You feel your gut tighten into a knot. Your head is too full and too foggy to think clearly. Your heart is racing…no, you aren’t about to step into a Nascar vehicle or being chased by a large black bear. You are preppin’ to step on stage.
I have spoken in front of a room full of people hundreds of times. I know this feeling well. You are not alone.
For a long time, this was my physical experience before speaking. And honestly, I still get versions of these sensations to this day. Things have gotten better for me, after hundreds of presentations, but that's just because I see something totally new and different about speaking anxiety.
I want you to see speaking anxiety in a totally new way, too.
The fact is, public speaking is the most powerful way to make a difference for a whole lot of people at once.
You were made for this kind of impact through speaking.
To feel the energy in the room shift in meaningful, positive ways because you got on that stage. To hear the stories of those who took extraordinary action because they were inspired by your speech.
While there's nothing wrong with loving the spotlight, it's the impact and life-changing element of public speaking that makes it so dang worth the time, energy – and maybe that speaking anxiety discomfort, too.
You get on stage because it is a powerful medium for change. (Me, too. I so get this.)
In order to keep getting up on those (virtual or actual) stages, in spite of feelings of speaking anxiety, you want a whole new way to think about and move through the feelings.
That’s what this post is about — to share with you what I've learned over the years around speaking anxiety so you can step up to the stage (however big, small, virtual or in-person) and speak your truth.
Speaking anxiety is completely normal.
At a recent speaking event, before the festivities were officially underway, a woman in the audience asked me: “So, are you nervous at all right now? Because you certainly don't look nervous. I bet you're not nervous at all, are you? I can't even imagine”, she streamed.
Well, I can't even imagine either. I am almost always nervous before I do a public speaking presentation.
The major difference between my anxiety about speaking in the early days of my speaking adventure and now is that I expect the anxiety — and I know what to do with it.
You might be surprised at how many people experience speaking anxiety — at how normal it really is.
In fact, almost everyone gets nervous before they do a public speaking presentation.
Mark Twain — who, it turns out, made most of his income from speaking, not writing — Aristotle, Winston Churchill, Bono of U2 ALL experience fear of public speaking, aka speaking anxiety. (Thanks to Scott Berkun in Confessions of a Public Speaker for the excellent summary of the public speaking anxiety these speakers, and many more, experience.)
Most people that I speak with — and I’ve asked countless people about this — say that they feel either speaking anxiety or at least heightened energy before and throughout every presentation.
I’ve done a lot of research on this topic and there’s a theory that really resonates with me — as human beings, especially early in our evolution, we depended on being accepted as part of a group because we needed each other to survive in the elements, against neighboring enemy tribes or large animals.
This means that when we feel like we are at risk of being ostracized from the group, it actually feels life-threateningly unsafe because being a part of the tribe really was about our survival. (And frankly, being a part of a community of people is still so important to our health and well-being, so the “survival” feeling persists).
Here's a short video on this theory:
Now, let's talk about the actual sensations of “speaking anxiety.”
Here’s what I want to say to you — heightened energy is awesome.
That’s what we want. If you’re on stage — whether you're in front of a group or on video — you need to be bigger than you are one on one with another person. And, that extra energy is adaptive; it actually SERVES your communication.
So if you think of that extra energy in your body as something to channel into your presentation instead of something that gets in the way, it can help you.
Here's what REALLY causes speaking anxiety (and how to move through it):
In this video I share my new (clearer) insight into what really creates our speaking anxiety and why speaking anxiety is so common. If you're open to the revolutionary mindshift I suggest, this can be life changing.
Stay tuned until the end, where I'll share things you can do about the nervous feelings that show up.
Whatever the source of public speaking anxiety, it may still be getting in the way of you sharing your message with confidence and conviction – and we don't want that.
So let's take a look at when these sensations arrive so we can recognize them early enough to release them and do your very best work.
Speaking anxiety often arrives on scene early. It is stealth.
We often think of speaking anxiety as associated with the day of the speech. However, it often steps in the moment you hear you’re about to speak or you come up with the idea to start speaking.
It can subconsciously make us procrastinate and get in the way of crafting a fabulous presentation.
Procrastination often increases our anxiety – and inspires more procrastination.
Not a good situation for preparing an awesome talk.
