4 Tips for Speech Anxiety

We’ve all observed a variety of nervous speakers over the years. For me, none was as terrified as a student of mine on her first day of Public Speaking class in college. She was so scared of the words “public speaking,” that she could not even allow herself to enter the classroom. Before starting class I had to speak to her in the hallway and let her know we were about to begin. Although she had registered for my class, she was in a great state of angst and simply could not bring herself to cross the threshold of the classroom door. Her fear of speaking in public was too great. Sadly, nobody was even delivering speeches that first day.

This example of severe speech anxiety is unfortunate. Obviously, there were deeper issues at play here as well. For most of us, though, it is possible rise above the fear of the unknown and deliver memorable, powerful presentations to a complete group of strangers. Following are some tips I’ve devised for clients and myself over the years. Feel free to experiment with them and see how they work for you.

No, there’s no beta blockers involved! This is the all-natural approach. Keep in mind, too, that speaking is a journey. The more presentations you do, the more your confidence and ability will grow.

4 Rs for Rising above Speech Anxiety:

1. REHEARSE out loud to somebody you know beforehand. Even if you’re not thoroughly ready to do a run-through with a friend or family member, do it anyway. The dynamic space that you create when a presenter and a real audience member interact is invaluable. You will always learn something from the rehearsal, and the elements that need to change will naturally emerge. In addition, practicing out loud is the medium in which you’ll be delivering your presentation. Different parts of your brain are engaged for oral delivery versus just reviewing speaking notes in your head. Because you’ll be delivering it as an oral form, you need to practice formulating the words in oral rehearsal. Inviting someone you know to be your live audience member will be enough to simulate any speech anxiety symptoms in a safe environment. Observe any anxiety signs that manifest and practice the 4 Rs as you rehearse.

2. REALIZE your body’s survival response to a threatening situation is normal. Your body will organically experience a physiological reaction to any seemingly life threatening situation (see last blog post). The trick is to allow these symptoms to be, but not to let them impact your thoughts. If you see your hands shaking, don’t let your mind create more fear by thinking “everyone must see my hands shaking, I look stupid.” Accept it – it’s a natural response to your fight/flight/freeze survival instincts. Don’t focus on them because what you focus on will grow. Instead, keep your head in the game, and focus your thoughts on your audience and content. Redirect any remaining nervousness into energetic delivery. This will help you deliver a more upbeat, animated, and energetic presentation.

3. RE-FRAME Your Mindset. Kindly remind yourself, “It’s not about me, it’s about my audience.” Do not allow your mind to create more fear than the body’s physiological response, because this can amplify any anxiety that’s already there. The most important outcome to focus on is the effect you want to have on your audience: influencing them, informing them about something, persuading them, challenging them, etc. Keep in mind we are often harsher in our minds about what could happen in the future than what reality actually delivers. I have not witnessed an audience yet that wished a speaker would do poorly. They are not thinking, “This better be terrible!” No, your audience wants you to do well. They’re hoping it’ll be fun and they’ll enjoy what you have to say. So keep a close monitor on what your inner dialogue is saying. There’s some interesting research out there that shows that students who say they are bad in math are actually bad in math. And those who say they are good in math, are actually good in math. Keep check on the dialogue in side your head. If you tell yourself, this will be great, it likely will be.

4. RELAX as soon as you can in the presentation. By relax, I don’t mean be lethargic, but rather, assertive and calm. For some of you, you may not be able to relax until it’s over. Others of you may be able to relax half way through. Some may be able to relax within a few minutes, or when the audience laughs for the first time. Ideally, you would relax before even stepping on stage. Again, this is a journey and the more experience you gain speaking, the quicker you’ll be able to lock into a comfortable rhythm. Once you do relax, you’ll begin to enjoy your audience, the magic of the moment, and sharing what you’re passionate about. If you’re truly relaxed, you’ll also be able to think on your feet, natural humor will emerge, and you’ll be more attentive to your audience’s reactions. Ahhh, but how do you find this calm? It’s there, because it’s always been there. It’s that deep stillness core that lives inside you. Use slow, deep breathing to find your calm before walking on stage. Your body and thoughts will respond to this lead. When you focus on the in-flow and out-flow of your breath, all thoughts will clear in your head. For those of you who meditate regularly, this will be easier for you. By using slow, deep breathing beforehand, you will notice your body began to settle and anxiety symptoms begin to calm.

