A few years ago, I had a terrifying experience while diving with sharks in the Maldives. The instructor told me, “You go first. And dive down quickly—the currents are big today.” I felt a pang of anxiety—I was used to going down slowly. Still, I dove in. When my descent ended, I looked around and saw nothing but deep blue around me. Since I had been the first to jump in, I had no reference point—nothing but blue above me, below me, ahead of me, and behind me. I had been diving for decades, but for the first time, I felt an incredible sense of panic. It wasn’t until I looked on my depth gauge that the anxiety subsided a little. By keeping my vision trained on my depth gauge, something familiar to focus on, I was able to stay calm until the other divers entered the water.
Perhaps you feel the same way I felt underwater whenever you speak in front of a crowd. You get a similar feeling of panic, of disorientation. To overcome these feelings, you need to find your own depth gauge to focus on. You need to give your brain something to do other than ruminate over your insecurities.
Here are five strategies to focus on that will alleviate your speaking anxiety:
One of the ways you can overcome your speaking anxiety is by becoming more aware of the warning signs of anxiety so you can intervene early. Think of anxiety as a wave. If you wait too long to react, the wave is going to overtake you. What feelings and physical reactions do you experience when anxiety hits? Do your hands begin to shake? Do you have a sick feeling in your stomach? Does your chest begin to tighten? Tune into your body to explore when the feelings begin. The earlier you notice the anxiety, the more time you have to do something about it.
Another strategy for dealing with speaking anxiety is to stop writing out scripts for your presentations. You might think, “But wait! I need my script so that I don’t forget anything!” However, using a script can actually contribute to feelings of anxiety.
Of course, you need to practice what you’re going to say as much as possible. But don’t become too obsessive about remembering everything word for word. If you do, anxiety will set in the second you forget exactly how you phrased something the week or the night before. What word did I use again? Wait, did I just repeat myself? There’s only one point left, right? And so on. If the only way you can present effectively is by memorizing a script, you’re setting yourself up for an avalanche of anxiety if you forget something. The solution is to find a middle ground between rigidity and completely winging it. Be prepared with a general structure and key points to your presentation, but give yourself room to speak off the cuff too. When you stop obsessing over scripts, you’ll feel freer and less anxious. And don’t be afraid to use technology as a tool in speech prompting!
I once worked with a client who constantly paced whenever he spoke. When I asked him why he paced so much, he told me that the rhythm of pacing calmed him down. While it was good that he found a solution to deal with his speaking anxiety, he found the wrong solution. Yes, he was calm, but his audiences were irritated! It’s hard to focus on what someone is saying if you’re distracted by their constant movement.
Rhythm can indeed be a great way of dealing with speaking anxiety, but instead of pacing, use rhythm in your speaking by using repetition. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself, especially if you’re repeating key messages critical to your presentation. Repetition in speaking is not only okay, it’s necessary to help your audience retain your message. By using rhythm, you’ll get into a flow that will help prevent anxiety from setting in.
One of the best ways you can deal with speaking anxiety is by controlling your breathing. Ignore people who tell you to take a big breath before speaking. Instead, focus on your exhales. By taking small sips of air on inhales and extending your exhales, you will start to calm down. This method of breathing will take practice, but trust me, I’ve seen it make an incredible difference for people who struggle with speaking anxiety.
Finally, if you start to get anxious, reassure yourself that the audience is on your side. I’m reminded of a children’s theater performance of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” I saw a few years ago. At one point, one of the flippers fell off one of the penguins, and you could feel the audience getting worried. Would one of the kids trip over the flipper? Luckily, nothing happened, and the audience breathed a collective sigh of relief. The point here is that the vast majority of people want your presentation to be a success. So if you “lose a flipper,” don’t panic—just pick it up, carry on, and imagine you can hear the audience’s sigh of relief. They are in your corner.
Whether your speaking anxiety comes in the form of occasional jitters or constant dread, don’t let that stop you from communicating your ideas with power and purpose. By using these strategies, you’ll become less anxious and more focused on being your best in every speaking situation.