The less time you have to prepare, the less great it will be, which only makes you more nervous about presenting because you know it’s less than you’re capable of.
We may not even realize that it is sabotaging us from the beginning — from the moment we learn we have a speaking opportunity. It's a mean cycle, really, because early preparation is the very thing that helps us be most successful in our speaking.
Successful speaking experiences are one of the fastest paths to decreased speaking anxiety over time.
If we sabotage ourselves from the beginning, we not only affect this upcoming speaking event — but, also the others that will come after it.
See how this can snowball?
So, it's crucial to recognize, understand and start seeing through those feelings of anxiety as early as you can.
How to address your speaking anxiety
I've heard it said that frequent and even great public speakers often don't completely stop getting butterflies, they simply learn to put those butterflies into formation.
If only butterflies could be trained!
Well, guess what? You can train nervous butterflies some.
Over the years, I've gathered some strategies and tools that have been really helpful for many of my speaking clients – and me, too!
Now, let's look at actions you can take before, during & after your presentation to help you move through speaking anxiety as you step into your greatest service as a speaker and thought leader.
Things to Do BEFORE Your Presentation
You are given the opportunity (or assignment) to speak. Your heart skips a beat and your hands get damp (early “extra energy” arriving on scene). Without even knowing it, this reaction causes you to tuck away this speaking assignment — to “deal with it later.” (Uh-oh, procrastination!)
It's in the back of your mind but every time it comes up again, that discomfort arrives with it, and you decide something else more pressing must get handled. (Is this sounding familiar? If it does, don't feel bad. You are so not alone!)
By the time you get to preparing for this speaking event, the anxiety has grown even more — and you are pressed for time to boot!
Addressing speaking anxiety before your presentation is KEY. Here are the three strategies that often help me move through that initial hit of discomfort:
1. My single most favorite pre-presentation anxiety-reduction strategy is this — I remind myself often that this is not about me AND that these sensations aren't about me either.
It isn't about me being perfect or amazing as a speaker. It's about THEM — my audience. It's about how I can serve them with what I know. From this place of service, my heart opens and my fears fade as I focus on making a difference for them.
They don’t need me to be perfect. In fact, have you ever seen a person who’s a “perfect speaker”? Do you trust them? We often don’t. It’s humanity that we connect with. It’s imperfection that makes us feel at home.
There is no problem here, as these sensations build in my body. They are the most normal thing in the world. They are part of being HUMAN.
Even more important, I didn't create these feelings and they don't MEAN anything about my ability to serve this audience. They are simply a natural part of the process of doing “big things” in the world, like public speaking. (And by the way, “big things” is a made up concept, too – but it still feels super real so don't resist that feeling!)
It’s not about you being perfect, it’s about you serving, with the information you have, that might help or even change the lives of your audience.
This is WAY more important than being a perfect speaker.
2. Make a plan to bring peace to public speaking anxiety and release some of that extra energy in your body before your presentation.
We've established that it is unrealistic to expect to remove all fear of public speaking, so let's not waste time on that. However, we can bring that nervousness down considerably with a few simple tools that have worked well for so many speakers and thought leaders — walking/running, yoga, meditation, preparation, and breathing.
Walking/Running or Yoga: Don't use up all of your energy on a 10-mile run or an intense hour-long yoga session an hour before you present! Remember, we want some of that extra energy for an exciting presentation delivery! However, a short run, fast-paced walk, or relaxing yoga session about an hour or two before your presentation can do wonders for your public speaking anxiety level. (This NY Time article tells why you might want to actually start this regular exercise thing 3-6 weeks before your presentation.)
Meditation: Our minds are powerful, sometimes dangerous, places. Taking a vacation from those taunting thoughts — the ones that have no basis in reality, but still dominate at the least opportune times and tell us we are doomed to failure — is a glorious, peace-generating gift before you present. You don't even have to be into meditation for this to work. Just sit quiet, breathe deeply and gently refuse to grab onto any one thought that might float by in your consciousness. Beware: you may start wanting to do this even when you aren't presenting! It's a brilliant, freedom inspiring way to spend some time.
