I teach communication courses at a private university in Nashville. And yesterday, I disappointed my students.
We were talking about speech anxiety. They were hoping I would teach them how to overcome nervousness when standing in front of an audience to present. But I started my lecture by telling them that there is no magic cure for speech anxiety. There’s nothing I could tell them or teach them that would make it all go away. Understandably, some of them were disappointed.
Gallup reports that about 40% of Americans fear speaking in front of an audience. It’s consistently one of the top things humans fear, and it has been for a very long time. Because of that, I stopped trying to find a cure and started accepting it as natural. Sure, we can reframe or lessen our nervousness, but we probably can’t completely cure it. So I use a practical approach by asking this: If we know that nerves are more than likely to come up, how can we strategize to minimize them?
Here are 4 practical ways to deal with some of the most common nervous responses.
When we stand in front of an audience, our brain misreads this stress for actual danger. This, in turn, activates our flight or flight stress response which affects the human body in many different ways. A surge of adrenaline prepares us to protect ourselves. That surge might cause us to talk very fast. It might also cause us to feel dizzy because our heartrate and breathing rate are increased. For some, the rush of adrenaline causes them to blank out or forget what they wanted to say. It’s not that they lack the ability to focus, but rather, that the brain is keenly attuned to focus only on what it takes to survive in that moment, not on what needs to be said next.
For each of these nervous responses, deep breathing is the best strategy to use. Start taking deep, intentional breaths 5-10 minutes before you are supposed to speak. One of my favorite breathing techniques is box breathing. Learn more about this method here. This inflow of oxygen at a normal breathing rate will help to minimize your speech anxiety.
Your body’s stress response prepares you be to able to fight or run away. Both of those require tremendous amounts of energy. It’s no wonder that many people shake or have nervous motions when they get up in front of an audience to speak.
To overcome those responses, you need to move. Some people like to do stretches or jumping jacks right before they step on stage to counteract nervous movement. But if you are still shaking once you get on stage, try walking around while delivering your intro. You don’t want to pace, but just taking a few steps will help. One clinical psychologist who works specifically with patients who struggle with anxiety tells her clients that just a few minutes of exercise is the most effective way to shut off a stress response. Speech anxiety in which you feel like you’ve lost control of your body is often just energy trying to find an outlet.
Some people tend to sweat more when they get nervous. The best trick to combat this is to dress in loose layers paying careful attention to the colors you wear. Black and white are the best colors for hiding sweat. If you tend to get cold, plan to have a sweater. But also be aware that shivering might be more of nervous energy response than actually being cold. If that’s the case, moving around like we discussed above will help.
Often those first few seconds are the worst. Some people have trouble getting started or getting a full breath when they start speaking. If that’s the case for you, craft your content to include an intentional longer pause. For example, you might use a powerful graphic and tell the audience to study it for a few seconds. In the meantime, you can be breathing and thinking of what you need to say next. This allows time for your stress response to lessen. Or you might ask a rhetorical question. For example, questions like, “What part of your job are you most passionate about?” or “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” force the speaker to stop to let the audience think for just a little while. Strategize those opening moments to minimize your stress response.
These 4 tips aren’t magical, but they are practical ways to manage speech anxiety. And just knowing that you are able to do something to better control your nervous response can help you deliver your presentation with confidence.
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