkie, but I was a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was the second Star Trek series and the only one that I watched from beginning to end. The main reason was the brilliant performance by Patrick Stewart, the brilliant English actor.

Stewart played Jean-Luc Picard, the Captain of the USS Enterprise. Courageous, eloquent and a great communicator, Stewart’s character was also a man of culture, a man of humility and someone who wasn’t afraid to seek the advice of others — and heed it. If only more real-life leaders were like him!

I recently came across the video below in which Stewart sat down with his fellow actor and good friend, Ian McKellen to answer questions from fans. One of the questions for Stewart caught my attention: “Did your Shakespearean training help you?”

Stewart said that his Shakespearean training helped him for Star Trek in two ways: one vocal and one physical. The physical is also good advice for public speakers.

See what Stewart said in the video below. It should start at the relevant time but if not, skip ahead to 8:47.

There you have it. Stewart said that he was the one person who knew what to do with his hands, which was nothing. In other words, he was comfortable leaving them at his sides as you can see him do in this clip from Star Trek, a screen shot of which is below.

Clients often ask me what they should do with their hands when they speak in public. Why not let gravity do some of the work and leave them by your sides? No, not for your entire speech or presentation, but from time to time. It’s the most natural position for your hands. And it’s better than putting them in your pockets or behind your back or holding them together in front of you.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 303) – John Maynard Keynes

Photos of John Maynard Keynes

John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946) British Economist

“Words ought to be a little wild for they are the assaults of thought on the unthinking.”

—  John Maynard Keynes

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Pico Iyer and the art of stillness

Pico Iyer is a renowned essayist and novelist who is best known for his travel writing. He has been to some of the most far-flung places on the planet and his writings have appeared in leading newspapers, magazines and literary journals.

In the TED Talk below, Iyer discusses a theme that some might find counterintuitive coming from a famous travel writer: the importance of going nowhere, doing nothing and just being still.

Iyer’s gentle approach belies a powerful truth. Technology is making things move faster and faster. It is thus increasingly important for our well-being to slow down and just be still.

The same holds true when we speak to an audience.

I have frequently written about the importance of slowing down and pausing when we speak, such as here and here. And one of my favourite quotes from Mark Twain is all about the power of the pause. In his talk, Iyer delves into this theme:

Like many in Silicon Valley, [Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine] tries really hard to observe what they call an Internet Sabbath, whereby for 24 or 48 hours every week they go completely offline in order to gather the sense of direction and proportion they’ll need when they go online again. The one thing perhaps that technology hasn’t always given us is a sense of how to make the wisest use of technology.

And when you speak of the Sabbath, look at the Ten Commandments. There’s only one word there for which the adjective “holy” is used, and that’s the Sabbath. I pick up the Jewish holy book of the Torah; its longest chapter is on the Sabbath. And we all know that it’s really one of our greatest luxuries, the empty space. In many a piece of music, it’s the pause or the rest that gives the piece its beauty and its shape. And I know that I as a writer will often try to include a lot of empty space on the page so that the reader can complete my thoughts and sentences and so that her imagination has room to breathe.

The last part of the last sentence — “… so that her imagination has room to breathe” — is fundamental to public speaking. When a speaker pauses, audience members can reflect on what she has just said; they can find the relevance of the speaker’s remarks in their own lives. That is how you get your message across, because it is always about the audience.

Keep Pico Iyer in mind the next time you have a speech or presentation. As he says in his concluding remarks,

[I]n an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.

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Naomi Osaka’s Australian Open Speech

Naomi Osaka of Japan won the 2019 Australian Open in dramatic fashion. She beat the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitová 7-6 (7-2) 5-7 6-4 to become the first woman since 2001 to follow her debut Grand Slam win with another one.

Even after squandering three match points to lose the second set, Osaka fought back in the third to claim the title.

Her acceptance speech at the awards ceremony was delightful. When called to the microphone, Osaka began with a timid “Hello” which elicited good-natured laughter from the audience. She then said, “Sorry, public speaking isn’t really my strong side, um, so I … I just hope I can get through this.”

