Fear of public speaking manifests itself in a number of ways. Nervousness and feelings of anxiety, of course, are often at the top of the list. (To reduce your nerves and increase your focus, download my free cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves before Speaking.")
In a previous blog, I pointed out the need to go beyond one's thinking to be able to speak with skill and confidence. An important area from my acting career that I discussed is the body in performance—that is, the need to be on our game when we rise in front of others.
In today's blog, I'd like to discuss the last of the three essential areas to work in to eliminate speaking fear: the focus and mindfulness needed to be truly present and reaching listeners.
Whenever we experience stage fright, our focus becomes fractured. Though we'd like to attend to getting our critical message across, we become distracted by fear, anxiety, and self-consciousness. So how can be bring ourselves back to where we'd like to be: a degree of focus and mindfulness necessary to reach the hearts and minds of listeners?
The three exercises below are a great start.
Exercise #1: Focused Relaxation
This first exercise is excellent for achieving a relaxed state, slowing your breathing, and learning not to listen to intrusive "self-talk" that will interfere with your focus while speaking. That's quite a list of benefits for a simple 5-minute exercise!
- Find a quiet place. Sit comfortably in a well-supported position, feet flat on the floor.
- Close your eyes.
- “Listen” to your breath for the first minute as you breathe slowly and calmly. Let your body teach you how breathing nourishes and sustains you. Fill your lungs completely with life-giving oxygen.
- Once you're breathing slowly and calmly, focus your awareness on a visual image in your mind's eye. A simple shape and color work best: a yellow circle, a blue square, a green triangle, etc. "See" that object with as much clarity as you can.
- Thoughts, feelings, and images will rise in your consciousness. Notice them but don’t engage with them. Instead, bring your focus back to your image. Do nothing; simply let your awareness be.
- Your breathing will become slower and deeper. Notice with your mind and your body what this state feels like. Maintain this level of calm and focus as you go about your daily tasks. Call upon it when you speak.
Exercise #2: Contemplating the Shadow
Another helpful exercise—and a reminder to be rather than do—is to contemplate this Zen saying:
“Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it’s dark.”
When it comes to overcoming fear of public speaking, are you standing in the way of your own becoming? It's common to blame "the other" for our speaking fear: the high-stakes situation, the audience of strangers, the unusual scenario of speaking to a large group. But in a great paradox that comes to us from the world of acting: We are both the center of attention in public speaking and the least important person in the room. To become a great speaker, you must forget yourself in your message!
Exercise #3: Opening Your Senses
This exercise is designed to dissolve the invisible wall that exists between you and your audience. In speech anxiety, your natural response is to escape—to create distance between you and the cause of your discomfort. Yet this is the opposite of what has to occur: to reach and persuade listeners, you must approach them, not run from them.
True presence in public speaking, then, literally starts with being present. You must therefore teach yourself to be present! An excellent way to do so is to allow yourself to open up sensually to your surroundings—to experience the here-and-now not only intellectually but physically. Here's one way to do so:
- Lie on your back, with eyes closed and arms and feet uncrossed.
- Follow your breath, as in the Focused Relaxation exercise above. Give yourself over to your breathing—let it fill your consciousness.
- Focus your awareness on the present time and place. Listen to the sounds around you. Smell the air in this room. Become aware of the sensations of the floor underneath you and the air on your skin. Does this place have any taste associated with it? If you opened your eyes, what would you see? For a few minutes, fill yourself with this sensual input. Now let this place and time dissolve in your consciousness.
- In their stead, go to a favorite location in your mind—a beach on a summer day, a field in springtime, a hammock in early autumn, a cozy fire in a ski lodge after a day on the slopes. Once again, open yourself completely to what you're experiencing through your senses in your imagination.
- Spend five or ten minutes enjoying this place. Then slowly let it dissolve in your consciousness, as you come back to the location where you’re doing this exercise. But keep the level of deep relaxation and sensory input you’ve achieved. This place is the same as it was before, except now you’re experiencing it much more fully. Let it flood into you.
- Keep this feeling inside you—your new ability to fully experience a physical response to the world around you. The goal is to be more open, receptive and welcoming to all things, including your audience.
Interested in more ways to improve your focus for successful speaking? To gain maximum stage presence and impact, download my free cheat sheet, "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking." My theater-based techniques will help you stay in "The Zone" for more confident and powerful presentations. Download the cheat sheet here:
If you fear public speaking, you already own one of the most effective tools for reducing your anxiety and building your confidence. And it's so close you literally can't see it.
It's your own body.
Body language is essential to understand and employ to help overcome speaking fear. That's true concerning both movement and gestures—what we traditionally think of as body language—and the "language of the body" in terms of our physiological response to stage fright.
