“According to most studies, people’s No. 1 fear is public speaking. No. 2 is death. Death is No. 2. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than delivering the eulogy,” Jerry Seinfeld famously quipped.
All kidding aside, speaking anxiety can be a very serious problem for those of you who experience it. Some of you may experience speaking anxiety as a tickle that sparks an adrenaline rush. Some of you may experience speaking anxiety as a headwind–you feel the pressure, but you can push through. And some of you may experience speaking anxiety as a weight burdening you down, stopping you, and frustrating you.
Whatever you feel on the inside, you also have to understand how fear impacts your behavior on the outside.
One of the impacts of speaking anxiety is distracting facial expressions. You may rarely think about your facial expressions, except when you look in the mirror or watch yourself on video. But when you speak while you’re anxious, you may emote strong facial expressions unconsciously. You may have a furrowed brow that seems fixed on your face, or you may have a smile that seems frozen on your lips.
The problem is that you wear these expressions unconsciously, oblivious to the impact they have on your ability to project authenticity and inspire trust. Self-awareness is of the utmost importance if you want to avoid these distractions.
Another impact of speaking anxiety is less coherence and focus. If you’re anxious, it’s easy to get into a “speaking spin” and go out of control.
What happens is you begin talking, realize you are uncomfortable, and try to talk more to feel better. The result can be a downward spiral, going into detail after detail after detail, without realizing that the more you descend into detail the more you disconnect from your audience.
Another impact of speaking anxiety is clunky sentence structure. When you are anxious, you revert to a writing-style structure–as if you were reciting an article. As you increase the length and complexity of each sentence, you lose all sense of phrasing and rhythm. Your speaking becomes increasingly punctuated with filler words like “ah” and “er” that disrupt the flow of your speech and distract your audience.
Speaking anxiety and how it affects you on the outside can have a tremendous effect on how your audience perceives you as a speaker. Even if you are able to push through your inner anxiety and get the job done, you need to learn skills that allow you to control your outside behaviors and give your audience a greater sense of confidence in what you are saying.
Telling yourself, “Don’t be afraid,” does absolutely nothing. You can’t expect to get results just by psyching yourself up or by following ridiculous advice like picturing your audience naked. The best remedy for speaking anxiety is learning how to master a few basic skills to accelerate your path to becoming a composed speaker.
Here are three strategies to help you manage your fears and communicate with confidence:
One way you can manage your speaking anxiety is to focus on your breathing. How many times have you heard this advice? “If you’re nervous, just take a few deep breaths.”
Taking a deep breath puts the emphasis on the wrong component of breathing. The focus needs to be on exhaling, not inhaling. It’s not as if you have a shortage of air, so you need to take in as much as you can–you really just need a sip, not a big gulp. By focusing on your exhales, you will decrease your tension significantly.
The key here is to get yourself in a state of relaxed, rhythmic breathing. Start thinking about how, and how often, you are taking your breaths. Release your stomach to allow air in, and pull in your stomach to let air out. If your breathing is relaxed, your voice will have more resonance, and the tension in your body will be reduced.
Another way you can manage your speaking anxiety is to shift from free flow–saying whatever ideas pop into your head–to a more structured approach. Without a go-to structure to organize what you plan to say, you can easily get flustered. What you need is a mental map to navigate you through that jungle of words and emotions.
To develop your mental map, you need to categorize your points, with each point touching back to your main idea.
For example, if your main idea is to explain why anxiety has a negative effect on your speaking performance, you need to start out by saying, “One of the reasons anxiety has a negative effect on your speaking performance is because it impacts your facial expressions.”
Begin your second point by saying, “Another one of the reasons anxiety has a negative effect on your speaking performance is because it diminishes your coherence and focus.”
And so on. This type of categorization gives you the structure you need to maintain your composure and stay on topic.
Another way you can manage your speaking anxiety is by building rhythm. Rhythm helps you speak in short phrases, not long and complex sentences. Rhythm helps you connect with your breaths as well–the more you focus on rhythm, the more natural your breathing pattern will become. Here is a very basic example:
Instead of saying, “We have to x, y and z,”
Say, “We have to x. We have to y. We have to z.”
Getting into rhythm will help ensure that you don’t get out of sync with your speaking and start using “ahs” and “ers”–a definite indicator of speaking anxiety.
What’s powerful about these skills is that unlike a lot of the advice that’s out there for dealing with speaking anxiety, these skills are concrete and actionable.
To get over speaking anxiety, you don’t need imagined nudity; you need to practice skills like breathing, structure, and rhythm. By focusing on what you can control, you not only will feel in control, but you’ll actually be in control–you’ll be able to speak with a calm, confident, and authentic voice.