And she did get through it. She was gracious to Kvitova, appreciative toward the fans, grateful to the Australian Open organization and thankful to her team.

Osaka was clearly nervous and it would be easy to point out all the public speaking mistakes that she made. It would also be churlish to do so. Nobody cares that she was nervous or that she had lots of filler words or that she forgot part of her speech. Indeed, when Osaka said, “I read notes before this but I still forgot the rest of what I’m supposed to say,” she endeared herself to the crowd even more.

There is a lesson in Osaka’s speech for public speakers of any level. If your words are sincere and you just be yourself, people will overlook most any public speaking misstep. And even if they don’t, a bad speech will not define you.

Osaka is only 21. She will be a tennis powerhouse for years to come. She will undoubtedly have other opportunities to give speeches after winning tournaments. I think that her speaking skills, like her tennis skills, will just get better. Let’s see what she says next time.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 302) – Martin Luther King Jr.

Portrait of Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968) American Minister and Civil Rights Activist

“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”

—  Martin Luther King Jr.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 301) – Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix (1942 – 1970) American Rock Guitarist and Singer

“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”

—  Jimi Hendrix

Photo attributed to Scanpix
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Don’t let this moment define you

Have you ever had one of these experiences while speaking in public?

  • You forgot what you wanted to say and froze on stage.
  • Your computer crashed and you fumbled your way through the presentation.
  • An audience member made a comment that threw you off.
  • You were asked a question that you couldn’t answer and became flustered.

I’ve seen these things happen time and again to speakers. And I’ve experienced these things because each of them—and more—has happened to me.

For example, I was once speaking to approximately 80 communication professionals on the topic of how to communicate effectively. As you might imagine, I felt the pressure of speaking on a topic to a room full of experts.

At one point during my talk, I showed a slide of me with some children in Kenya when I was doing some work there. It’s a picture that I love and that brings back strong emotions from my experience. I used it to demonstrate the difference in effect when one use a small picture in the corner of a slide versus having the picture fill the entire slide.

One woman in the audience took exception to the image and let out an audible groan and rolled her eyes. At that moment, it felt like the room had gone dark except for where she was sitting. For a good 10 seconds or so, she was the only person I could see. And it took me several minutes to regain my composure and get back into the groove.

Yes, public speaking can be scary.

I felt bad about that presentation for a few days, but then I had another event at which I had to speak and things went well. It was a good lesson on the importance of putting bad experiences behind you so that you can move forward.

I recently came across a much more profound example of this lesson in the story of Ryan Speedo Green. A star baritone in the world of opera, Green sings around the world in four languages. But how he achieved his goal is even more impressive than his voice.

Born into poverty in Virginia, Green lived in a trailer park and low income housing as a child. He had an abusive mother who frequently beat him. One day, he pulled a knife on her and she called the police. Green was sent to a juvenile detention facility where he spent two terrible months, often in solitary confinement. No one could foresee that that troubled young boy would become the thoughtful man in the video below.

No one, that is, except a few people who helped him turn his life around: his teacher, Elizabeth Hughes; Priscilla Piñeiro-Jenkins, a caseworker in the detention centre; and a Virginian psychiatrist.

In an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Green was asked what he would say to his 12-year-old self sitting in solitary confinement in that detention centre. He answered,

I would tell him there are trees and sun beyond these walls. … Don’t let this moment define you. I would, in the words of Elizabeth Hughes [say], don’t let this moment define you. This is not the end. This is only a moment in time. And someday it’ll get better. Someday things will get brighter.

Remember Green’s story the next time things go wrong on stage and you feel like you will never give a good speech or presentation again. Things will get better.

Don’t let this moment define you.

Photo credit (first image): TEDxLTHS / Flickr
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When you speak, break the pattern

Presentation Guru LogoI am one of the co-founders of Presentation Guru, a digital magazine for public speaking professionalsThis post is part of a series designed to share the great content on Presentation Guru with the Manner of Speaking community.


In my seven-part series on Chip and Dan Heath’s classic, Made to Stick, one of the posts dealt with the power of being unexpected.

