How to overcome the anxiety of public speaking
If you were asked to list the things in life you fear the most, I dare say that the fear of speaking in public would be at or close to the top of your list.
You’re not alone. According to statistics, it’s stronger than the fear of dying, followed by financial ruin, spiders and snakes.
The dictionary describes fear as a “feeling of alarm or dread caused by the expectation of danger, pain, or disaster.”
Fear is a natural emotion that we all experience from time to time. It warns us when we’re in danger. Without it, we would probably not survive. Irrational fear, on the other hand, is a destructive, self-defeating emotion that prevents us from achieving our fullest potential. It represents lost opportunities as it robs us of our self-confidence and limits our personal growth. The fear of not measuring up to expectations can be overwhelming.
If you’re a non-professional speaker, being asked to speak in public can easily throw you into a panic. The thought of all those eyes looking at you is like an alarm bell setting off butterflies, weak knees, tight throat, shortness of breath and a trembling voice. What to do?
To reduce your anxiety and put the problem in perspective, you need to identify the cause of your fears.
The fears most commonly voiced by my clients in my coaching and workshops are:
Making mistakes – It’s not the mistakes you make that are the problem. It’s how you handle them. Everyone makes mistakes. If it’s a small one, ignore it and move on. The audience probably will never notice it unless you visibly or verbally react to it. If it’s one you can’t ignore, don’t apologize.
Acknowledge it and, if possible, treat it with humor. The audience will appreciate the ease with which you handled it.
Being boring – If you expect to be boring, you will be. Know your subject thoroughly and speak from the heart. Be sincere and let your audience know you’re enjoying yourself. (If you’re not, pretend you are. Public speaking is acting in disguise.) Use inflection, phrasing, pauses and word stress to give vitality and nuance to your words. If you sound interested, you’ll be interesting.
Freezing or forgetting – Avoid memorizing your speech. If you’re the least bit nervous, you’re sure to freeze – and forget. Memorize your opening to help you settle down and get past the nervousness of the first few minutes. Memorize your closing to enable you to finish with direct eye contact. If you use notes or a script, use large print with plenty of white space for easy reading. Avoid being glued to the text by making frequent eye contact with the audience; they’re not interested in seeing the top of your head. The audience wants to see your eyes and the expression on your face.
To bring your fear until control, prepare yourself thoroughly. The more you know about your subject, the less stress you’ll feel. It’s difficult to communicate effectively when you’re afraid, nervous or under stress. Think positively and visualize yourself speaking like a pro.
Turn off all negative thoughts and follow these few suggestions:
Practice – There’s no substitute. Practice may not make you perfect but it will certainly make you more comfortable and relaxed. Zig Ziglar practices before every speech. If Ziglar, one of the top speakers in the country, considers it important, so should you.
Practice often and out loud, preferably as you stand – Use a tape recorder and/or video camera to become familiar with the sound of your voice, style of delivery and body language. Invite friends and family to listen to you and ask for comments and suggestions.
Relax and be yourself – Before beginning your speech, inhale deeply several times to help you relax. Using your full lung capacity rather than breathing high in the chest will help you stay relaxed. Talk to your audience, not at them. Be warm in your delivery and use a comfortable conversational style to allow your personality to come through. Audiences relate to the “likable” speaker. And don’t be afraid of moments of silence. The audience will never notice what can seem like an eternity to you.
Use humor – Humor in your opening will relax you and warm up the audience. Wherever possible, pepper your speech with pertinent stories and incidents that are humorous, even though your topic may be serious. It establishes a connection with the audience.
Advance preparation – Success is in the details. Avoid problems by checking the details well in advance – the type and theme of the meeting, the number and gender of attendees, special interests of the audience, other speakers who have been scheduled and where in the program you will be appearing. Request any equipment you plan to use well in advance. If possible, arrange an on-site rehearsal to determine that everything is operating properly.
Fear can make you nervous but nerves need not make you fearful. While fear is difficult to channel, nerves, when channeled into energy, can be a positive force bringing vitality and enthusiasm into your speech. Musicians, actors, speakers and performers rely on nervous energy to enhance their performance. You can, too. Control your fear rather than allowing it to control you.
Your goal is to be comfortable and enjoy speaking before an audience. Create as many opportunities for speaking in public as possible. Join Toastmasters, a community theater group, or take coaching or a class in public speaking or dramatics. Speaking in front of others doesn’t need to be dreaded. It can be fun!
Speech coach June Johnson is president of Voice Power of Milwaukee. She can be reached at 332-0926 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
May 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee
How to overcome the anxiety of public speaking