It’s no secret that public speaking is one of the things that causes people the most anxiety. But it’s not just “regular” folk who suffer from this performance anxiety…performers experience it too.
I’ve been speaking in public since 8th grade. I was active in theatre during high school and then I went on to have a career in the public eye as a broadcaster. So, I’ve been talking to large groups of people for a long time now.
People assume that I don’t get nervous before I have to give a speech. So. Not. True. After all these years, I still experience anxiety before making a speech or presentation to a large crowd. I’m sure that a lot of you are already speaking to large crowds or will have to as part of your work in the “biz”, so I’m here to share my experience and tell you that even if you’re still nervous, it’s perfectly normal. I don’t think you can ever alleviate that anxiety all together, but there are ways to understand it and a few tricks to help calm your nerves before your presentation.
In my life and line of work, with its lack of routine and uncertain situations interacting on a very personal level with strangers, I often fear the unknown. Fear of the unknown is normal. It’s a biological imperative to stop us from walking into that lion’s den and being eaten alive. But, in the case of performance anxiety, the fear of the unknown is actually fear of failure and that fear results in anxiety. There’s actually a term for this; it’s called glossophobia. Use that at your next dinner party conversation.
Being in front of an audience makes us feel vulnerable and exposed. We fear people will judge us and judge us harshly. We imagine all the awful things that could potentially go wrong like: we’re going to suck, we might go blank, we might embarrass ourselves, or we may appear dumb and boring. And, let’s face it, as women, we have the added bonus of fearing the audience is judging us on our looks. Is my outfit ok? What about my hair? Can I even walk properly in these heels? Maybe it’s just me, but I doubt it.
When we feel anxiety there are obvious physical symptoms occurring in our bodies. We’re having a stress response within our nervous system and we’re responding to the situation with a fight or flight response. Our brains are secreting all sorts of fun chemicals including adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. It’s these secretions that can be blamed for increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, and the dreaded dry mouth (that one gets me every time). And while just a little bit of these sensations can give us a boost of energy and pep – too much of it can result in a crippling panic attack. We don’t want that.
I don’t think we can actually fully overcome all those feelings that pop up around performance anxiety, but we can learn how to calm and control them so that they aren’t necessarily overwhelming. Over the years, I’ve tried lots of different ways to calm my speaking anxiety. So, I’m sharing a list of the top 10 techniques that have helped me the most.
1. Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more. Whether I’m giving a speech I’ve written or I’m speaking on behalf of an organization or simply acting as EmCee at a charity gala, I always rehearse my speech as many times as possible before taking the stage. The more I read the speech and commit it to memory the more confident I feel. Personally, I usually memorize the bulk of my speeches and take the opportunity to adlib once I hit the stage. I rehearse a lot in the days leading up to the event. I practice in front of a friend, I practice with the TV or radio blaring to stimulate being distracted – anything to get the thoughts and flow of the speech engrained in my brain. I read the speech all the way through in the morning of the event and then again a few minutes before taking the stage.
2. If you’re not into memorizing your whole speech, at least memorize parts. The most important part to memorize is the beginning since that is usually the toughest time on stage. Those first 30 seconds are critical and they also feel the most nerve-wracking. Once you get past those first few moments, you usually relax a little. So, it’s important to know the top of your speech inside and out. The more you say it out loud, your tongue and lips form a muscle memory to help your words glide out of your mouth effortlessly right off the top. Then, you’ll feel confident enough to rock out for the rest of it.
3. Have a great opening that breaks the ice a bit and makes you seem human. It’s always nice to thank people for coming and if you can manage; throw in something specific to that night; the room, the weather, the way people are dressed, the fact that you were almost late because of traffic – anything that reflects that you are being present in the moment and showcases a bit of your personality right off the top. Be honest and be yourself. People want to see that.
4. Don’t rush into things. Just like a good stage actor waits for applause and/or laughter before she delivers her lines, I have found it’s best to wait until the applause taper off before starting to talk. When you get into position on stage or at the podium, just wait for quiet. Smile. Nod. Look around the room for a few seconds. It is a way of taking control of the situation and always gives you a second to regroup, refocus and take a few breaths before you begin.
5. There’s lots of advice out there about breathing. While it’s true, breathing deeply can alleviate symptoms of stress, you really do have to focus on it. Breathing alone won’t calm you down. If I’m wracked with nerves (as I have been in the past) I will try to control my breathing backstage. There are lots of different methods for this. I like to keep things simple and just focus on taking long, slow breaths in and long, slow breaths out. I’d suggest breathing in slowly through the nose while counting to 6 and then releasing your breath through the nose for a count of 6. If you want, you can hold your breath at the end of your inhale and at the end of your exhale for a few seconds. That provides even more control and mindfulness. Controlled breathing can slow your heart rate down and, therefore, help calm your nerves.
6. Instead of imagining your audience naked, imagine that they all actually really like you and want you to succeed because they do! If you’ve been asked to speak at an event, people want to hear what you have to say. Instead of focusing on yourself – how you look, how you sound, your imagined shortcomings – focus on the audience: what do they want to hear? What do they care about? What do you want them to “get” out of what you’re about to tell them? Remember that you are coming from a place of service. So, make it about them instead of staying in your head and being overly critical of yourself. Besides who wants to be talking to a crowd of naked people? Gross.
8. Make eye contact if you can. People inherently distrust people who don’t make eye contact. I know I do. Plus, you make people feel important when you look into their eyes. So, scan the room for eyes that are approving of you. Look for people who are nodding or laughing or concentrating intently on you and continue to make eye contact with them. It will make them feel good and also boost your confidence to have that reassuring connection.
9. Always remember, the level of anxiety you may be feeling usually doesn’t translate. From time to time, I experience the wobbly knees or shaky voice, but you can’t tell, I swear! I know this for certain because I’ve watched some of my speaking on video and I can’t even tell. Those physical signs of nervousness are usually imperceptible to the audience and go away after a few moments anyway. (If you’re worried about people seeing your hands shake as you hold your paper, ask for a podium beforehand).
10. Wear comfortable shoes. Seriously. It’s no good when you make your grand entrance wobbling on crappy, uncomfortable heels.
Ultimately, even doing all of these things, I still experience some public speaking anxiety. I’ve realized that I will always feel a wave of anxiety leading up to a speech or presentation. I know it’s my pesky nervous system trying to protect me from the pain of failure even though, from experience, I know I won’t fail (knock on wood). I remind myself that these surges of anxious feelings and sensations exists only within me, and will not be detrimental to the end result in public. Those butterflies can actually work to fuel my energy as I take the stage. Sure, sometimes people witness my nervous energy, but at least I am energetic and authentic. No one wants to see a calm, boring speaker anyway. People want truth and authenticity – they don’t want perfection. Recognize that when it comes to public speaking, there is going to be a certain level of fear. The issue isn’t learning to be fearless. It’s about understanding your anxiety and learning how to control some of those feelings in order harness that energy to your performing advantage.