Take the Terror Out of a Talk

An educational session delivered on 6th November 2007

I remember my first experience of asking a girl out on a date. My heart was racing, palms sweaty, and knees trembling. I struggled to say the words I had so carefully rehearsed.

Sounds a bit like our first speeches doesn’t it? Nervous and possibly terrified. It is common for experienced speakers to get nervous as well as beginners.

The difference is that experienced speakers know how to take control of nervousness and appear confident.

So what causes speech anxiety and how can you overcome it?

Why was I nervous asking a girl out? Why are you nervous speaking in front of a group?  The situation was new and unknown. You were afraid you might fail. Many people fear public speaking because it is something new and they are afraid of appearing foolish.

Stage fright is common to all speakers who are concerned about their performance. But this stage fright is just nervous energy, and useful if channelled properly.

When we are confronted with a fearful situation, our bodies respond by increasing the flow of adrenalin – the “fight or flight” hormone. Adrenalin causes the heart to beat faster and creates a burst of “extra energy”.

This energy can be channelled into a great speech performance using three methods:

1) Experience
2) Mental rehearsal and
3) Relaxation techniques

Experience

The best method to reduce anxiety and stage fright is to simply practice speaking in front of an audience, preferably in a safe and supportive environment. Toastmasters is the perfect environment!

After speaking a few times, you begin to put your anxiety into perspective. The audience isn’t hostile or bored, and you probably did not make a fool of yourself. Your audiences want you to succeed and to hear what you have to say. If you make a mistake – so what? You learn from it. No one will attack you just because something didn’t work.

Mental Rehearsal

Another method of controlling speech anxiety is mental rehearsal by visualising yourself successfully giving the speech. Vividly imagined events are recorded by the brain as memories, yet the brain does not distinguish these visualisations from the actual physical experience.

Once you have written your speech and practiced it out loud a few times, you can mentally rehearse your performance as if it is actually happening.

Close your eyes. Imagine that you are being introduced to an audience. You walk up to the lectern confidently, smiling to the people as you pass. Breathe deeply several times before beginning to speak. Then picture yourself speaking clearly and forcefully, remembering all of the points you wanted to make. You captivate your audience with your words, gestures and vocal variety. When you finish, imagine the audience applauding in appreciation.

Repeat this vision until your confidence has increased and your anxiety has decreased.

Relaxation Techniques

Even experienced speakers get tense before a speech. Relaxation and breathing techniques can help reduce stress. Focus on parts of the body that feel most tense, such as the shoulders. Tighten that part for a few seconds, then release it. Do the same for the rest of your muscles, starting with the feet and working up to the facial muscles.

If you have the luxury of privacy just before you are called upon to speak, you can do other exercises described in the handout.

1. Standing, inhale and stretch your arms toward the ceiling. Then exhale as you bend and touch the toes, keeping the knees straight. (If you can’t reach your toes, bend as far as you comfortably can.) Repeat this several times.

2. Hold your arms out to the sides, parallel to the floor, and rotate them in small circles, first forward 10 times, then backward 10 times.

3. Drop your head to your chest, rolling it to the right, to the back, then to the left, in a circle. Repeat this several times, then reverse the procedure, rolling your head to the left, to the back, etc.

It is important to breathe properly as nervousness often causes shortness of breath. Breathing from the diaphragm will support your voice for better projection and resonance. When you inhale, make sure the diaphragm and stomach, not the chest, are expanding.

To learn to breathe correctly, lie on your back with a book on your stomach. Take a deep breath. Your stomach-and diaphragm-should expand, causing the book to rise. When you exhale, the book should fall, too.

Even after practicing and mentally rehearsing your speech, you still will feel somewhat nervous before your presentation. This is normal. You want some adrenalin flowing to help you to speak with energy and enthusiasm, otherwise your presentation could fall flat.

Remember, even if you are nervous, your audience most likely will not notice. Audiences are often unaware of signs that the speaker thinks are embarrassingly obvious. If you walk and speak confidently, the audience will not know that your palms are sweaty, your heart is pounding, or that you forgot so say several sentences you so carefully rehearsed the night before.

In conclusion, take control of your speech preparation and rehearsal by visualising success. Breathe correctly and relax your body to turn your nervousness into positive energy.

Maybe you have heard the expression “butterflies in your stomach”.

Let’s get these butterflies “flying in formation”.

And above all get up and speak at every possible occasion!

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