Don't Picture the Audience Naked: 5 Tips to Get Over the Fear of Public Speaking

·       Do you get nervous when you speak in front of a group? 
·       Do you get tongue-tied when you’re put on the spot? 
·       Do your brilliant ideas sound stupid when you say them out loud?
·       Would you rather have a root canal than give a speech?  

If you answered yes to any of these questions – don’t worry: you’re normal.
Public speaking is scary.  A survey taken by USA Today found that the number one fear people share is public speaking.  The number two fear is the fear of dying.  Meaning – people would rather  that their parachute not open than to have to speak in front of a group of people.  (I don’t know what the 3rd biggest fear is, but it might be slowly dying while you are standing in front of people...)

If you aren’t frightened of giving a speech, take your pulse -- you might be dead.
My introduction to stage fright was when I was 8 years old working birthday parties as a magician. Before each magic show, there I was in the bathroom throwing up. Being a magician is scary. If I forgot one prop, I would be publicly humiliated. After all, turning a glass of sugar into a goldfish isn’t a great trick if you’ve forgotten the goldfish, or the water the goldfish was in. I'm sure some of the children in the audience are still in therapy over that mistake.

You might think that my fear has lessened since I make a living from performing... it hasn't.

Actually, over time, MY FEAR ESCALATED as I became a professional magician traveling with huge containers full of props. Then, my worse fears came true when my tricks didn’t show up for a gig and I had to perform without them. Many of you read about this in my first book, Stand-Up Comedy: The Book, when going up without magic tricks pushed me instantly, on the spot, into comedy. I don’t know how many other comics got their start because of United Airlines.

I’d like to say that not needing props reduced my anxiety, but it didn’t. Switching to comedy, I just had myself on stage and the never-ending worry, “What if they DON'T LAUGH?” Fears don’t entirely go away; they change. The same thing could be said about THIGHS.

When I transitioned and became a professional speaker, my fears transformed to this thought, “AM I A FRAUD?” My mother wasn’t alive to do the undermining; it was all left to me, but I was good at it. “Who are you to speak to CEOs, businesses, and hospitals?” I asked myself. “What if they don’t respect me?”

Last week, I had THREE SPEAKING engagements and I realized that my fear has decreased. No throwing up...no nightmares...no compulsive over-eating. Well... 2 out of 3 ain't bad. I had to ask myself, "WHAT CHANGED?"

What helped curb my fears was the realization that they were a function of NOT getting something – approval, laughs, applause. That IS a scary place to be. Because when you WANT something from others, you are powerless. You can’t control their reactions. It’s why we have those dreams about being naked on stage. I wonder what strippers dream about. 

Unfortunately for the fearful, there comes a time in most careers when people have to give a presentation.  When that time comes, the ability to speak clearly and decisively is an absolute career must.  And -- being able to state your position with confidence lets you fully participate in meetings, negotiations, and debate.  To be on a career fast track, you have to be able to deliver an effective speech.

If you’re so scared of speaking in front of a group that you avoid it at all costs, you’ll miss out on opportunities to practice a vital skill.  As your fear grows over time, it can lead to a desire to not call attention to yourself – and that can stand in the way of you being noticed, rewarded, and promoted.

So -- how do you get over the fear of public speaking?

The only advice friends will give you when you have to speak in front of an audience is to imagine the audience naked.  To me, that seems like terrible advice.  (Any time I’m in front of naked people, the last thing I want to do is to talk.)  Instead, it would be better advice to tell you to try to understand the source of the problem.

Fear sometimes arises as your internal negative voices turn up the volume when you try to do something out of the ordinary.  When you step outside of your “comfort zone,” fear pops up and tries to convince you to keep safe by avoiding risks.  But since success usually involves risk taking, overcoming fear is a necessity to move ahead in a highly competitive business world.

