Need Help Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety? Communications Expert Matt Abrahams Offers Tips to Find Your Confidence

UPDATED: March 18, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 18, 2024
Women onstage overcoming public speaking anxiety

Whether interviewing for your dream job or networking at an industry event, building up the courage to speak in public can feel nerve-wracking at best and downright terrifying at worst.

The good news is that you’re not alone—not even a little bit. In fact, researchers estimate that 70% of the population experiences feelings of nervousness when speaking in front of others. 

To better understand why so many people fear public speaking and how they can overcome it, we spoke with Stanford University lecturer, author and podcast host Matt Abrahams. Throughout his career, Abrahams has helped millions of people who suffer from anxiety with regard to speaking in public. His new book, Think Faster, Talk Smarter, offers tools for anxious speakers on how to excel in a variety of spontaneous communication situations. 

As it turns out, experiencing anxiety when speaking in front of others is innate and very much part of being human. “It’s something evolution has wired us to have,” Abrahams explains. He adds that, back in our cave days, those individuals within the tribe who held higher status had greater access to resources like food, shelter and reproductive opportunities. “Anything you did that would jeopardize your status was, by definition, very risky,” he says. 

Perfectionism preys on our anxiety 

When facing anxiety, Abrahams suggests taking a two-pronged approach aimed at managing both symptoms and sources. 

“Symptoms are the things that we experience mentally and physically, and then sources are the things that initiate and exacerbate anxiety,” he explains. Your body sees speaking in front of others as a threat, and it invokes a fight-or-flight response.

For a vast majority of people, anxiety stems from being overly focused on one’s desired outcome or goal. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with goal setting, it puts the attention on a future state rather than remaining in the present moment. To stay present-oriented, Abrahams suggests engaging in activities like walking around the building, listening to a playlist or contributing to conversations. You can even pick a number in your head and count backward. For Abrahams, it’s tongue twisters. “They help me be present oriented… and warm up my voice,” he says. 

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Chasing perfectionism is another way we hold ourselves back. Abrahams notes that while it’s natural to want to communicate effectively, there is no one right way. He explains, “Instead of trying to target being right, what we should target is being connected to our audience… It’s about connection, not perfection.” Lowering the level of pressure put on ourselves allows us to channel that precious cognitive bandwidth into something more constructive.

8 solutions for overcoming public speaking anxiety 

If you struggle with public speaking, know that you aren’t alone. It’s worth noting that even the most outwardly confident individuals struggle having their voice heard. As Abrahams points out, “You can have an anxious extrovert and a confident introvert when it comes to speaking.” Simply put, everyone gets nervous. 

1. If you speak fast, practice deep breathing

Deep breathing, according to Abrahams, is the best way to get your voice sounding like ‘you’ again. “Deep belly breaths slow down the autonomic nervous system, reducing the heart rate [and] reducing the cortisol levels that our brain releases,” he explains. The magic really happens during the exhale, and your exhale should be twice as long as your inhalation. 

2. If you start shaking, move with purpose 

Abrahams explains that shakiness comes from adrenaline, and the purpose of adrenaline is to move us from threat to safety. Nervous people tend to make themselves tight and small, which causes them to shake even more. “If you can learn to step in when you start a speech or to use big, broad gestures, this gives that energy a place to go and stops the shakiness,” Abrahams says. 

3. If you get dry mouth, drink warm water

The best way to combat dry mouth is through hydration. Dry mouth is a natural part of the body’s fight-or-flight response and simply means you’re nervous. Along with drinking warm water before you start speaking, Abrahams suggests sucking on a lozenge or chewing sugar-free gum. Basically, you’re trying to help reactivate the salivary glands.

4. If you blush or sweat, hold something cold

Blushing and sweating both happen whenever the body’s temperature is rising. Heart rate increases, the body gets tighter and there’s more blood going through tighter tubes. Just as you might hold a piping hot mug of tea to warm up on a cold day, the opposite is also true. Holding onto something cold is the best way to reduce your core body temperature. 

5. If you blank out, repeat the last thing you said

According to Abrahams, there are actually two things you can do when your mind goes blank. The first is to repeat the last thing you said. This usually jogs the memory and gets you back into your rhythm. Another tactic is to distract the audience by asking them a question, and while the audience is thinking of their answer, you can get yourself back on track. 

6. Ask questions in a meeting to summarize what others have said

Abrahams suggests this is a safe way to have your voice heard and to practice communicating in front of others. Plus, you’re not risking anything; you’re simply commenting on what’s already been said. 

7. Seek environments that stretch your comfort zone

Take stock of the situations where you feel slightly more confident, and then find ways to be in more of those situations. It doesn’t have to be work related—it might be your weekly running group or your virtual book club. 

8. Find allies and build each other up

Recognize that communication is a skill everybody can develop, and we’re all a work in progress. Connecting with colleagues who are also nervous about speaking up can have a great team-building effect. You can practice speaking up on their behalf and vice versa.

To improve your communication and overcome public speaking anxiety, repetition, reflection and feedback matter most.

This article originally appeared in the March issue of SUCCESS+ digital magazine. Photo by Jacob Lund/

Megan Eileen McDonough

Megan Eileen McDonough is an award-winning writer and social photojournalist who splits her time between Barcelona and Virginia. In addition to running top-ranked blog, Bohemian Trails, McDonough's writing has appeared in publications such as Lonely Planet, US Airways, Teen Vogue, Fodor’s, and Bustle among others. She’s been featured in Travel + Leisure, AFAR, Refinery29, and Forbes as a leader in the travel space. McDonough also works as a brand strategist, helping to define content direction, curation, and compelling storytelling. Follow her on Instagram @itsmeganeileen.