Got Public Speaking Anxiety? Of Course You Do – And That’s Okay

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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 always nervous before I do a public speaking presentation.

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 – they all experience fear of public speaking, aka speech anxiety. (Thanks to Scott Berkun in Confessions of a Public Speaker, page 16, for the excellent summary of the public speaking anxiety these speakers, and many more, experience.)

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.

As Edward R. Murrow so quotably said, “The best speakers know enough to be scared… the only difference between the pros and the novices is that the pros have learned to train the butterflies to fly in formation.”

If only butterflies could be trained. Oh, damn, I guess they can be trained a little. Maybe that's the point: yes, you can train nervous butterflies some – and yet you can't totally control fear of public speaking. The best you can do is employ some really powerful strategies for: 1. bringing peace to your nervousness and, 2. harnessing that extra energy into some exciting presentation delivery skills.

Let's take 'em one at a time:

1. Bringing peace to public speaking anxiety

We've established that it is unrealistic to expect to remove entirely any 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: breathing, walking/running, meditation, and preparation.

Breathing: Take three deep belly breaths, way into your belly and then releasing every single bit of air, while you wait for your turn to speak. 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.

Walking/Running: Don't use up all of your energy on a 10-mile run an hour before you present! Remember, we want some of that extra energy for an exciting presentation delivery. However, a good 2-mile run (if you are a regular runner) or a fast-paced walk 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, dangerous places. A vacation from those taunting thoughts – the ones that have no basis in reality but still dominate at the least opportune times, telling us we are doomed to failure – is a glorious, peace-generating gift right before you present. You don't even have to be into meditation for this to work. Just sit quiet, breathe deeply (see the first description) 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.)

2. Harnessing Extra Energy & Channeling it into Exciting Presentation Delivery Skills

So, you've followed a bunch of advice from point one and you are feeling better, the anxiety is mellower. But it's not gone. Of course not. And guess what? You don't want the public speaking anxiety 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 energy:

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 number one 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.

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.

Go forth and Change the World, my friend, with Courage as the driver.

Now tell me… how do you want to Change the World?
Thank you, KimRose, for the butterfly on the nose picture. It was perfectly freaky and cool for this post.