Experiment with these 4 Rs and see how they work for you. Then you’ll be on your way to being more prepared, more confident and more comfortable!

How do you manage speech anxiety? What say you?

Speech Anxiety: It’s Not Your Fault

iStock_Verbal Comm_SmallSpeech anxiety. We’ve all been there:

  • Sweaty palms – Enough moisture to flatten . . . well, even Harry Potter’s hair.
  • Out of control heartbeat – As if you ate all your Halloween candy right before.
  • Rapid breathing – making it look as if you finished a 5K only moments ago.

Yes, the embarrassing symptom list goes on:  developing facial rashes, hands shaking uncontrollably, voice quivering with angst, and of course, the all-time favorite—going completely blank, only to stare at a room of strangers like a deer in headlights.

The good news is . . . it’s not our fault.

Sure, the fear of speaking in public and presenting to others ranks right up there with the fear of death. However, it’s important to remember that the fear symptoms we manifest are simply a physiological response to survival instincts.

Our bodies’ intelligence knows full well that if we actually took the time to “think” of a solution when faced with a life threatening situation, we would not survive. This is because by the time we would have figured out a solution, the lion would have likely already eaten us.

For the human race to survive, our defense system needed an immediate response to fear in order to either fight off life threatening danger, flee as quickly as possible, or freeze until the danger went away. Two of these reactions I happen to witness when taking my dog outside on a hot summer night. Apparently, when it’s dark and hot, all toads love to be going about their business. Unfortunately for toads–at least, in my neighborhood–our dog happens to be fascinated with them. When my dog senses a toad nearby, of course, he tries to go after it. We hold him back with the leash, but the toads always sense predator danger and freeze. They remain as still as possible and then when they think their environment has improved, they flee or shall we say, jump to safety. Equipped with a defense system ourselves, this can certainly be helpful in dangerous situations, but the challenge is that we can feel anxiety and fear in all kinds of situations, and not exclusively life threatening ones.

Have you observed your reaction to touching something hot? For example, when you accidentally touch a hot burner (not that we want to make that a habit) your response is similar to how your body reacts to any seemingly threatening presentation. It’s an automatic response. The point is that by the time your reflexes saved your finger, your brain was just getting the message. So if our bodies waited for thoughts to catch up, well, let’s just say – it’s a good thing, it doesn’t. Once again though, it’s not entirely our fault. High order thinking skills are also inhibited during the physiological response to fear, because equipping you for fight or flight is the higher priority.

Now, of course, speaking in front of strangers is technically not a life threatening situation. However, our physiology will still respond with a defensive reaction to any situation where we feel severe anxiety or fear. So whether life threatening or not, anxiety triggers your body to begin protecting you by shunting oxygenated blood to your limbs, accelerating your heart rate and overall equipping you to get out of danger’s way.

So what do we fear about speaking in front of others? Well, we might be afraid of looking stupid, embarrassing ourselves, the unknown, being the focal point of attention, having all eyes in the room on you, and the list goes on.

The good news is that there are many things we can do to manage speech anxiety and move forward to deliver effective, memorable, and powerful presentations.

Stay tuned as we dedicate the next series of blog entries to what you can do to manage your own speech anxiety and rise above it.

Most importantly, remember that any speech anxiety you feel is a natural biological reaction. That alone should make you feel better.

It’s not really you.

It’s only natural.

It’s not your fault.

Feel better yet?

Stay tuned . . .