Enlisting one's own body as a tool to eliminate speech anxiety is less understood than perhaps any strategy for coping with this problem. That's partly because so many of us are untrained in the performance aspects of public speaking.
Let's look more closely at this juncture of the body and the art of spoken performance.
The Body in Performance
Many people who suffer from fear of public speaking focus almost exclusively on overcoming negative thinking. Cognitive restructuring of this type is an essential element of eliminating speaking fear. As I discussed in my last blog, turning negative self-talk into positive thinking is helpful in establishing the right frame of mind for speaking in public.
The practice is not the be-all and the end-all of eliminating speaking fear, however. Two areas of equal importance are the physical aspects of performance, and the focus and mindfulness necessary to be fully present and connecting with listeners.
We have a body for a reason when it comes to spoken performance: to support and amplify what we're saying. Think about the times you discuss topics you're passionate about—do you stand stock still, without gestures or facial expressions? Of course not; your body gets into the act, animating and giving life and spirit to what you're saying, making your argument stronger and more convincing.
Now imagine trying to overcome speaking fear by only thinking about it without any awareness of body language, movement, or gestures. Clearly, that's impossible—yet anxious speakers do so all the time. If you're one of them, start thinking about your body as an essential tool of public speaking.
Always practice on your feet—and present that way whenever possible. Become friends with a large mirror or video camera or your smart phone, as you find ways to give physical expression to what you're saying. After all, your audiences respond strongly to visuals—and the strongest visual you have is yourself.
The Physiological Effects of Speech Anxiety
Along with body language, "the language that the body speaks" during speaking anxiety is another area you need to become familiar with. I'm speaking here of the physiological effects of stage fright: sweating, rapid and shallow breathing, pounding heart, shaky voice, and the rest of the cascade of responses that make you want to fight or flee this "dangerous" situation.
Again, seeking to eliminate speaking fear through a purely analytical process, without countering the physical aspects of speaking fear, is an impossible task. You can apply a rational process to your fear all you want, but it won't help you much when you're vomiting backstage.
So begin to understand and speak this "language of the body." As a start, learn diaphragmatic breathing—the foundation for developing presence of mind to stay calm and centered in the midst of speech anxiety. Use this 5-minute technique to calm your fear of public speaking. And practice muscle relaxation so you know what such a state feels like, and can apply it when you're getting tense and nervous before speaking.
Grounding Yourself and Using Space
Finally, discover how to use space effectively to become grounded and give yourself confidence. "Grounding" means standing with your feet at armpit- or shoulder-width to create a stable and steady platform from which to launch your ideas.
If this seems like a minor matter, try delivering a speech with your feet touching like a tin soldier, or with one leg crossed in front of the other, or leaning noticeably on one hip. You'll begin to understand why "how you stand affects your standing with your audience."
Once you've established a steady stance, you can move with purpose. And understand, you should move, not stand statue-still believing your content is powerful in itself (because of course it isn't—your material needs your body to enliven and strengthen it in delivery). Occupy a different spot for each main point. Move toward a questioner as you begin your answer. Approach the screen if you're displaying visual information. Move up and down the aisles, or around the boardroom table, to get close to every part of your audience.
The speaker who commands his or her performance space is one who both demonstrates and feels confidence. Let that be you.
Ready now to actually boost your presence and charisma through body language? Project complete confidence and authority to move your listeners. Read my free cheat sheet, "6 Skills Building Exercises for Effective Body Language." Discover how to use your body to connect with and influence audiences. Download the cheat sheet here:
Are you overly nervous or self-conscious about speaking in public? Many of us are—and too often, we blame ourselves for the fear and anxiety that results.
(To reduce nervousness and increase your focus, download my free cheat sheet, “How to Calm Your Nerves before Speaking.”)
Fear is not rational, of course—it’s a visceral response that comes from the sense that you’re in danger. One of the reasons fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, is so difficult to overcome, in fact, is that it’s such an irrational process.
Of course, speaking in public is rarely a dangerous situation. Yet your mind may perceive it that way. The fact that you react so strongly and inappropriately just makes speech anxiety that much more difficult to deal with.
A Three-Pronged Approach to Overcoming Speaking Fear
However seemingly intractable speaking fear may be, you can’t escape the need to restructure your thinking. Otherwise, your erroneous thought processes will keep you in a state of anxiety and unrealistic expectations. As if you didn’t have enough to worry about concerning the actual speaking situation, you bathe yourself in negative self-talk that diminishes your confidence while increasing your sense of helplessness.
So you need to change that negative self-talk into positive coping statements.