Preparation: Nothing brings peacefulness to your public speaking presentations like hard core preparation (not even the fabulous stress-reducer, sex). So, research, organize and prepare your heart and soul out. Then, practice at least three times all the way through with an audience. Ask your audience for specific feedback, like “Did you get what I was saying? Did I do anything distracting with my movements or language? Were you inspired to listen throughout? What questions arose for you? What went really well?” (Don't forget this one — you want to know what you should repeat in the real version!) I'm serious — don't nod and move on from this one. Do it. (It also doesn't hurt to, ahem, “do it” the night before as per the article above, incidentally — but, just don't that kind of do it in place of preparation.)
Breathing: While you wait for your turn to speak, take three deep belly breaths, way into your belly and then release every single bit of air. Do less dramatic versions of this anytime your anxiety starts to ramp up — even while you are speaking (no one will suspect a thing!) This is my favorite use-it-anytime anxiety soother.
3. Harness extra energy and channel it into exciting presentation delivery skills.
So, you've followed the advice from Points 1 and 2 and you are feeling better, the anxiety is mellower, but it's not gone. Of course not. Remember — that feeling of heightened energy in your body is normal and you don't want that extra energy to be completely gone! That extra energy is what inspires you to move around more, gesture more emphatically, speak louder and with more vocal variety. Unless you don't channel it into those activities, in which case you might use it to obsessively push your hair away from your eyes, visibly shake as you stand still presenting, or jingle the keys in your pocket the whole time. Let's not let that happen, shall we?
Here are some strategies for channeling your extra speaking anxiety energy before your presentation:
Visit the speaking location at least once before your speaking day and practice at least some of your content while walking from one end of the stage (or open space in the front of the room) to the other. Walk slowly a bit, stop and talk to the crown, travel more that direction, stop and talk to a different section of the (currently empty) audience.
Practice looking out into the audience and imagine speaking to one person at a time. Use your hand to gesture toward them as you refer to something the audience may be thinking or feeling (if this isn't in your content, then it's time to take another look at your content. More on that in a future post.)
Practice like crazy. I know this is already part of Point 2 above, but it's really the best strategy for dealing with public speaking anxiety, hands down. When you know what you are going to present, you are automatically way less nervous. Then, you can concentrate on just connecting with the audience while you are speaking, allowing natural movements and conversational style speaking to show up. This is the kind of delivery that makes audiences feel like they know you, they have a better reference for liking you and the authentic approach inspires trust. People are drawn to people they know, like and trust.
3. Positive Visualization
Did you know that you can actually increase your “experience” with positive public speaking events by simply imagining yourself delivering that fabulous presentation?
Research has indicated that our imagination of a particular event can actually increase our effectiveness at such an event in real-life (here’s one description of such research.) This means that when you actively close your eyes and imagine yourself delivering a brilliant, amazing presentation, you are that much closer to delivering that brilliant presentation in real-life.
We also know (from other smart researchers) that positive visualization significantly decreases speaking anxiety.
Imagine yourself in front of the room, delivering your presentation with confidence and clarity. Feel the satisfaction and thrill of a job beautifully done as though it is real and happening in the moment. You will carry some of this energy into your preparation and your delivery if you do this often enough.
Use positive imagery to put yourself in the right mindset for success.
Now, your butterflies are in formation and you've harnessed your extra energy to create exciting delivery. Will all fear of public speaking be totally removed? Nope, probably not. You'll feel way better, though. And please remember, it is courage that inspires great things in the world — not fearlessness.
3 strategies for easing speaking anxiety DURING your presentations:
As I stood on a San Francisco stage one time, the only light was the one shining directly on me. Faces shadowed in the stadium seats of the theatre, silence screamed at me: “Say it! Say the next line!”
I was petrified, racking my brain for the lines I had prepared so many times. All I could think was, “Oh, Gohd, make me disappear!” I wanted a trap door to open under my feet. Even a big hook from stage left pulling me offstage would have been better.
Ooh those feelings in the moment of fear during speaking can be a wild and burly beast, can't they?
I wish I had known 17 years ago on that stage in San Francisco what I know today about speaking, fear and speaking anxiety.
They would have helped me recover from that moment with more ease. (In case you're curious, I did recover — just barely. And, learned a cool lesson, too. You can see me tell the story here.)
Here's how I advise clients and remind myself to recover during a talk when things go awry. Next time you have the opportunity to speak and anxiety starts to interfere with your ability to be truly brilliant in that speaking, you can call on these immediately.
