For introverts, public speaking and taking part in meetings can be nerve-racking. But these tips could be a game-changer

Imagine you’re in a meeting and you have a great idea to contribute. You briefly consider sharing it but, just as you expected, nerves get the better of you, and you resolve to stay quiet. You’ve never been great at speaking up in front of others.

Maybe it’s the thought of delivering a presentation or a big speech that makes your heart race and your palms sweat. You’ve always considered yourself an introvert, and the thought of standing up in front of others makes you quiver.

Firstly, know this: public speaking (glossophobia) is a very common fear – one that even seemingly super-confident people struggle with. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education found that the phobia affects between 15% and 30% of people. So, if the thought of speaking up makes you want to bolt, you certainly aren’t alone.

Psychologist and professional coach Dr Samantha Madhosingh says what you’re really afraid of is the possibility of saying the wrong thing, perhaps forgetting what you want to say, or not being listened to.

“At the root of this is the fear of being rejected or humiliated in some way by speaking up or speaking out,” she explains. “This can be an issue for anyone who believes that what they have to say isn’t important, or that they aren’t smart enough to make a valuable contribution, but it can be extra challenging for introverts who don’t like being the centre of attention.”

In fact, it can be the catalyst for a cocktail of fear-based emotions. “You’re not just dealing with anxiety and nervousness, you might also feel dread (expecting something terrible to happen), panic (the escalation of anxiety that feels overpowering), insecurity (lack of confidence in yourself), or overwhelm (feeling like you might drown in your fear),” Samantha points out.

Shame is another emotion that can rear its head, particularly if you’re someone who feels deeply flawed or unworthy of attention. “If you feel this way and you are in the spotlight, you may fear you will be ‘found out’ and exposed as a fraud,” Samantha surmises.

The more intensely you feel fear and anxiety, the more likely you are to have a fight-or-flight response; a reaction that happens when we’re faced with something terrifying and must either fight or flee.

“The brain cannot distinguish between real, imminent, physical danger, and the emotional risk that comes with putting yourself in uncomfortable growth situations, and so the fight-or-flight response tells you that speaking in public is as dangerous as being chased by a lion,” Samantha explains.

Finding your voice

If you’ve often found yourself tongue-tied when speaking in front of a group, battling a metaphorical lion that threatens to overpower you, it can be hard to imagine ever standing up before an audience and saying what you want to say with confidence – but it can be done!

The first thing you need to do is get your fight-or-flight response in check. Deep breaths are an easy way to do this, and box-breathing is a popular technique that calms the parasympathetic nervous system when it’s on high alert.

Simply breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for four, exhale while counting to four, and repeat until you feel calm.

Samantha’s pro tip? “With each long exhale, say ‘ahhhhh’. This helps loosen up your throat so your voice sounds normal.”

There can be a tendency to go into ‘rescuer’ mode, and want to fix the other person, as it’s so painful to observe their hurt (1).jpg

Shifting that nasty voice in your head that keeps shouting: “You can’t do this!” is a key confidence-building technique, too. For this, Samantha recommends repeating affirmations that make you feel your bravest and most powerful self.

A few of her favourites include: I can do this; my contribution is important; my voice matters, and I have the power to inspire others; I am well-prepared and know my material inside out; every presentation is an opportunity to learn and grow.

Pick one or two that work for you, and try repeating them in the lead-up to your next meeting or presentation.

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase that practice makes perfect. That undoubtedly goes for public speaking, too. If you’ve got a big presentation to make or a speech to deliver, consider practising it in front of a mirror, over and over again. You might be surprised at how confident you look and sound.

“Use this exercise as an opportunity to listen to your voice and observe your body language to see what needs tweaking for improvement,” Samantha advises. “Your facial expressions, tone of voice, rate of speech, and the gestures you use, all matter.”

If you just want to feel a little less nervous about speaking up in a meeting, practise speaking up in groups of people you’re already comfortable around.

It can serve as a valuable reminder that you’re already a great communicator, and that speaking up in front of colleagues, peers, and board members isn’t all that different to conversing with your mates.

If you’re still feeling nervous – and remember it’s normal to – Samantha offers these words of encouragement: “Be kind to yourself and know that fear is a reaction and courage is a decision. Even the most seasoned professional speakers feel nervous and anxious right before a speaking event. But, they don’t let that fear stop them. They find tools to manage that anxiety and nervousness, and they keep practising.”

So go on, shake off those nerves, take a great big deep breath, and say what you have to say. We promise that, once you’ve done it a few times, it won’t seem nearly as terrifying.