But that isn’t enough. If altering your thinking were sufficient, that’s all you’d need to do to develop overwhelming confidence. Over the past decade and a half of helping professionals deal with speech anxiety, I’ve come to realize that dealing with two more areas of speech performance are needed. The three essential areas to work in to eliminate fear of public speaking are these:
1. Cognitive Restructuring
2. The Body in Performance
3. Focus and Mindfulness
In this blog, I’ll discuss the first of these three critical areas. The two blogs to follow will deal with the second and third areas.
In one sense, you create your own fearful response to public speaking. If you substitute your fears for reality, you’re creating a frame of mind that’s much harsher than the actual speaking situation.
To break out of the cycle of a) undervaluing your worth as a speaker, b) overestimating the negative response of your audience, and c) believing that listeners are judging you instead of the value of your message, you have to change your unhealthy thoughts into constructive thinking.
This process of re-routing negative thinking into productive channels is called "cognitive restructuring." For you as a speaker, it simply means changing from a negative mindset into positive territory in terms of public speaking.
Tools for Changing Your Thinking
How can you do so? Here are three ways to change your negative cognition:
Overcome Worst-Case Thinking: Worst-case thinking means imagining that a truly awful outcome is going to occur despite little or no evidence. One way you can overcome such thinking is to create a chart that lists in one column all your "worst cases." In another column, write down what is most likely to occur. "I'll forget everything I'm supposed to say" will realistically become "I'll share this valuable information I have on this topic" or something similar. Voila! You'll help train your thoughts into a constructive rather than self-limiting path.
Develop Positive Coping Statements: Familiarize yourself with the negative self-talk you typically create and listen to. For each such counterproductive statement, compose a helpful mantra instead. For instance, “I’m just not a good public speaker” can easily become, “I can learn the skills of effective public speaking.”
Channel Your Thinking: Practice the valuable skill of downsizing a negative outlook by first creating a less negative viewpoint, then moving into positive thinking. You might think of this as a learning-to-walk-before-you-can-run approach. If you’re likely to say to yourself, “Audiences see I’m nervous,” you can change that thought first to “Audiences can’t see I’m nervous,” and finally to “Audiences see I’m confident.”
By working in the area of cognitive restructuring, you’ll be changing your role from that of your own worst enemy to your own best friend as a speaker. Not a bad person to have in your corner!
Now that you're using positive thinking for more successful speaking, learn how to improve your focus as well. To gain maximum stage presence and impact, download my free cheat sheet, "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking." My theater-based techniques will help you stay in "The Zone" for more confident and powerful presentations. Download the cheat sheet here:
You’re in very good company if you have the debilitating fear known as glossophobia.
That’s fear of public speaking, for the Latin-challenged among us. But you don’t need to experience speech anxiety to have some reluctance concerning getting up in front of others.
Many of us are comfortable speaking to colleagues or to small groups of people, but dread the idea of presenting to audiences of 200 or 300 (or more). Sometimes the nature of the audience itself—when it includes your boss, for instance—brings on sweaty palms.
Certain high-stakes speaking situations will do it. So will the thought that you’re not as prepared as you’d like to be.
The Widespread Nature of Speaking Reluctance
Between 70 and 75 percent of Americans report a fear of public speaking. As of the last official census on April 1, 2010, the population of the United States was 308,745,538. If one out of every ten speech fright sufferers experiencers truly serious speaking anxiety, that adds up to nearly 22,000,000 Americans with this problem.
That’s twenty-two million.
And then there’s the rest of the world.
Now consider what is mentioned above: that not every speaker has out-and-out anxiety, but many of us experience dread, nervousness, or some other form of reluctance to speak in public. Yet giving talks, lectures, presentations, and contributing at meetings—and increasingly, delivering online presentations—has advantages that other forms of communication simply can’t match.
A World of Speaking Influence
To begin with, nothing equals the dynamic of a speaker talking to an audience for sheer efficiency. Consider that audience of 200: the speaker who addresses that group basically has the choice between that one presentation or 200 individual conversations!
Look around you in the world of business today and you’ll realize there’s another powerful tool at your disposal: the world of virtual or remote presentations. Increasingly, you will either be participating in webinars, videoconferences, podcasts, and videos—or you will be delivering them.
The global nature of these speaking venues and the audiences reached brings about the realization of just how big a world of speaking influence exists for you and me. So if you have hesitations about talking to these audiences, you need more urgently than ever to try and put those feelings to rest.
Your Mission—and Please Accept It
As of today, then, you have a specific mission as a speaker and presenter. Most formal presentations across the globe continue to range from mediocre to painful. It’s your job and mine in our small but meaningful way to change that situation for the better.
Even after many years as a singer, actor, professor, presentation coach, and speech consultant, I remain in awe of the difference an outstanding talk or lecture can make in people’s lives. Public speaking remains one of the most exciting experiences in modern society—with real influence occurring daily when one human being speaks with knowledge, charisma, and passion to an interested audience. In a pair of words: to do so with enjoyment and mindfulness.