Here are three strategies:
1. Catch It Early
Possibly the trickiest thing about anxiety is that the very thought of experiencing it can make us anxious. In fact, you might even be feeling a tiny bit of it as you read this (if you do, go read point #2 below and implement immediately!)
It also happens in the middle of speaking. It happens while standing at the front of the room or on the stage and seeing the first “sea of faces” — or when you realize you just told that last story wrong (even though they have no idea how the story was supposed to go anyway).
These are moments when we can catch the anxiety rising early and head it off before it takes us over.
The “catch it early” strategy is only about noticing. It's recognizing in the moment that we are heading toward (but not yet in the spiral of) anxiety. We feel our heartbeat quicken, notice our attention moving away from our message and the audience and into our own heads. The only thing to do in that moment is to notice, stop and implement Point #2 below.
2. Take a Belly Breath
You probably know that our minds are inextricably connected with our bodies. Consciously pulling in a deep belly breath — the kind that makes your belly button push outward — and then releasing all of that air and then some, slows the mind. That process of pulling in breath, distending your belly, releasing the breath deeply, automatically decreases your physical anxiety sensations. Use it anytime you are nervous. It’s amazing.
So, immediately upon noticing signs of increasing anxiety in your body, take a breath slowly into your belly.
You're probably thinking that will look strange to your audience — stopping and breathing. Trust me, it will do a far better job of keeping your audience engaged and feeling peaceful than if you don't do this.
Of course, wait to finish your current sentence. But, only wait that long. Then, take a short pause, a deep belly breath — maybe while walking to the other side of the room or stage — then speak again.
The calm and ease this will bring you is so good. If you aren't familiar with how to take a belly breath (it's quite different than most of us breath normally), here is a video I created last year that shows you how.
This works beautifully in the moment — and it also works way back when you first learn about your speaking opportunity (remember, when you quickly tucked away that assignment because it brought up uncomfortable feelings? That one).
3. Stay Over with Them and Out of You
This strategy is directly related to my speaking mantra I mentioned above — “This is not about me. This is about them and how I can serve them more powerfully.”
Read that aloud (again), will you? This is the truth — and the truth will set you free.
This thing you doing — sharing your message (whether from the stage, as a contributor in class, or in a virtual webinar) — is about service.
You are here to make life better for people with your message. The stage, front of the room or video camera through which that message channels — it's just that, a channel for your service to them.
If you can remember this — that it's all about them — then your “performance” is so much less burdened.
Your need to be perfect doesn't even make sense. Your perfection doesn't inspire change in others, human connection and contribution does. Thoughtful, caring, connected communication does. And, that's what you've got in you, ready to share with them.
Speaking of watching the audience nod their heads, smiling…
There is nothing more effective for decreasing any public speaking anxiety I might be experiencing than feeling genuinely connected with my audience.
When I spend a solid amount of time thinking through what they need, what I can share that will truly make their lives better, I feel awesome getting up on stage and adding that kind of real value for them. Spending that time thinking about them, caring about their lives and needs, and then delivering my speech or training with that approach make me feel really great. It makes me forget that I am “on stage” and allows me to just dive deeply into making a difference in the world.
4. Know that CALM lives in you all the time. You are made of it.
This is the most important thing I can tell you, above all other things in this (ever-growing) guide: You are full of calmness – all the time. It's always there, living at the center of you. Sometimes it's covered by a bunch of thinky-thoughts, sometimes it's weighed down by a whole lot of physical sensations which cause an onslaught of thoughts and feelings… but none of that has anything to do with the beautiful, rich, powerful calm that is living at the center of your being.
It's what you're made of – this calm center.
You may be wondering how this is helpful when it's covered over by all of the other chaos and fear… but it matters the most!
Because when you are reminded that you are calm in the center of your being, even when the upper and outer layers are going a bit haywire, you. know where to look for peace and more ease.
You look toward the calm.
There is nothing you have to DO about the body sensations, the thinky thoughts, even big fear, when you can simply turn your attention to the place in you that is so much bigger, richer and strong than all of that: Your ever-calm center.