Fear itself isn’t the problem.  It’s the way you deal with it – or don’t deal with it -- that is the problem.  You might not even be aware how often actions and decisions are solely based on fear.  For instance, you might not go to a party because you’re frightened to go alone, but you tell yourself, “I’m too tired, I have a big day tomorrow.”
This type of unexpressed fear could be slowing your career advancement. You might be avoiding expressing your ideas – both in speeches and in general -- because you feel uncomfortable about the possibility of failure.  But instead of facing that fear, you tell yourself, “I can just send this out in a memo” or  “I’ll keep this to myself – why rock the boat?” or  “I’ll write my speech later; Housewives is on...

When you experience fear -- remember that brave people are not unafraid. What distinguishes them is that they act despite the fear.


Judy’s five-step program for managing your speaking fears

Admit your fears to yourself
Imagine yourself giving a speech.  Write down all thoughts of fear, impending doom, anxiety, apprehension, dread, foreboding or panic. 
 The audience will hate me.   I’ll look stupid.  My mouth will go dry. I’ll sweat profusely.   I’ll start cussing -- and won’t be able to stop.  I’ll be so embarrassed that I’ll keel over dead.  And then I’ll start to smell...

Evaluate your fears
Now go back over these lists and cross off all unrealistic fears.  For instance, if one of your fears is "dying" on the platform, you can X that out.  More people have died from clogged pores than from public speaking.  Although giving a speech might make you sweat and grunt, dying is not an option -- even when you wish it would be.

Confide your fears to a friend
Call a friend and tell him or her your realistic fears.  Fear loses a lot of its power when it's out in the open.  Fear also tends to shrink when you share the burden with a sympathetic listener – especially if they have some good solutions -- or can make you laugh.  Maybe your friend will answer your fear of sweating profusely by telling you, “Use lots of deodorant and wear black.”  Once we can joke about our fears, they seem to go away.
Focus on what you’re GIVING the audience.
Focusing on others helps take dissolve fear. That’s why I make sure that everything I say is AUTHENTIC and HELPFUL. We’ve all been to an open mic with a performer who NEEDS our laughs. We feel burdened - it’s an energy drain. GIVING to an audience GENERATES ENERGY and alleviates fear.
BEFORE YOU SPEAK OR PERFORM – go over your material to make sure that your message is FOR THEM, rather than FOR YOU. Focusing on giving is likely to bring down your fear levels.

Take action
Fear is like the school bully who's made you his target.  You can try to avoid him by walking home a different way, but he will always find you.  Are you going to let the fear of losing your lunch money dictate where and how you live?  Or -- will you do the scary thing and deal directly with the bad guy?  Successful people aren’t necessarily less frightened than you - they just do things in spite of being frightened.

Don’t wait until you get over your fear to speak.  Do it in spite of being afraid.    And when you speak:

  • Focus on your ideas rather than your insecurity. 
  • Keep your speech simple by having one main idea that you can say clearly.
  • If something goes wrong – don’t ignore it – joke about it.  (“I wanted feedback on my speech – I just didn’t realize it would all be coming from the microphone.”)
  • Fix a dry mouth by squeezing your cheeks (preferably the ones on your face.)

And finally, if you find yourself getting nervous, sweaty, and anxious -- stop -- take a deep breath -- look an audience member in the eye -- and wonder, “Is that Victoria Secret underwear my boss is wearing?!”


  1. If you just had a small idea of how much you're helpping me...Genuine thankfull! Regards all the way from Perú.

  2. Thank you, that was a very helpful outlook to share, I really appreciate it.

  3. Whoa magician since 8? Thank you for sharing. Great story


Judy's Blog

Judy Carter blogs on comedy, storytelling and public speaking techniques, using personal stories and her adventures as a stand-up comic turned motivational public speaker. Her weekly blogs are read by fans of her books, “The Comedy Bible” (Simon and Schuster) and “The Message of You” (St. Martin’s Press), which include comics, speakers, and entrepreneurs. She is also known for teaching the value of humor and storytelling to businesses as a leadership and stress reduction tool.