What that often includes is a changing of thoughts, feelings, and actions that simply cannot be reproduced in any other way.
You give speeches to influence people, and the best way to do so is with your full humanity on display. To understand this opportunity—and not to treat a speech as a pro forma exercise in information delivery, or something to be endured—is to become enlivened and energized about speaking in public. In few other ways are you allowed to affect other people’s thoughts and behavior so profoundly.
 Karen Kangas Dwyer, Conquer Your Speechfright (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1998), 3-12, citing McCroskey, 1993; and Richmond & McCroskey, 1995.
 http://2010.census.gov/news/releases/operations/cb10-cn93.html. Accessed March 2, 2011.
Want to be in “The Zone” when you speak—relaxed yet completely focused?
To become a dynamic rather than a nervous speaker, download my free cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking." My theater-based techniques will help conquer your stage fright or simple reluctance to make you a more powerful speaker ... even if you have just 5 minutes to spare! Download it here:
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Public speaking is a performance art, whether it's an actor performing Shakespeare or you presenting to your internal team or pitching to a client. And just as is true of actors, what you bring to the stage will help make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
(To remain in The Zone so you can present at this level, download my free cheat sheet, "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking.")
Consider further this connection between the theater and business: Actors speak from a script, just as you use content in your presentations. In either case, the sheer information delivered can't achieve the type of influence desired.
For instance, a bare script will never convince an audience they're watching a real human being with real passions . . . and neither will your PowerPoint or handouts. The key ingredient in both situations is the speaker in performance. Along with strong intentions, that means the uses and responses of the body.
How Your Body Responds to Speech Anxiety
A normal reaction to such a make-or-break presentation is speech anxiety or glossophobia. Millions experience it, from pre-speech nerves or "butterflies," to extreme self-consciousness to full-blown panic. Fear of public speaking can manifest itself in many ways—but a reliable symptom of stage fright is the physical response the speaker experiences.
Your body's reaction to any fearful situation can be powerful. It's one reason speech anxiety is such an uncomfortable and seemingly intractable problem. (Another factor is the inappropriateness of the body's response: Public speaking isn't a truly dangerous situation, though if you have speech phobia you experience it that way.)
Three physical responses predominate: (1) Galloping heart rate (sometimes with a pounding sensation); (2) Rapid and shallow breathing; and (3) The release of stress hormones, in particular epinephrine ("adrenaline") and cortisol. A wide array of other symptoms may include sweating, a shaky voice, nausea, trembling hands, light-headedness, etc. But the responses above are the reliable "Big Three."
Dealing with Your Physical Symptoms
Fortunately, there are some simple and effective techniques for dealing with the physical symptoms of speaking fear. (For help with negative thinking, read my article on the "4 Dangerous Myths that Will Hurt Your Public Speaking."). These approaches in particular can bring quick reliable relief:
1. Progressive Relaxation. Lie on your back with arms and legs uncrossed. Imagine a warm feeling in your scalp releasing all tension there. Keep that feeling on the top of your head, as you slowly allow that sensation to "flow" downward, relaxing each part of your body in turn. Now bring this feeling of total relaxation into your muscle memory. You can then call on it when you're getting nervous and tightening up prior to a speech.
2. Diaphragmatic Breathing. Breathing with the diaphragm or "belly breathing" is natural respiration. That's because the diaphragm needs to flatten so your lungs have maximum room to expand. Slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing like this oxygenates you fully, helping calm the heart and alleviating the rapid shallow breathing of anxiety.
3. Movement. Adrenaline is part of a "fight or flight" reponse which has nowhere to go: you can't fight your audience and you can't run out of the room! Simply moving will help dissipate this nervous activation. While waiting to speak, for example, tighten and release your muscles. And while you're speaking, make gestures and the use of space part of your performance.
Your physical reactions to public speaking fear are a reminder that speech anxiety isn't all "in your head." That's good news, since techniques to counter the body's responses can be more easily enacted, with a quicker payoff, than the more time-consuming task of restructuring your thinking. When you have that time and you're ready, though, here's how to achieve the positive mental state of mindfulness in public speaking.
Combine the three approaches above with effective body language, and you'll have the full package for confident and focused presentations! Discover how to get people to respond to you positively and view you just the way you want them to. Download my free cheat sheet, "Dr. Gary Genard's 5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language."
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Fear of public speaking manifests itself in different ways. It isn't the same for everybody—and the timing as well as the symptoms can differ. (To be a more relaxed and focused speaker, download my free cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking".)
