I have just been working with a client who has been thrown into the deep end by being asked to step in as a public speaker. She knows her subject well and has worked as the perfect manager at a well-known charity for many years but has never before been asked to go centre stage and speak at a fundraising dinner. And the response? She was petrified.
It may surprise you to know that everyone who has to perform in front of others has some fear before striding onto the stage. Many actors submerge themselves into the character they are playing to free themselves from nerves.
Let’s look at some ways to help you to overcome your fear of speaking in public.
The good news about feeling nervous is that the speech will be driven by surges of adrenalin which will keep you on your toes, alive and exciting. The bad news is that it often gives you a palpitating heart, churning stomach, and shaky knees. You can experience tightness in your throat, feeling as if you are unable to swallow, a dry mouth or find you have too much saliva. You can sweat from your palms, you can blush profusely, you can feel very hot or very cold. You can have a blank mind unable to focus on your audience, or you can start feeling faint. The worst part is when you experience a shortness of breath, which can give you a nervous laugh, a trembling voice or makes you stutter.
So it is well worth thinking about what makes us get so nervous that we experience all these feelings. What are the fears? Jot down what you think is going to make you the most frightened. What are the things that you are terrified of when you think about having to make a speech?
The sorts of things that you fear are just the stuff of nightmares. A popular one is a fear of forgetting what to say. Or the fear that you may not be up to the job, that you am not able to entertain people but rather bore them. If you are the after dinner speaker, you may think that people will just start talking to each other and pouring more drinks. Or are you just worried that people are going to think that you are a complete idiot and you should never have been asked to make a speech in the first place? In all the years that I have been working with people and coaching them to give presentations, I have yet to meet anyone who hasn’t at some point or other felt nervous about speaking in public.
Feeling nervous is normal but like any nightmare, we can and will wake up and find it’s all a dream.
So what can we do?
A useful way to manage our fears is to start by being positive. You can control any panic or nerves by thinking about the positive result. We are very good at thinking about the negative outcome of all those things which could go wrong but now we have got to turn it around.
Prepare properly. If you know what you are aiming to achieve and know what you are going to say, you can start to imagine the result.
You must practise, practise and practise. It is the very best defence against failure. The more you rehearse, the more you practise out loud, the more you will feel confident, comfortable and safe.
Manage your breathing. Deep breaths before you start will fill your lungs with oxygen. By slowing down your deep breathing (that is, by drawing in air, counting to three and then letting the air out slowly), you will be sending a signal to your heart to slow down too. This does, however, require to be practised before the big occasion to be most effective. Deep breaths also help you to project your voice so as to avoid the need for a microphone.
If you suffer from breathlessness, then you need to take deep breaths. Shallow breaths will make you sound very panicky and it can make your voice sound very odd as if you are going to lose control completely. Luckily, we breathe automatically but when we are under pressure, we need to think a bit more about how we are breathing and to breathe in deeply and exhale deeply.
Physical symptoms when your throat tightens up and your voice becomes restricted will need to be managed too. You can relieve a tight throat by yawning, (obviously not in front of your audience!) but step out for a moment and try stretching to relax your face and throat. Laughter is good for helping to relax your facial muscles; this is particularly useful if you cannot be alone to yawn!
An old trick, used by actors, for when your mouth dries up is to imagine the audience sucking on lemons. It’s the quickest way to bring the saliva back into your mouth. Even writing it here is making it work for me!
Visualise your success.
Create a picture in your mind of what it is going to look like after you have spoken. Will your audience be sitting there smiling or laughing and asking for more? Try and paint a vivid picture of the situation including your feelings of relief and pleasure and don’t let any negative thoughts come in. The more you concentrate on doing this, the more it will come true for you. Link your thoughts to a memory of when you have achieved something in your life that has made you feel good. Each time a negative thought appears think back to that happy memory and hold that in your head. Counsellors who help people to overcome fears in all sorts of areas often encourage them to visualise a really happy time in their lives and then keep that picture in your mind. This works very well for keeping control of yourself in unknown situations.
It should go without saying that drinking alcohol does not improve your speech or remove the nerves – though it may make you think you don’t have any! You know you should not drink and drive and it is great advice for speech makers too. Even if you are speaking at a dinner, keep your alcohol drinking until after your speech.