The Heaths say, “If you want your ideas to be stickier, you’ve got to break someone’s guessing machine and then fix it.”  You have to break their pattern of thinking in a way that creates surprise and interest. However, you must do so in a way that is relevant and thoughtful.  Being unexpected in a constructive way involves much more than just doing something crazy.

The Heaths continue: “The easiest way to avoid gimmicky surprise and ensure that your unexpected ideas produce insight is to make sure you target an aspect of your audience’s guessing machines that relates to your core message.”

And yet, how often do speakers fall into the same old patterns? A bland opening, going through slide after slide of information, a weak conclusion, asking for questions at the end.

When you speak, break the pattern!

Pieces of coloured chalk

Inspired by Joseph Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, Stephen Welch has written a post to help you break the pattern the next time you have a presentation. He offers concrete advice that you can break the patterns of your audience’s thinking in your presentations. Fittingly, he divides his ideas into the following musical techniques 

  • Overture – Open your presentation in a creative way
  • Key change – Change the tone of your voice at key moments
  • Rest bars – The power of the pause
  • The instrumental solo – Videos, music and more
  • Intermission – Ways to give your audience a break
  • Encore – End on a strong note

To learn more about these techniques, please read Stephen’s post.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 300) – “A Star is Born”

Quote No. 300 for public speakers. Hard to believe.

When I began this series back in 2009 with Quote No. 1, I wasn’t sure that I would find enough quotes to keep it running for long. But time and again, I have come across great quotes, aphorisms, sayings and other pieces of wisdom that have something to offer to public speakers.

I hadn’t thought too much about what I would do for Quote No. 300, but then I came across this trailer for the movie A Star is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, and I knew this was it. Because this is a milestone, you get the quote and a video.

Hope it inspires you to go out and speak. You’ve got something to say.

“Look, talent comes everywhere. But having something to say and the way to say it so people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out there and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth.

“If there’s one reason we’re supposed to be here, it’s to say something so people want to hear it. So you gotta grab it. And you don’t apologize, you don’t worry about why they’re listening or how long they’re gonna be listening for, you just tell ’em what you wanna say.”

—  Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born

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10 tips for dealing wth dry mouth when you speak

If you give a lot of speeches or presentations, there is a good chance that you have experienced dry mouth (also known as cotton mouth) — that parched, sticky sensation that makes your mouth and throat feel like cracked soil in a drought.

Cracked, dry earth

The technical term for dry mouth is xerostomia. It’s a condition in which the salivary glands in your mouth don’t produce enough saliva to keep your mouth wet. There are several causes of xerostomia, some of which are serious. For many people, however, dry mouth is a temporary condition brought on by stress or nerves, something which every public speaker has experienced.

You know the symptoms: a dry, sticky mouth; a sore throat; difficulty swallowing; a heavy pasty tongue. Not fun and, if you are speaking to an audience, not helpful. So what can you do about it?

Ten Tips to Deal with Dry Mouth

1.  Drink plenty of water the night before. Yes, you will be going to the washroom more often than usual, but all that water will hydrate your cells.

2.  Sip water regularly in the hour or so before you speak to stay hydrated. Be sure to go to the washroom before you take the stage.

3.  Chew citrus-flavoured gum or a lozenge before speaking, but don’t forget go spit it out before going on stage!

4.  Have water handy on stage so that you can take a sip if necessary. Two important things to remember about water:

(a) It should be room temperature. Cold water constricts the vocal chords.

(b) It should be flat, not sparkling. Bubble have a way of coming back up!

5.  Avoid alcohol, caffeine and tobacco before you speak because these substances worsen dry mouth.

6.  If you use mouthwash, choose a brand without alcohol.

7.  Try an oral rinse that is designed to counteract dry mouth. Such rinses usually contain xylitol, which helps stimulate saliva. I have used this brand and found it works well.

8.  Avoid antihistamines and decongestants as they tend to exacerbate dry mouth.

9.  Sleep with a humidifier.

10.  Prepare well. This will help you feel more confident, which will help you feel less nervous, which in turn will help minimize dry mouth.

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