Well-known examples of speech anxiety include a pounding heart, sweating, a shaking voice, and dry mouth. Other less common symptoms are forgetting completely what you want to say, not being able to see the audience, and losing your voice altogether. Stage fright can express itself as everything from avoiding the speaking situation, to panic attacks while speaking, or even fainting on stage. The clients that I coach to overcome fear of speaking have experienced all of these symptoms.
One of the most challenging forms of glossophobia is anticipation anxiety. Dreading your speech or presentation ahead of time can make your life miserable — especially if your anxiety kicks in long before your scheduled appearance.
A Case of Monthly Dread
The nature of your speech or even its duration don't matter. A CEO I worked with, for instance, spoke for 5 minutes each month to the assembled employees of his company, yet he agonized over the prospect for 29 days, 23 hours, and 55 minutes!
In cases like that, some coaching involving cognitive restructuring, relaxation and focus exercises, visualization techniques, and strategies for dealing with the anxiety are probably called for. In other words: a full slate of the techniques employed by experts who work with people to lessen their fear of public speaking.
The Awful "Everyone Please Introduce Themselves"
For more short-term nervous anticipation, however, an easier solution is at hand. Let's say you're participating in a meeting or workshop, and everyone is asked to introduce himself or herself. As each person speaks in turn, you can literally see the moment you dread coming closer and closer. You're not listening to anything anyone is saying, of course, so the purpose of the activity is useless to you (and to everyone else who dreads this form of social torture).
Or you may be the type of speaker who doesn't fret about an upcoming speech that's approaching, except for acute anticipatory anxiety just before you're about to speak. That type of speech fright (butterflies on steroids?) is very common.
Distraction Can Help, But Listening Is Even Better
One strategy you can employ is to build in some form of distraction that takes your mind off your momentary obsession. The executive who worried the entire month about his 5 minutes in the spotlight, for instance, helped his performances by making sure his secretary distracted him with some issue immediately before his moment to speak.
The solution I recommend for right-before-you-speak anticipatory anxiety, however, is listening. I don't necessarily mean improving your listening skills. I mean sending your energy in the opposite direction from where it's probably going—in other words, toward others rather than yourself.
The situation of people introducing themselves around a table, for example, is the perfect place to use this tactic. If you actually listen to what other people are saying, you'll not only halt your extreme focus on yourself; you'll probably learn some things that are useful to you.
So in this or other situations in which you may suffer from short-term nervous anticipation over speaking, discover the power of listening to what others are saying. Sitting on stage waiting your turn at the podium is also a perfect time for this approach.
You've probably heard that there's a reason we have two ears but only one mouth: to listen more than we talk. We also have one mind that may stew in the juices of short-term dread of speaking. But we still have those two ears.
Looking for more ways to stay focused and present while speaking? To get in The Zone and speak with greater impact and influence, download my essential sheet sheet: 10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking."
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“Acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly.”
-- Rosalind Russell
Do you experience stage fright when you speak in public? As a cure, has anyone ever told you to picture the audience in their underwear?
Doing that won't help your speech anxiety, of course (though it may stimulate your imagination). Along with all the bad advice out there on overcoming fear of public speaking, fixes that ask you to imagine irrelevant details are among the worst. (For a way to relax even if you only have five minutes to spare, download my free cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.")
The truth is, overcoming fear of public speaking requires coming to grips with an essential equation: you standing in front of an audience, talking about something of mutual interest. It's easy to overlook the second part of that equation—that your audience is genuinely interested in what you have to say on a topic.
You Reveal Who You Are Whenever You Speak
More of a problem is that business of the "in the spotlight" nature of public speaking performance. There's absolutely no doubt that in a speech or presentation, all eyes are on you as the speaker. And that creates a feeling of maximum exposure.
The quote by actress Rosalind Russell at the top of this article states the situation accurately: when you speak, you're figurately naked—enough so that you feel you're turning around slowly to give everyone a good look.
That's because there really isn't any way to hide who you are when you speak publicly, not only regarding your physical presence but in terms of your personality as well. It's the nature of performance: one person offering something of value to a group will be scrutinized closely in all the aspects of that performance. So one of the paths to overcoming stage fright is to accept that this will occur and not try to make it otherwise. You see, it's often the desire to change the situation in a way that it can't be changed that makes fear of public speaking so intractable.
Allow Your Vulnerability to Show
The other way we sometimes try unsuccessfully to alter the speaking situation is to become defensive in the face of the threat, i.e., the audience. Your listeners aren't your enemy at all, of course. They genuinely want to gain something of value from your talk. (To go beyond information delivery and to truly engage your listeners, download "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience.")
