It is a truth universally acknowledged that speaking in public is the most terrifying thing you will ever do in your life. Heart racing, uncontrollable wobbly knees, parched mouth, and hands shaking like jelly…sound familiar? Even the most experienced performers and business people get the jitters when it comes to public speaking. It takes guts to stand up in front of an audience and give a well-structured, interesting talk. Be it giving presentations, making speeches or even having an interview, we will all come across public speaking, which is why being able to cope with it is an excellent skill to have.
I have a particular disliking for public speaking. I’ve had to give several presentations throughout my university life. I would dread the experience and worry that I would lose the ability to control my arms and legs and, in turn, make a fool out of myself. Beforehand, my palms would begin to sweat and my heart would beat 100 times a minute. When it came to my turn I would be a nervous wreck and my mind would go blank. During the presentation I would read straight from my notes, speak so quickly that I couldn’t breathe and just want it to be over. On one occasion, my legs did literally feel like jelly and I had to sit down for the rest of the presentation.
In short, my fight or flight response to a threatening situation was overactive due to my maladaptive thoughts, which impeded my ability to function. If you are prone to feeling nervous, like me, presentations can be the most stressful situations you can be placed in. Natural reactions to public speaking shouldn’t have to hinder you from getting your message across. According to Bryan Salter, author of Effective Presenting, nerves can actually be a good thing; they get the adrenaline flowing in order to help you give the best performance. Beyonce once said, “I get nervous when I don’t get nervous. If I’m nervous I know I’m going to have a good show”. So there is no way to not be anxious, you just need to learn how to embrace the nerves. This can be done through a combination of learning to control your mind and body.
Using these 10 steps should help you tackle any situation confidently.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Think Positively: Negative attitudes are the root of public speaking anxiety. Thinking that you will be unable to control your body and therefore seem incompetent to the audience will actually make your fears come to life, in a vicious circle. In A Complete Guide to Public Speaking, author Jeffrey P. Davidson suggests that visualisation and affirmation can help dispel negative thoughts. In advance of the event, before you go to sleep, visualise yourself presenting to the audience confidently, speaking articulately and inspiring the audience. Imagine how happy you will feel when everyone applauds at the end. Then reaffirm this by replaying it over and over, telling yourself “It can be done”.
Practise, practise, practise: You’ve written your speech and now you need to rehearse. Management Guide, F. John Reh suggests delivering your speech to yourself out loud to see how it flows. If possible, practise it on one or two people, and keep rehearsing until you are comfortable and familiar with your speech.
Breathe: The best way to regain control of your voice is to control your breathing. Before the presentation, make an effort to take long, deep breaths to calm yourself. Continue this during the presentation, making sure you give yourself pauses to breathe.
Keep your hands busy: If you’re shaking like a leaf and need something to do with your hands, hold on to cue cards (much less obvious than rustling paper) or, if possible, lean on a table or hold on to the lectern. Remember that you feel more awkward than you look.
Pace yourself: Speaking too quickly is a common effect of the extra adrenaline, and can stop you from breathing properly. Actively slow down your speech, taking in every word as you read it. Pausing can also help, especially between sections in order to help you and your audience mentally prepare. Have a glass of water handy in case you get a dry mouth, and drinking it will give you more time to collect your thoughts.
Use words you know: It sounds obvious but there is no need to use fancy long words and jargon if you’re going to worry about forgetting them. Don’t panic if you can’t remember a specific, elaborate way you were going to say something, the audience won’t know this. Just concentrate on articulating your message in simple terms and it will help you and your listeners.
Don’t think of the audience as the enemy: according to Aaron Beck and Gary Emery’s Anxiety Disorders And Phobias:
A Cognitive Perspective, in public speaking situations, your body uses a primitive defence response that was once evolutionary useful when there was possible danger. This however does not mean the audience is a threat. They are not there to judge you; they are ordinary people who recognise public speaking is daunting and just want you to do your best. Avoid making a barrier between yourself and your listeners by establishing eye contact. Visualisation can also come in handy here – imagine the audience is made up of a few of your close friends, or alternatively there is the old favourite of imagining them stark naked!
Be enthusiastic: You’ve done the research and prepared your speech so you should be an expert on the topic. Enjoy the fact that you are sharing your wisdom with the audience and they will be genuinely interested.
Smile!: When appropriate, smiling can make your voice more animated. According to Management guide, F. John Reh, a smile will help your audience respond more positively to you and it will also help you feel better.
Be yourself: Don’t pretend you don’t suffer from nerves, this only makes things worse. It is okay to admit you are nervous at the beginning – the audience will understand. The truth is, you’re not a comedian or a politician, you’re an ordinary person trying to get your message across. Don’t try to be something you’re not and focus on speaking clearly and confidently.