Public speaking has been identified as most people's number one fear, more terrifying even than death! Yet we actually do it all the time: when you order in a restaurant, when you make a toast at dinner, when you call to your children across a crowded playground, you are raising your voice in public to serve a particular goal. For each of these tasks you use the same vocal cords, respiratory system, and diaphragm muscle that you need for public speaking on a much larger scale.
The main difference between performing the daily tasks listed above and giving a prepared speech is the presence of a dedicated audience. While it's true that the waiter who takes your order is listening intently, his/her job (for which they are paid) is to serve your food needs, not take stock of your presence, digest the meaning and tone of your words, and ponder them in a way that applies to the topic at hand. A listening audience has the right to feel anything they want to about our presentation. The way we deliver our talk can win them over completely, or turn them off forever. This is enough to make most of us start to shake.
So where does nervousness come from? It's both a physical and emotional phenomenon. Any kind of perceived threat to our safety can trigger the "fight-or-flight" response, whereby the body starts to flood the body with adrenaline. This powerful hormone is designed to sharpen our senses, ramp blood flow to major muscle groups, and get us ready for a literal fight. Our breath can feel like panting as our heartbeat speeds up. We might start to feel hostile, hyper, or out-of-control shaky, anticipating whatever is coming at us next. Needless to say this is NOT the ideal state from which to deliver a public talk!
The scientifically-proven antidote to the fight-or-flight response, and one that applies particularly to public speaking, is simply to slow down and breathe deeply. This is one of the reasons why I encourage my clients to meditate daily, so that they can get good at calming themselves. It takes awhile to learn how to slow down our breath when we feel nervous. Like everything else in life, when we practice enough we start to see results. Eventually we become so good at it that we can start channeling the extra energy that comes with nervousness into excitement that helps us give our very best. Ever wondered how your favorite singer manages to put on great shows, night after night? Turning nerves into energy is their secret, and it all starts with the breath.
When I'm coaching a client's talk I'm also reminding them to breathe deeply (through the mouth) each time the opportunity arises. This is most often at the end of a sentence, but sometimes it's necessary after a comma, so that we have enough breath to finish a sentence, and also so that the listening audience can keep up with what we're saying. In order for our voice to ring out confidently we must have full breath support, which is yet another reason to slow down and breathe deeply before you begin.
Once we begin to feel the calming effects of deep breathing, we can start to address the emotional side of our task. What is our big fear all about? Most of my clients tell me that they think of public speaking as standing before a firing line; if they get one word or sentence wrong, or if they don't dazzle enough, or if they fail to make an impression they will be (metaphorically) shot. This paradigm gives far too much power to the audience.
The truth is that when we give a public talk, we are in actually participating in a group activity. Each person has a part to play, and a way of playing it. Some audience members will indeed be highly judgmental and seek out all our flaws. Some will be merely polite, and some will be indifferent. Some of them will be genuinely interested, and we'll feel their kind attention on us as we speak. The point is that an audience is made up of fellow human beings, just like us, who are doing the best they can, just as we are. The audience has assembled to receive the information that we are delivering. Feel their eyes on you? They are receiving you, not judging you. Visualize yourself giving your talk to a kind, attentive, and grateful audience. Breathe deeply, do your very best, and remember that we are all human. If you would like to book a private coaching session, contact me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
REMINDER: the next "Public Speaking Bootcamp for Women" is Tuesday January 30th from 5-7pm in downtown Seattle. Contact me directly to register: email@example.com