Facing the Fear of Public Speaking if you're an English as a Second Language Speaker

                                                                                         You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart.

                                                                                                                John Ford, Irish-American film director

Let’s face it. Many people have some level of fear when speaking to others in public whether it is an informal or formal speech, seminar, sales presentation, etc. at school, at your job, during some formal event or informally meeting people anywhere at any time. They just don’t feel that comfortable. The odds are that English as a Second Language learners may have an increased level of fear as they are not as familiar with the English language and they probably don’t have as much experience speaking as native speakers or as much exposure to learning English. The United States National Institute of Mental Health claims 74% of the adult population surveyed in North America suffer from speech anxiety (03/28/12). And Andrew Lloyde, author of StageFright Unlocked a successful public teaching program, quotes the top 5 fears of human beings around the world as #5 heights, #4 darkness, #3 spiders, #2 death and #1 Public Speaking. What can you do about this element of “fear” so you are successful at speaking in public and that it is not your #1 fear?

Overcoming Fear

Getting over your fear is very important so you can breathe a sigh of relief and feel more at ease with speaking.

It might be helpful to step back and take a look at your fear. Can you diagnose why you are fearful of presenting a speech in public?

  • Are you afraid because you don’t know how people are going to react to you?
  • Are you fearful because you feel your English speaking skills are inadequate?
  • Are you frightened because you think you may not know what to say or how to say it?

There is probably always an element of fear of the unknown when public speaking. You might think that you are being judged or that you will make a mistake, or not do as well as people hope you would. The people listening to you don’t want you to fail. They are viewing this situation as a positive interaction and they want you to succeed. No one is hoping that you will make a mistake and be ineffective at speaking. If you try to say what you need to say and you are honest in your approach, you have fought the good fight against fear.

speaking in front of an audience

Symptoms of Fear

Some people express symptoms of fear regarding public speaking with an upset stomach, headache, excessive worry, sweaty palms, shaking hands or knees, a dry mouth, or feeling your face turning red, etc. Try to give yourself an internal pep talk. Tell yourself that there is no evidence that you should be frightened of something. Tell yourself that you will do a good job and stress that you can do this and that you will succeed. Believe in yourself and say “There is absolutely nothing to fear!”

Before Speaking

Before you speak, practice a deep breathing exercise to relax your mind and body. Stand still and close your eyes. Think about yourself suspended from the ceiling from a thin string. Listen to your breathing and tell yourself to slow down your breathing so you can count to six while breathing in and another count of six while breathing out. Or you can imagine yourself on a warm, sunny beach in the sunshine or under a shaded palm tree resting in a hammock. Letting go and using your sense of imagination will help you feel more at ease and relaxed.  It will help you to feel more confident and comfortable in speaking no matter what the circumstance. Don’t think that others will recognize that you feel a little nervous. They won’t detect this. Just take deep breaths and speak in an engaging voice and those who are listening to you will appreciate your efforts and your contribution. Say your words at an appropriate speaking pace and enunciate your words. Speak loud enough to be heard. Use pauses to collect your thoughts. If you don’t’ understand something, just ask politely. Use your dictionary if you need to.


Advice in How to Improve Speaking

You might want to consider reading a few books on public speaking and casual conversation, or some articles online. Another suggestion is to take a speech course or an online English language class which can be individualized to your needs. Then you can work on composing and delivering speeches with a trained professional teacher. Often there are opportunities to speak in chat circles or discussion groups through online English classes.  Take advantage of these, too. Another thing you can do is to listen to other people’s speeches. Maybe there are opportunities at a local university or community library that has guest speakers on various topics of interest. There might be speeches on television.  Watching others present in public will give you some sure fire tips that you can adapt to meet your needs. Listening to how others speak in casual conversations will help you, too. You can rehearse in your head what you want to say and that will help you retrieve the words you want to use when speaking.


As with anything, practice – practice – practice. Do you have a friend who could listen to your speech and help you?  Do you belong to a study group where that group of individuals can listen to you talk? You could tape yourself speaking and listen to the recording to work on areas that you feel need to be improved. There might be opportunities for you to join various organizations, networks or clubs where you work, attend school and/or live. Persevere.  Don’t compare yourself to others. Set our own goals and work towards them.

public speaking success

Familiar Topics or Topics of Interest –Formal and Informal Speaking

Another helpful tip is to speak on something that you already know something about, or if not, or speak on something that you are very passionate about. This will make the preparation and the delivery easier for you. If it is a formal presentation, it is always helpful to develop an outline to speak from. You can include main ideas and sub points. Highlight certain words or phrases for emphasis. Index cards work great. Memorize some of the parts and practice with eye contact and suitable gestures so they are more natural when you deliver the speech. Another suggestion is to look online for some famous quotes or find a story related to your topic to help introduce it. Maybe you have a real story to tell? Remember, too, that only you know what you intend to say in the speech, so if you forget to say something or you say something out of order, no one else will know that. It is okay to change things in your speech at any time, and it’s more than okay to not say your speech word-for-word, or how you practiced it. Think of the time you spent on the preparation and convince yourself that the time has come to deliver that speech the best that you can. Then do it! If it is an informal situation, you can choose to prepare your thoughts ahead of time by jotting them down or rehearsing them over and over mentally. You can practice with a friend or you can tape these informal conversations, too.

