Sweating. Shaking. Dry mouth. Crying. Giggling. Fidgeting. Shortness of Breath. Rapid speech. Fast heartbeat. Forgetfulness. Turning red. Our bodies all react differently to the fear of public speaking and most of us experience some type of nerves when we stand up in front of an audience. That’s the bad news. But here’s the good news.
When we know how our bodies react, we can come up with strategies to minimize and control our nervous responses. It really comes down to these three steps: understanding, strategizing, and executing. When we use these steps, we can regain control over our presentation anxiety.
Most people have 1 or 2 nervous responses that are pretty predictable. In other words, when you stand up to speak and get nervous, your body will probably react in the same way each time. While that may seem unfortunate at first, it should actually encourage you. When you know what your body is going to do, you know how to prepare.
Think about what you experience during the first minute of giving a presentation. Make a list of these things. Most of the nervous responses are tied to your body’s fight, flight, or freeze response. This biological defense system is actually meant to protect and prepare us. But Dr. Neil Neimark says, “By its very nature, the fight or flight system bypasses our rational mind.” This means we can feel like we are in physical danger even if we aren’t. Dr. Neimark goes on to say that when the threat is psychological rather than physical, like it would be for public speaking, we will experience stress in one of two ways. Either we experience bodily stress responses (sweating or shaking) or emotional/mental stress responses (anxiety or anger). Get curious about the way stress usually affects you. Understanding your own unique stress response is the first step fighting your public speaking fear.
Once you’ve figured out your normal stress response, you can put specific strategies in place to combat it. If you have a physical response to public speaking, the main thing is to burn off some of that adrenaline rush. Your body has prepared itself to run or fight. So instead of simply willing your hands to shop shaking, let your body do what it was built to do in stressful situations, move. Try walking during your intro to see if that helps release some of the nerves. If you tend to have shortness of breath or your heart is pounding out of your chest, plan the first few moments of your presentation so you can catch your breath and slow down your heartrate. For example, think about having your audience study a picture or a quote on the screen in silence for a few seconds. That will allow you time to breathe and your stress response to calm down.
If you tend to cry or giggle or if you experience brain fog or high levels of anxiety, you probably have more of an emotional/psychological stress response rather than a physical one. The biggest way to overcome these types of nerves is to rewrite the script in your brain. Scientists call this cognitive restructuring. It’s the “therapeutic process of identifying and challenging negative and irrational thoughts.” So when you start to think of your upcoming presentation as “scary” or “stressful” or “impossible,” flip the script. Instead, tell yourself it is “challenging” or “exciting” or “a growth opportunity.” If that sounds silly or simplistic, you might want to check out the work of Harvard researcher Alison Wood Brooks. She says, “My findings demonstrate the profound control and influence we have over our own emotions. The way we verbalize and think about our feelings helps to construct the way we actually feel.” I don’t know about you, but I find her words “profound control” very encouraging.
When it comes time to deliver your presentation, take comfort in knowing that you understand how your body will react and that you’ve planned for those reactions. And then execute to the best of your ability. Keep in mind the first part of the presentation is usually the toughest. The severity and length of stress responses varies from person to person. However, research shows that most people calm down after approximately 1-2.5 minutes. So if you’ve got your plan in place and you stick to it, the stressful feelings should be over pretty quickly.
With these three steps, you’ll be ready to fight your public speaking nerves head on. No matter how your body, emotions, or mind responds to stress, you can understand it, strategize for it, and then execute to get through it.
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