Keep looking there. (THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THINK I CAN SAY TO YOU ABOUT SPEAKING ANXIETY)
What to do after your presentation:
I also realized that I have actually discovered the KEY to eliminating “post presentation syndrome” (PPS):
1. Refuse to replay.
Yep — it's that simple. Simply turn your mind's eye away from any replay events related to your “performance.”
I can tell you this with confidence because I learned this after I spoke in front of a group of just over 100 women at a women entrepreneur's event.
The presentation went beautifully — I had so much fun (a really good indicator that it's going great), the audience was engaged with head-nodding, questions and laughter. I had a line of people who wanted to further the conversation with me afterward. See — this is good fun!
Afterwards, I started walking down the PPS road.
Uh-oh, I don't remember actually reading the quote out loud that I had on that Facebook Page slide…
Then, somehow I stopped myself. I reminded myself that I had a GREAT time, the feedback was positive and engaged, and this nit-picking detail isn't going to help me. Certainly not right now, in the PPS danger zone period (at least 24 hours, maybe 48 hours after the event, I'm guessing.)
So, that's my number one tip if you have a tendency toward PPS:
Refuse to replay the event for at least 24 hours — preferably 48 hours — after the event.
Anytime visions of the event visit your mind's TV screen, gently set them aside — even if they appear to be fun memories at first. Sometimes this leads you from happy memories to worried ones. Just don't go there yet. You can most definitely revisit all the good feelings after your PPS danger period has passed.
Here is one more thing that I have found to help eliminate PPS:
2. Get busy maximizing the outcome of the event.
Speaking is an extraordinary business building opportunity. It dramatically increases your expert-status, it allows you to connect with a whole room full of people and it increases your confidence (if you prepared well — which of course you did!).
If you had conversations with people after your talk, connect with them via email the next day to share a thought you had since or to give them a resource you promised. This is good business, of course, but it also distracts you from PPS.
Podcast episodes on Speaking Anxiety:
It's no surprise that I discuss the topic of speaking anxiety a lot! You are NOT alone in struggling with it.
To delve deeper into overcoming your speaking anxiety, you'll definitely want to listen to the following podcasts:
- Ep #26: Why “Failing” on Stage Isn't That Big of a Deal — This episode is all about what to do if you mess up on stage. I share some of my own gaffes, some mistakes of my clients, and even some famous mess-ups. I talk about how you can get back on track if you get off-topic and how you can ensure that you’re the best steward possible for your audience’s experience. A mistake can be a learning moment – you just have to have the right tools to make it one.
- Ep #50: Full Freedom Speaking —In this episode, I talk about how I overcame doubt, fear, and self-loathing to step into my desire to be a speaker, how to get quiet and in touch with your inner calling to serve through speaking, and more.
- Ep #83: What's Bigger Than Anxiety — If you’ve ever experienced an anxiety or panic attack, the title of this episode might sound impossible to you. It’s an overpowering, all-encompassing feeling. And, yet…there really IS something so much bigger than anxiety. And when you make this connection in your own heart and soul, you’ll never worry about anxiety in the same way again.
- Ep #76: How I Deal with Speaking Anxiety— Hear my personal story of how I got started as a speaking coach and learn the four things I do to help release speaking anxiety.
- Ep #94: Deliver Your Virtual Presentation with Confidence — In this episode, I’ll be covering several aspects of virtual presenting, including many functional aspects, so you can rise above those fearful and anxious thoughts so you can deliver a confident virtual presentation with a feeling of complete freedom.
- Ep #108: How to Be Less Afraid of Virtual Speaking — Virtual speaking can cause more anxiety than in-person speaking for some people. In this episode, I share a whole new way of seeing virtual speaking so you can tap into the greatest freedom of expression in this powerful medium.
Here's a list of all kinds of great strategies for decreasing public speaking anxiety:
Click here to download the list >>> Strategies for Decreasing Public Speaking Anxiety. There's no opt-in required — just let me know which are your favorites!
But just remember – you don't actually need a bunch of strategies because there is nothing wrong with speaking anxiety. It's the most normal sensation in the world! And besides – you can handle any feeling. You were made for this, my friend.
Now…go forth and change the World with your beautiful voice, stories and lessons learned!
I hope you found this guide helpful. Will you let me know what you think and what stood out to you? I'd LOVE to hear!