Relax! — 3 Foolproof Ways to Reduce Speech Anxiety
Got speech fright?
"Glossophobia" is the scientific term. But you may recognize any of the more popular labels: fear of public speaking, speech anxiety, stage fright, or speech phobia. If you're a speech professional, you may prefer "communication apprehension." (To learn how to relax and become a stronger speaker, even when there’s little time to prepare, download my free cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.")
Whatever you call it, you can certainly recognize its symptoms: anticipatory anxiety, physical discomfort, panic attack, situational anxiety, or "forgetting to breathe." Yet whether your symptoms are mild or major, you can benefit from reducing the nervousness that comes from speech self-consciousness and jitters.
Here are three exercises to reduce your stress levels prior to speaking while boosting your focus and flexibility. Regardless of whether you need ways to stay fully focused while speaking, or to improve your ability to speak in webinars and virtually, these techniques will help get you on your game and keep you there.
Progressive Relaxation: For this exercise, it's best to be lying down on a yoga mat or carpet in a quiet place. You'll probably need about 20 minutes the first time you try this to reach the level of relaxation described. With continued practice, you should be able to cut that time in half.
- Lie on your back, with eyes closed and arms and feet uncrossed at your sides.
- Follow your breath: Be aware of breathing in and out easily. “Watch” your breath as it enters your nose and goes down your throat. Stay with the nourishing breath as it passes into your lungs and then throughout your body. Feel how the oxygen nourishes every cell in your body. Become conscious of how refreshing and life-affirming each miraculous breath is.
- Now, as you continue to breathe easily, focus your awareness on the top of your head. Be aware of a sense of complete relaxation: as you focus on that area, your scalp and the individual hairs on your head suddenly release all tension held within them. You feel a pleasantly heavy sensation like warm lava moving slowly down your head and scalp, gently melting away all tension as it moves.
- Allow that warm heavy feeling to spread from your scalp to your forehead. Feel the same release of tension, the melting-away, the sensation of smoothness and relaxation.
- Keeping the level of relaxation you’ve achieved in your scalp and forehead, let the lava flow down to your eyes. You may hold considerable tension behind your eyes—many people do. Let it melt away.
- Allow the warm melting-lava feeling to slowly proceed down your body. Each part of your body that it reaches immediately relaxes as the tension melts away. When you get to your fingers, allow any remaining tension to flow out your fingertips. And when you get to your feet, let the same thing happen through your toes. Don’t DO anything; just let it happen.
- Once your body is completely relaxed, do a mental scan to locate any remaining pockets of tension. Then let that tension melt away, until you’re completely and utterly relaxed. Now, allow your muscles to “remember” what this feels like, i.e., register it in your muscle memory.
- Now that you’re completely relaxed, place the palm of your dominant hand on your abdomen where it rises and falls with each breath. Breathe gently and deeply. Feel your hand moving up and down with the “bellows” action of free diaphragmatic breathing. This is what natural breathing in a relaxed state feels like!
Diaphragmatic Breathing: Here's another way to develop natural uninhibited breathing.
- Stand with good posture and without tension. Place your dominant hand on your belly, i.e., at the place that goes in and out most noticeably when you breathe. That is the area of the diaphragm.
- Take relaxed deep breaths. On the inhalation, your belly “inflates” outward under your hand; on the exhalation, it returns to its former position. The movement should be easy and effortless. Here's why it's important to learn to "belly-breathe."
- Be sure you’re not “helping” your hand. Don’t do anything, just breathe. Your hand will follow the natural movement of the abdominal wall that it’s resting upon.
- There’s no cause for concern if a huge amount of movement isn’t going on down there. If you’re new to diaphragmatic breathing, the action may not be too noticeable at first. The more you practice, however, the easier it will come.
- If you find that you’re breathing “backwards” (i.e., if your belly goes in with each inhalation), be patient. Simply observe and begin a new habit of getting the movement occurring in the right direction.
- MIRROR, MIRROR, ON THE WALL: If you stand in front of a mirror, you’ll be able to see the movement more clearly. Stand at an angle that allows you to see your belly slightly in profile. Another helpful technique is to lie in a bath tub filled with warm water. When you inhale, you’ll rise noticeably in the water, just like an inner tube being inflated; and when you exhale, you’ll sink back down. What an enjoyable excuse to take a relaxing bath!
Mini-Vacation: This activity is an excellent continuation of the benefits you gained in either of the above exercise. It adds a dimension of bringing your physical senses into play, to help you learn to be present even in a stressful speaking situation.
- Lie on your back, with your eyes closed and arms and feet uncrossed at your sides.
- Follow your breath, as in the previous exercise. Allow your body to relish each life-giving, delicious breath. Give yourself over to your breathing. Let it fill your consciousness.
- Focus your awareness on the present time and place: the here-and-now. Think about where you are. Listen to the sounds around you. Smell the air in this room. Become aware of the floor underneath you and the sensation of the air on your skin. Does this place have any taste associated with it? If you opened your eyes, what would you see? (You’re using all five of your senses, of course, as you experience this time and place.) For a few minutes, fill yourself completely. Now, imagine that the reality of this place and time is dissolving, melting away into nothingness.
- In its place, you find yourself traveling to a favorite location—someplace you love going to. This place is now arising in your consciousness. It might be a beach on a warm summer day; a field in springtime; a hammock outdoors in the early autumn; a cozy fire in a ski lodge at the end of a day on the slopes. Perhaps you’re lying in the bottom of a row-boat that’s bobbing gently at the dock. Wherever you are, this has become your new reality, and you’re relaxing there.
- Open yourself up completely to this special place. Experience it sensually, with all of your senses as you did in the here-and-now. What sounds are you hearing? Seagulls? Waves slapping at the bottom of the boat? Bees buzzing? A crackling fire? Can you feel that breeze on your face as you lie in the field in the sun; or the warmth of the fire at the ski lodge? Are there any smells noticeable in this place? If you were to open your eyes, what would you see? Do you taste anything—the salty air at the beach or the smoky air in front of the fire? Allow your senses to feed you the entirety of this world that you’ve recreated.
- Spend the next 5 or 10 minutes enjoying this place. Take it all in deeply. Then slowly let it too begin to dissolve in your consciousness. In its place, bring back the present time and location where you’re doing this exercise. But keep the level of deep relaxation and sensory input you’ve achieved. The present time and place is the same as it was before, except now you’re experiencing it much more fully. Let it flood into you and throughout you.
- When you’re ready, open your eyes. While staying completely relaxed, sit up slowly (no need to rush). Relish the sensations of the here and now you’re still bathing in.
- Now take this feeling with you as you go about your tasks for the rest of the day. Keep the relaxation of your “mini-vacation” not only in your mind, but in all of your senses and in your physical response to the world around you.
Whatever your level of nervousness before speaking, these three exercises will bring you physical and mental focus while helping to place your anxiety in perspective. They are quick-and-easy resources for coping with the age-old problem of pre-presentation jitters.
Did you know that a famous study found that 93% of your audience's perception depends on your nonverbal skills? If you want to be an effective communicator, you'd better learn how to use body language! To learn more, download my free cheat sheet, "Dr. Gary Genard's 5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language."