By trying to protect yourself, however, you become someone that your audience really can't relate to—a speaker wearing a mask or invisible armor. The truth is, your listeners will relate to you more positively because of your vulnerability, not more negatively. Everyone sympathizes with the nerves and self-consciousness that comes with public speaking. Your audience will appreciate the fact that you're speaking even if you're nervous, rather than thinking less of you personally or in terms of your credibiity.
So that's the solution to stage fright that you may not have believed at first: accept the fact that you'll feel naked, and allow your vulnerability to show. You'll come across as the real person you are, whom audiences feel they can really respond to.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- To overcome stage fright, focus on the situation at hand.
- Audiences almost always genuinely want to hear what you have to say.
- There's no way around it: public speaking can make one feel "naked."
- Accept that your personality will be revealed, and allow that to happen.
- Instead of becoming defensive, let your vulnerability show.
Confident speakers know how to control the speaking situation. Do you? To be a more comfortable and dynamic presenter, download my cheat sheet: "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking."
You know what it's like . . . the initial moments of your speech or presentation when everybody is watching you expectantly. Call it the "awful first two minutes." (To stay in The Zone, relaxed yet focused, download my free cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.")
While they're watching you, you're thinking the following, courtesy of your nervousness and speech anxiety:
- Nobody looks the least bit interested.
- Everyone is judging your competence.
- You've suddenly grown appendages (some people call them "arms") you don't know what to do with.
- Whatever you prepared to say has just flown right out of your head.
- You know your audience can see you're nervous, and that's making you, well, nervous.
You're sure that if there's a Hell, you're in it.
Avoiding a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The reality of this situation, however, is quite different. Your audience is actually the most attentive they'll be for your entire presentation. They are expectant—and they want you to succeed. Chances are no one is paying attention to how you're using your arms. And nearly all your nervousness isn't visible to your audience.
In other words, you're doing fine! Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is just showing up—and just by being here speaking, you've got that covered. So you can relax.
Easier said than done, huh?
There are two tried-and-true ways you can avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of a speech that starts out disastrously. That is, in the all-important opening when you're most nervous and anxious and things can go wrong early. The first method has to do with your attitude, and the second utilizes a few simple skills. Let's look at each of them.
The Only Way Out is Through
You make things much worse for yourself if you have speech anxiety by viewing the audience as the enemy and trying to stage a retreat. The truth is, you can't retreat. You're here to give a presentation, and running out of the room just isn't an option. By thinking of yourself as apart from the needs of your audience, you're putting yourself in a situation that denies reality and makes it impossible for you to succeed.
So embrace your audience instead. You're in that room or auditorium to share something of mutual interest with your listeners. For their part, they're genuinely interested in what you have to say. To guarantee that that's the case, learn how to perform an audience analysis so you know their needs. Accept that reality and those needs, and simply talk to them. They're on your side.
Audiences feel great when speakers succeed, and terrible when they don't. Don't ever try to be excellent; simply do your best to share your ideas with your listeners. If you proceed like this, you'll lift a huge weight off your shoulders, and the situation will become enjoyable.
Breathe, Ground Yourself, and Move
Along with your new attitude, arm yourself with a trio of skills that will add a physical dimension to your comfort and confidence. The first skill is diaphragmatic or "belly breathing," to counter the shallow, rapid breathing that accompanies speech anxiety. Remind yourself to breathe more deeply and slightly more slowly; you'll slow your heart rate and oxygenate your brain.
Stand with your feet at armpit width, and "ground" yourself, i.e., assume a steadfast stance to give yourself stability and the feeling of the solid earth under your feet. Once you've set yourself, you can use your strong position to move appropriately.
Movement has a number of advantages, including releasing tension and the "trapped" feeling anxiety brings with it. It also adds a visual dimension for your audience. And if you move to a different spot for each main point, your positions will help audiences retain those points.
Finally, it just feels good to use a stage to deliver a performance. Better than enduring two minutes of pure hell, isn't it?
Dynamic speakers know how to control the speaking situation. Do you? To be a more comfortable and confident presenter, download my cheat sheet: "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking."
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If you browse Dr. Marc Schoen's book Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You, you'll come across this quote of Charles Darwin's:
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."
The Darwin Correspondence Project, including an associate editor of the early volumes of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, claims that these words "never flowed from [Darwin's] pen" (http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/six-things-darwin-never-said. Accessed 27 March 2013.)
Whether they did or not, the quotation is too delectable in regard to public speaking fear to pass up. For adapting to speaking-induced anxiety is not only necessary for survival as a public speaker (or as an everyday business presenter). It's also the key to becoming a comfortable, confident, and credible speaker. Roll up those three "C" words into one and you get another word that takes you down a notch while boosting your speaking success.
That word is "influence," as in "you will be a more influential speaker." Here are 4 characteristics of an influential speaker to help get you there.
