Friday 15 December 2017

How to conquer fear of public speaking

Orna Devine pictured at Her Rathcoole hoem for Herald Feature on Public Speaking. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Orna Devine pictured at Her Rathcoole hoem for Herald Feature on Public Speaking. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

DOES the thought of speaking in public bring you out in a cold sweat? relax ... you're not alone.


He may be used to performing in front of thousands of adoring fans, but One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles recently admitted being nervous about giving a speech at his mother's wedding. And while this may seem unusual for someone in his position, he is not alone, because many people claim to be more afraid of speaking in public than actually dying. We spoke to a couple of Dublin women to find out how they overcame their fear of talking in public and also got some advice from an expert for those of us who are still quivering in the wings.


Orna Devine is married to Dermot Hughes and they live in Rathcoole with their three children, Ava (7), Joshua (5) and Zoe (10 months). She runs Little Moments baby massage and yoga classes and has to do a lot of talking to groups in her daily routine. She used to be terrified of speaking in public and still finds it quite daunting, but slowly she is becoming used to the ordeal and overcoming her fears.

"I am very chatty and sociable normally but when it comes to public speaking I have always tended to freeze up – my hands shake, my voice trembles and I get tongue-tied. When I was studying in college this caused me great worry as a lot of my courses included grades for presentations – I got through them but not very well.

"I have a vivid memory of being in a tutorial room with my lecturer and there was no one else with us. We chatted amiably before my presentation but when I had to stand at the podium and do the presentation, my nerves kicked in, my voice trembled, my hands shook and I stuck rigidly to my script. Once I stepped away from the podium I was able to calm down and talk to him normally again. It was purely psychological but that didn't make it any less a problem for me.


"After college, I worked in human resources and was initially even nervous doing interviews and avoided any role which involved giving training courses because I had such a fear of public speaking. Even so, I did have to grit my teeth on certain occasions and do health and safety courses, induction meetings and speak up at management meetings as this was a necessary part of the job.

"When I trained in infant massage instruction, I hadn't really considered public speaking, because it was a class I had attended myself as a parent and it was a subject I loved. Because the class is usually done in such an informal setting (sitting on blankets and cushions with babies) it never felt like I was standing up and speaking to a group of people.

"All the same I didn't sleep for a week before my first class and I vividly remember babbling almost non-stop for the first class trying to cover my nerves. But the more I prepared for each class, the more I got used to it and enjoyed it.

"Now I think nothing of starting a class. I don't use notes anymore and feel far more comfortable – possibly it's because I'm more knowledgeable about the subject and know where to find the information if there is something I am not sure about.


"Public speaking still scares me but I know from experience that I can do it and as long as it's a subject that I'm comfortable with I have little to worry about. Having realised that there is little difference in presenting to a small group than to a large group, doing the latter has become less daunting.

"If I was to offer any advice to someone I would say that it's definitely worth trying to overcome this very common fear. When you listen to someone speak, you would rather they didn't mumble into their cards and everyone wants a nervous speaker to do well so it's worth remembering that when you're the person doing the speaking.

"If it's a subject that you're interested in then let your passion come through as you speak about it. Prepare with research, practice or whatever helps you feel more confident."

Amanda O'Beirne (above), from Leopardstown, runs www.babysplash.ie offering swimming classes to babies and toddlers in the Dublin/east coast area. She is married to Darren and they have two children, Elise (4) and Lucia (9 months)

"A big part of my job is teaching groups of mums and dads in the swimming pool. I used to find this very daunting – especially in the pool environment where it can be very loud, which makes it difficult to be heard. I used to be very nervous and would start to think about the audience rather than what I was talking about, which of course, would make my mind go completely blank – even if I had a prompt sheet in front of me. But as my experience has grown, so has my confidence and I now think nothing at all of going into a class to teach. I overcame my problem mainly with public speaking by simply getting more practice. Speaking in front of numerous BabySplash classes each week, it has just become part of what I do.

"Also, it has improved with the realisation that I do have a lot of experience and knowledge on the subject of baby swimming and that people do want to hear what I have to say.


"I have found my confidence has even grown to speaking to larger audiences as well and even though I sometimes get butterflies, I spoke recently on stage at a baby show and actually quite enjoyed it.

"I used to be quietly spoken but now my husband thinks my voice has got louder in general and often asks me to speak a bit more quietly, especially when the children are asleep.

"My advice to anyone who is worried about speaking in public is to try to be confident simply of the fact that you have a good knowledge of what you are talking about and just keep practising. No matter how scared you are, just go out there and do it, you might surprise yourself and each time it will get easier."

Originally from Dublin, Sandra Sheerin (right) of Public Speaking Ireland spent 10 years in America when she was a child and benefited from the self- confidence which is taught to all children in the US system. She believes if confidence is instilled early enough, most children will grow up without fear of speaking in public.

"I set up Public Speaking Ireland as a way to work with children and adolescents and to give them the same encouragement and support that I received while in high school in Pennsylvania.

"However, I have found that I am actually inundated with adults in my classes who were told to 'sit down and shut up' in their formative years of education and are now deathly afraid of public speaking.

"I firmly believe that when a young child learns how to address a group of peers and adults in a public setting, the fear of speaking in public is no longer with them as they mature to adulthood. However, by the time adults have made the decision to overcome their fears and face their demons head on, they are more than willing to participate and not allow the past to control them any longer.

"There are a variety of reasons why individuals attend our courses. For some, it's a personal desire to stop letting fear control them. Others are required to speak in a work situation. And then we get the father of the bride who is frightened by the prospect of speaking at his daughter's wedding.

"There is a marvellous feeling that comes from overcoming your fears and not allowing them to dictate your life. While public speaking may be equated to the fear of death, the empowerment and joy of being able to actually stand up and face an audience without terrors or tremors is something that everyone should be able to feel."

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