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How to Combat Public Speaking Anxiety

Strategies to help you prepare to speak confidently in front of an audience.

Key points

  • Feelings of excitement will give you the energy necessary to project the slightly bigger-than-life persona you need.
  • The mental exercise required to recall an emotion has the added benefit of making you forget your nerves.
  • Use deep breathing to various forms of meditation to maintain your calm.
Photo by Samer Daboul via Pexels
Source: Photo by Samer Daboul via Pexels

Is stress bad for humans? The popular view is that stress is bad, but neurological research shows a more nuanced view. Low to moderate levels of stress are good for improving memory, attention, task-switching abilities, and psychological health overall. High levels of stress are bad for us in all the ways we hear about, in general.

What about public speakers? Here’s the key for anyone who has to work with an audience: Stress is contagious. We leak our emotions to each other. What sort of stress do we leak to our audiences? Once again, we want medium to low levels of stress, not high levels.

Speakers need to be aware of their emotional states before and during their speeches. A highly stressed-out speaker will induce the wrong kind of stress in the audience. Imagine what that does for communication. If the stress levels are high, we don’t attend as well, we don’t concentrate as well, and we don’t remember as well.

You need to get your stress levels under control as a speaker, not just for you, but for your audience.

But what about the typical speaker’s nerves – that inevitable state of adrenaline-induced jitters? What can a speaker do about those?

Three strategies:

  1. Redefine the jitters as (positive) excitement and convey that positive energy to the audience
  2. Work on creating an alternative emotional state
  3. Calm yourself down

I’ve worked on all three over the years with many clients. Combinations of 1 and 2 are of course possible. The first approach is the easiest to take, for most people. The second is harder and takes longer to become proficient in; the third is perhaps the most appealing and, surprisingly, the least effective. Let’s look at them in a little more detail.

Redefine the jitters. If you can convert your pounding pulse from a scary feeling to a positive one by telling yourself I’m excited! I’m going to do a great job! I’m full of energy! Then you should do so. Those feelings of excitement will give you the energy necessary to project the slightly bigger-than-life persona you need on a big stage.

Create an alternative emotional state. A more sophisticated response to the problem of speaker’s nerves is to create an alternative emotional state in your mind, one that relates to the opening of your speech. If you are telling a touching story, then use a method actor’s technique: remember a time when you felt emotional in that way, using all five senses, and get yourself into that state. If you are all fired up with anger at some injustice, then work that up. And so on. The mental exercise required to recall and install the emotion has the added benefit (if you do it thoroughly enough) of making you forget your nerves as you work yourself into the new state.

This is the best method because it means you, your message, and your audience all meet emotionally, creating the conditions for a most memorable speech. But it is the most difficult method for many people to pull off. It takes time and imaginative work.

Calm yourself down. There are several techniques, from deep breathing to various forms of meditation, which will enable you to maintain calm in the face of pressure.

It’s appealing, at least in the abstract, to think that you could be the speaker who faces that audience of 1500 with a normal pulse, a relaxed manner, and an easy smile on your face.

But don’t be deceived. Your goal should not be to have a normal pulse. The advantage of being in adrenaline mode is that your racing heart and zippy mental state, if not completely out of control, will enable you to think and move a little faster than the audience. You’ll be able to think on your feet better, and that’s a good thing, by and large. You can handle sudden issues that come up with aplomb, and answer questions that the audience has with impressive mental dexterity.

A little adrenaline is a good thing. Calm is overrated in front of an audience. But stressing out the audience is not the goal. When you’re getting ready to speak, prepare your emotional state, and leak good, relevant, appropriate emotions to the crowd.

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