It Ain't About You
How can taking you down a notch increase your speaking success? Easy: get rid of that capital "I" and you'll take a giant step, through a lowercase "i" toward the goal you're really aiming for in public speaking: "influence".
It starts with a simple but powerful realization: the reason you're giving a speech, presentation, sales talk, lecture, update at a meeting or any other spoken performance is to offer something of value to listeners. You are never the important entity in the room—your audience is.
In fact, extreme self-concern while presenting is guaranteed to reduce your influence, because you'll be buying into an impossibility: the attempt to influence others when your attention is focused on yourself. When I work with clients to help reduce their fear of public speaking, I remind them that they're being narcissistic.
That's not because they're egomaniacs, but it's simply due to the extreme discomfort they're experiencing. Try thinking of something else when you have a toothache and you'll understand how you can be lulled into self-focus when you'd rather be thinking about almost anything else. In the case of public speaking, of course, that something else is your message and getting it across to the audience.
Enhancing Your Performance
So how can you overcome this "focus deficit," adapt to your public speaking fear, and even enhance your performance? In two ways: by recognizing the true nature of public speaking anxiety, and learning how to harness the energy that's sending you off in the wrong direction.
Fear of public speaking, you see, is a misplaced response. It's not as though you need to come to grips with this fear and thrive in spite of it. The truth is, you're better off by recognizing that there isn't any fearful situation to begin with!
In terms of evolution (you knew we'd get back to Darwin, didn't you?), we are all programmed appropriately to react to truly fearful events in advantageous ways. You probably recognize this reaction as the "flight or flight" response: when faced with true danger, our body prepares itself to fight the threat (if we can do so) or to flee from it (if it's too great for us to face).
So what your body experiences during public speaking fear would be an entirely appropriate reaction . . . if there were truly a dangerous situation in front of you. But there isn't, since most audiences you face won't be holding spears ready to hurl at you if you forget one of your talking points.
The solution? Recognize that the anxiety you're feeling isn't a response to danger at all, but is instead a form of social anxiety. You improve your anxious feelings about people by getting better at dealing with people. That's why one of my mantras to my speech clients is: Spend less time preparing your content, and more time learning how to be comfortable talking to groups of people. Do that, and you'll be dealing with the true cause of your speaking fear and helping to lessen it. To learn how to enhance your relationship with listeners, read my cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience."
Use That Energy!
The second way you can enhance your speaking performance is by harnessing the energy that arises as a result of speech nervousness. The proverbial butterflies in the stomach and other low-level activation in the face of public speaking is a beneficial effect. You need to become more activated so that you're "psyched for the big game," and ready to go rock and roll.
Too strong a focus on the danger you're facing, however, over-activates you. And you've already learned not to accept the DANGER signal flashing in your mind, because true danger doesn't exist. Now take the next step and use the extreme activation that often accompanies speaking fear.
Feel like you gotta move? Then move! Use the stage that's rightfully yours as a speaker, whether it's a raised platform, front of the hotel ballroom, or even your place at the conference table. Never sit when you can stand as a presenter. It will not only help you use up that excess energy, but will make you more dynamic to watch, and allow you to amplify your message with gestures. Here are some body language secrets you should know to be a more effective presenter.
Move purposefully, not aimlessly: step to a different spot for each talking point, approach a listener who's asked a question, cross to the screen to point out something on a slide. The more you move, the less you'll feel trapped in the pressure cooker of your anxiety. (One of the situations that puts you in the pressure cooker is putting together a presentation when you have no time! Discover a safety valve in my cheat sheet, "How to Prepare a Speech in 15 Minutes.")
Your performance will truly be enhanced. And you'll validate Darwin's famous remark that "Successful public speakers always know how to adapt," whether he actually said it or not.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- To gain the influence you're looking for, remove the "I" from your talks.
- If you're focused on yourself, you won't be able to influence others.
- Public speaking fear is a misplaced response. It's really social anxiety.
- Spend less time on content and more time being comfortable with people.
- Harness your nervous energy and move to appear more dynamic!
Do challenges and objections ramp up your anxiety when you speak? Want to know how to handle yourself if they arise? Audience resistance is actually a reminder that listeners are paying attention, a positive sign that you're reaching them!
PSI's cheat sheet "7 Tips for Overcoming Audience Resistance" offers easy-to-learn techniques for maintaining control in the face of resistance. Download it now!
A positive mindset is necessary if you want to overcome fear of public speaking. Knowing that you're skilled enough to speak with impact is important. But so are your overall peace of mind and enjoyment of speaking, especially if it's part of your job. (Here's a cheat sheet with ways to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.)
So how will you actually achieve those positive developments? You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the best way to overcome stage fright (and to reach your speaking goals) is to learn a few techniques from the theater.
