Prepare and perform, then do it again, and again, and again. The easy answer is that the more you speak publicly, the less you fear it. However, even if you have the opportunity to do it often, it can still be nerve-wracking. I’m continually surprised that I feel noticeably nervous before a performance or speaking engagement. After all, public speaking is my career!
A myriad of factors bring on fear before speaking. Some are within our control (how well you know your talking points, your internal state) and some are not (the makeup and mindset of your audience, the state of the world). The key is taking control of what you can and intentionally letting the rest go.
Here are some simple tips to feel well-prepared and calm the fight-or-flight urge you have before standing and speaking in front of a group:
4–7–8 Breathing: I love this simple breathing technique for lessening anxiety and coming back to center. When you feel fear, you tend to send your breath to your chest and shoulders. In the extreme, this movement is what people do when they hyperventilate. Focus your breath in your belly and lower back. Think of breathing to your feet. And use the exhale to consciously flush out tension from your body. Steady your breath and take control.
Reframe fear: Nervousness is adrenaline flowing through your body. The fact that you feel fear is great because it means that speaking to, being seen by, and connecting with people is important to you— which is a powerful starting point for making a connection with other humans. You can’t get rid of nerves. So instead of pushing fear and nervous energy away, give them a productive channel and release by labeling them as enthusiasm, care, joy, concern, or connection. Say to yourself, “My enthusiasm is kicking in!” or “I really care about connecting with this audience.” Focus on these positive statements to strengthen the positive voice in your head and channel your energy into action.
Do a process visualization: Performers, athletes, and others who risk putting themselves in visible, high stakes situations often engage in process visualizations, or imagining all of the possible details of a performance in advance. The key here is not to envision the ideal performance; you must focus on all of the possibilities of what could go right and wrong. Talk yourself through it: “I walk to the podium and set down my binder. I look at the audience and they appear disinterested. The room is warm and I feel a pit in my stomach. I click to my first slide.” Take the time to see and feel the experience. Let your mind linger on the visualization often.
Create an alter ego: Finally, a great way to take a risk and step into your more comfortable, conversational, bolder — or whatever you want to be! — self is to create an alter ego. Which parts of your personality do you want to channel when you speak? Do you want to be soothing? Commanding? Charismatic? Close your eyes and see your ideal speaking self. How are you standing? What gestures do you use? Hear your ideal tone of voice. Once you have a full picture of your ideal self, allow yourself to take on their mannerisms and presence. Practice in private, then channel this alter ego when you step on stage.
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