How to Prepare a Speech When You Have Anxiety

Man reviewing notecards before a presentation
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Public speaking is like any activity—better preparation equals better performance. At the same time, anxiety about speaking in public can hold you back. One way to quell anxiety is to prepare yourself well to speak in public. When you are better prepared, it will boost your confidence and make it easier to concentrate on delivering your message.

Choose a Topic That Interests You

If you are able, choose a topic that you are excited about. If you are not able to choose the topic, try using an approach that you find interesting. For example, you could tell a personal story from your life that relates to the topic, as a way to introduce your speech. This will ensure that you are engaged in your topic and motivated to research and prepare. When you present, others will feel your enthusiasm and be interested in what you have to say.

Become Familiar With the Venue

Ideally, you should try to visit the conference room, classroom, auditorium, or banquet hall where you will be presenting before you give your speech. If possible, try practicing at least once in the environment that you will eventually be speaking in. Being familiar with the venue and knowing where needed audio-visual components are ahead of time will mean one less thing to worry about at the time of your speech.

Ask for Accommodations

No, we don't mean a room at the Hilton (although that might be nice too). Accommodations are changes to your work environment that help you to manage your anxiety. If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder such as social anxiety disorder (SAD), you may be eligible for these through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

If there is something that would make you more comfortable during your speech or presentation, see if it’s a change that can be made.

Ask for a podium, have a pitcher of ice water handy, bring in audiovisual equipment, or even choose to stay seated if appropriate—whatever might make it easier for you to manage your anxiety.

Don’t Script It

Have you ever sat through a speech where someone read from a prepared script word for word? If you’re like the rest of us, you probably don’t recall much of what was said. Ideally, you should prepare a list of key points on 8.5” X 11” paper that you can refer to. Although using cue cards might be tempting, flipping through a stack of cards can also be a distraction for your audience.

Prepare for Hecklers

Although it’s not likely that you’ll have hecklers at your wedding or 50th-anniversary party, the likelihood of criticism or difficult questions is high in a business setting. The best way to deal with a difficult audience member is to pay him a compliment or find something that you can agree on.

Say something like, “Thanks for that great question” or “I really appreciate your comment.” This will help to make you appear open-minded to your audience. If you don’t know how to answer the question, admit it and tell the person that you will look into it. Before your presentation, try to anticipate the hard questions and critical comments that might arise and prepare responses ahead of time.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Even people who are comfortable speaking in public rehearse their speeches many times to get them right. Practicing your speech 10, 20, or even 30 times will give you confidence in your ability to deliver.

If your talk has a time limit, make sure to time yourself during practice runs and adjust your content as needed to fit within the time that you have. Lots of practice will help boost your self-confidence.

Get Some Perspective

This might be particularly difficult for people with SAD, as it involves observing yourself while you are speaking. During one practice run, speak while in front of a mirror, or video yourself with your phone camera. Make note of how you appear. This is a good way to identify nervous habits.

If, however, you feel that doing this exercise would just make you more nervous, skip it for now. People with social anxiety disorder need to learn how to focus outward rather than on themselves. This step is probably best done once you have a few successful performances under your belt.

Imagine Yourself Succeeding

Our brains are funny organs—they can’t tell the difference between an imagined activity and a real one. That is why elite athletes use visualization to improve athletic performance.

As you practice your speech (remember 10, 20, or even 30 times), imagine yourself wowing the audience with your amazing oratorical skills.

Over time, what you imagine will be translated into what you are capable of. Not sure whether this would really work? Well, let’s consider the opposite. If you imagine giving a horrible speech and having terrible anxiety—what do you think is going to happen? The cycle of anxiety in SAD is as much a self-fulfilling prophecy as it is a reaction to an event. Learn to visualize success and your body will follow suit.

A Word From Verywell

In the end, preparing well for a speech or presentation gives you confidence that you have done everything possible to succeed. Give yourself the tools and the ability to succeed, add in some strategies for managing anxiety, and see how well you do. For those in recovery from social anxiety disorder (SAD), these tips should be used to complement traditional treatment methods such as systematic desensitization or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

1 Source
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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Social Anxiety Disorder.

Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."