What Theater Can Teach You About Speaking Fear
Actors are the world’s best speakers despite speaking anxiety. Did you know, for instance, that actors suffer from stage fright as much as anyone? The difference between them and everyone else is that stage acting teaches them the most efficient ways for overcoming their speaking fear.
You don’t need to suddenly become an actor to benefit from these techniques yourself. In fact, the time-tested tools and techniques of the theater are not only available for people from all walks of life, but they produce the same results. After all, effective performance is the core of all good speaking—whether it’s in a theater, a boardroom, a meeting, or at the conference you’re attending.
Another thing that actors understand is that talking about performance is helpful only in the beginning phases of rehearsal. After that it’s time for action.
Actionable Exercises for Reducing Speaking Fear
That’s why as a speech coach, at each stage of helping people cope with their speech fear, I include actionable exercises to help reduce apprehension while boosting skills and confidence. Some of these exercises are designed to change thinking patterns (a process known as “cognitive restructuring”). Others are based in emotional response. Still others feature positive visualization; while another group concern themselves with staying focused and present for audiences. To make what you say unforgettable, take a look at my publication on "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience."
Whichever exercises my client and I are working on, however, my approach always includes dealing with the body’s response to stage fright. That’s because fear of public speaking nearly always produces a predictable physical reaction. And speakers like actors are bodies in motion, something frequently forgotten in approaches to overcoming speaking anxiety. Want audiences to view you more positively? Download my free cheat sheet, "Dr. Gary Genard's 5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language."
There's some good news in all of this concerning the speaking jitters you may experience: this level of mental and physical activation is perfectly natural and even beneficial. Without those butterflies in the stomach, you might become too laid-back and bland, without any of the edge or energy that makes you exciting as a speaker. It’s only when the balance tips too far toward anxiety that the normal level of nervousness that otherwise helps you, morphs into debilitating fear.
Nervousness Is Normal, but Fear Makes You Irrational
Don’t believe that those butterflies can be helpful? Then ask yourself this question: Do you know anyone who doesn’t get at least a little nervous before speaking in public? I don’t. I’ve been performing on stage since I was nine years old, and I still get those butterflies, and a high-stakes speech will give me trouble sleeping the night before.
Those reactions are normal and fairly universal.
As I said, stage performers undergo all of this, too. The difference is the degree of the reaction they experience. Getting slightly nervous is helpful because it psyches you up for the “big game.” But deep-seated fear or a gnawing anxiety is likely to push you over into irrational thinking.
Below are four common myths about public speaking that reflect such thinking. Each of them is an unreasonable conclusion. You should learn to recognize them and send them on their way.
Myth #1: Public speaking is dangerous. This is a particularly widespread and damaging myth. Not only are audience members not your enemy; but even a failed presentation will rarely result in your being fired, demoted, or even seriously compromised in your job. Speaking isn’t a perilous adventure on the order of any of the things that should really scare you, no matter how hard you try to make it so. Remember, a diamond is formed by pressure, and only afterwards is it polished. If you find speaking in public challenging, that means it’s a golden opportunity for you to shine.
Myth #2: Nervousness will make your performance worse. Rarely is there a true link between feeling anxious and giving a bad performance. At least in all my years helping speakers, I’ve seldom found one. Quite to the contrary, there are many stories from business and the professions where someone will speak and then say to a colleague, “I know I was horrible . . . I was so nervous.” And the other person will respond: “Really? You looked fine to me.” Here are 10 ways to stay fully focused in your speeches and presentations.
Myth #3: Everyone will see how nervous you are. And once they do, the entire audience will doubt your credibility! This is nonsense. Most nervousness isn’t visible to others because it’s internal. And if people do see you’re nervous, they’ll most likely have the normal reaction, which is to sympathize with you. Since audience members feel good when you’re succeeding and embarrassed when you’re failing, they’re actually on your side and want you to do well.
Myth #4: You have to be an excellent speaker. Who says so? If you’re a motivational speaker by profession perhaps that’s so, but otherwise it isn’t true. The belief that you have to be “excellent” is often a hindrance to effective public speaking because it confuses polish for true communication. When you speak to people (who almost always want to be in the audience), your job is to connect with them and give them something of value. Your task isn’t to be slick, charismatic, or a stand-up comic. So concern yourself instead with being honest and trustworthy. And if you happen to give a lackluster presentation, so what? Failure can be the best of teachers, since you’ll want to do that much better the next time.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- Speaking skill is important. But so is peace of mind and enjoying the moment.
- The stakes usually aren't as high with one presentation as you think they are.
- Despite nervousness, your performance probably won't suffer.
- You may feel nervous, but most of it won't show.
- Rather than trying to be excellent, aim for being honest and trustworthy.