Contemplating the idea of speaking in front of actual people in person again? Or are you giving a presentation to the big boss or a potential client over Zoom?
If you’re suddenly experiencing a racing pulse, shallow breathing, and weak limbs, the good news is, it’s most likely not a heart attack.
These stress-induced symptoms happen because your sympathetic nervous system responds to the psychological threat of public speaking (professional embarrassment if things go wrong, loss of prestige or opportunity) as if it were a physical threat (an avalanche heading your way). According to Cleveland Clinic Psychologist Carolyn Fisher, PhD, physical signs of your fight-or-flight mechanism kicking in include increased heart rate, pale or flushed skin, and trembling.
If you prefer the threat of an avalanche to a public speaking opportunity, you are in good company. As Jerry Seinfeld said:
“I saw a study that said speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing. Number two was death. Death is number two? This means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Even the people who would rather give the eulogy will likely feel some level of heightened senses ahead of, or during, a public speaking event. For some speakers, it is a welcome boost of adrenaline to put extra energy into their delivery. Turning your public speaking nervous responses into a positive attribute, rather than a negative, requires preparation, confidence building, and breathing. Calm your public speaking nerves with these three effective tactics.
Much of the confidence you need to speak in front of a group comes from preparation. Determine the themes and messages you want to deliver. Once you know what you want to say, you have to practice. If you stand up and say it out loud, you will immediately find ways to say it smarter and shorter. You can record yourself on your video conference software or practice in front of your friends or family.
Decide if you are going to speak from prose or notes. If you are using notes, shorten them to as few words as you need to remind yourself what you want to say. Number the pages, print them in a big font, staple them and keep them nearby—even if you don’t think you will need them. When you’re walking a tight rope, it’s nice to have a safety net.
What can you do to amplify your enthusiasm, your inner strength, and your energy? Shadowboxing? Tapping? Reading an inspirational poem by Amanda Gorman? I sing the Rocky theme song to myself, quietly in my head, while I envision a parade in my honor. This builds my morale, lifts my spirits, and elevates my courage.
Our current work from home environment is great for power posing. Taking an expansive stance ahead of an event tells your body to send messages of strength and confidence to your brain. In your home office, you can do the victory pose until just before you turn on your video camera.
In the days and minutes running up to your event, think of all the good things to come, rather than obsessing over what can go wrong. Think about how good you are going to feel when you finish with a job well done. Put the power of positive thinking to work for you.
You have prepared, practiced, and power posed, but it is half an hour before your event and your fight or flight response is kicking in. The loud heartbeat in your head; the quick, shallow breathing; the quiver in your legs. Your solution is oxygen. Breathe.
At this point, you have time to slow down and calm yourself with these breathing exercises. If the symptoms kick in while you are speaking for instance if you feel a sweat coming on or you can’t finish a sentence without seizing an extra breath, take a pause. A long, slow breath or two deep into your abdomen, can help bring those nervous reactions under control. The oxygen can start flowing to your brain again.
Your audience may think you are pausing for dramatic effect. Even if they realize you are slowing down to breathe, that is better than letting your symptoms spiral out of control. Keep in mind that your audience wants you to succeed—even if for the selfish reason that it is uncomfortable to watch someone who is outwardly nervous. It is completely normal to be nervous. Turn those nerves into positive energy and project confidence on the outside.
You’ve got this
Preparation, confidence building, and breathing are effective tools you can use to manage the nervous reactions that come with public speaking. Just knowing that you have a plan to manage your potential anxiety will help you overcome your apprehensions.
Next time you have the chance to give a career-enhancing presentation, media interview, or business pitch, keep these things in mind: It’s not a funeral. It’s not even an avalanche. It’s one more step on your journey to maximize the trajectory of your career. The tools are yours. Plan what you want to say, practice, envision your success, do some deep breathing, and grab this next public speaking opportunity by the horns.
Eileen Smith is a public speaking coach, former diplomat, and founder of Spokesmith. She helps business executives, policy experts, and rising professionals deliver their message in daily and extraordinary events.