Preview and Set Up For Formal Speaking

It is a good suggestion to arrive early when you are presenting. Preview the room.  Check the lighting, equipment if needed, seating arrangements, etc. Figure out where it is best that you sit or stand. Are you going to use a podium?  Do you have handouts? Are there visuals? It might be a good idea to have a glass of water in reaching distance in case you need to take a drink.  If it is appropriate, greet those who will make up the audience. Know ahead of time when you will be called to speak and who will introduce you. Perhaps you are the main speaker, or you are one of many speakers? Maybe you speak while the audience is eating or after they eat? Being aware of when it your turn to present is helpful.

After Being Introduced – Formal Speaking

After being introduced, take deep breaths and approach the podium or area you will be delivering the speech with confidence. Remember the positive statements and the need to encourage yourself. Take a moment before you start. Look at the audience. Deep breathe. Then begin your delivery. If you are showing visuals to the audience at the same time, allow time for them to view and read the necessary information. Don’t read everything to them. Have other people help you with distributing handouts so you can concentrate on what to say. If you are using a microphone, know the correct distance and be careful of any type of cords. Relax. Take your time. Smile. Be at ease. Your audience will respond accordingly.

Formal Speaking

Handling Questions – Formal Speaking

If there are any questions to your speech, address them as you go along (if that is what you prefer) or tell your audience there will be ample time for questions after the speech. Then keep your promise. Try to answer the questions clearly and in a short, precise manner. Don’t repeat yourself or go on and on. If you can’t answer something, be honest and/or encourage them to look to so and so as a possible resource to help answer their question. Or tell them to give you their names and contact information later and you will get back to them. Then make sure you do just that. Follow through. When you are finished, stand tall and smile. Be proud. Thank your audience for their listening and attending to your speech. Hold your head up and then leave the podium, sit down, etc. Be gracious. If someone tells you that you did a good job, thank them for their comments.

After the Speech – Formal Speaking

If for some reason your speech does not go as well as you envisioned, learn from what you could do differently. Target a certain area to work on for the next time. Use any opportunity you can to sharpen your speaking skills. Ask questions in class. Volunteer to read out loud. Participate in discussions. Join committees. Offer to assist on team projects. Join activities in the community that utilize cooperative groups or team work. Run for an office of a club. The more you speak, the better you will get. The more English you use, the better your English language will become.

Personal Experience – Critiquing Your Own Speeches

When I was teaching 4th graders, my students gave oral presentations in many subjects: reading, social studies, science, guidance, etc. They were expected to read two books a month from different genre and give an oral presentation. As the school year progressed, my student showed little signs of being frightened when they presented. They had gotten so much practice. After the presentations, the rest of the class would share some positive comments about the speeches and then offer constructive criticism, too. I would always ask the student presenters what they felt they did well at and what they thought they could improve. Seeing so many different speeches in so many creative ways helped my students gain confidence and skills in speaking. You will benefit from critiquing your own speech. What do you feel were your strengths? What could you improve? Use this valuable information to help you with your speech the next time.

Importance of Public Speaking

Now let’s look at the importance of public speaking. As you increase in your confidence to speak, you will be more successful with other speaking situations like job interviews, talking on the phone, giving presentations at work, talking to acquaintances you meet out in public, using English language in everyday situations (banking, shopping, etc.) You will be more comfortable working as a team member so your professional life and the relationships with your colleagues will benefit. When you are in new situations and meet new people, you will be more comfortable greeting them. This will help you socially as you will increase your social circle and make more friends and acquaintances. And this will help you to speak more English and to apply speaking skills more naturally. So the circle will continue and continue and continue and your English language skills will grow with that.

Young shouting woman with hand on chin

Reviewing Stats

Just because nearly ¾ of the adult population surveyed in North America suffer from speech anxiety, doesn’t mean that you need to be included in that statistic. By implementing some of the techniques and tips offered in this article, you can dissolve your fear and go on to deliver a successful speech whether in a formal or informal situation. You have all that you need to succeed. Think positively. Prepare. Practice. Preview. Relax. Enjoy. Smile. Share. Engage. Critique. Reward. Appreciate the opportunity to develop your speaking abilities and to sharpen your skills. Every time you speak, you will be that much stronger in your speaking skills. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.


Do you have any tips to improve public speaking or questions about developing English language speaking skills? How about comments regarding this article? Just speak out. I am here to listen.

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