The Fear of Public Speaking: 25 Tips to Calm Your Nerves
1. Prepare: The more you prepare and the better handle you have on the material you are presenting, the better it will go.
2. Practice: Once you have prepared, you MUST practice, early and often. Rumor has it that Churchill practiced for one hour per one minute of speech content he was delivering. 5 minute presentation = 5 hours practice. How long are you practicing?
3. Check out the Room: Familiarity breeds comfort. Surprises the day of a presentation are not fun and ratchet up anxiety tenfold. Is there a podium? What technology are you using and does it work?
4. Read the Room: While not always an option, when you have the opportunity to meet a few audience members beforehand, take it! Arrive ten minutes early and introduce yourself to a few people. If you are presenting mid-day, arrive before a key break to meet a few folks.
5. “Seed” the Audience: Ask friends, associates or colleagues come to your presentation. Talk to the conference organizers when you arrive. Locate them before you take the stage, if possible. Identify where friendly faces are sitting. The purpose – to have friendly faces to focus on if the anxiety starts to build.
6. Remember the audience is on your side: 9 times out of 10, the audience is rooting for you to succeed, not waiting for you to fall flat.
7. Breathing: My three favorite breathing techniques – 3 Deep Belly Breathes, Ujjaiy breathing, and the Alternate Nostril technique – these techniques are explained in further detail at the end
8. Listen to Music: Watch a boxing or MMA competition or an NFL or NBA pre-game show and you will see world class athletes entering the locker room listening to music, getting in the zone, eliminating distraction and chasing away anxiety and negative thoughts. It works prior to public speaking as well; an iPod can be a presenter’s best friend.
9. Visualization: It works. Professional boxers, when shadow boxing, do not throw random punches — they are visualizing an opponent and quite literally sparring with that visualization. Ballplayers do the same thing before approaching the plate. Elite athletes, musicians, actors and dancers utilize visualization regularly — Todd Hargrove has an excellent article on visualization in athletics here. Visualization, if done properly, works for speakers and presenters as well.
10. Body Movement: A few minutes before “taking the stage” – “Waggle” (lateral movement) your jaw; bend forward and dangle your arms and let them shake; shake your hands over your head; utilize simple stretches and isometric stretches (more on that later) — all of these movements, when incorporated with proper breathing, warm the body, relax the mind and calm your nerves.
11. Body Movement, Pt. II: As a former amateur boxer, nothing prepares me to speak better than light shadow boxing a few minutes before I have to speak. I know a CEO who (literally) does 20 pushups prior to every earnings call. Focused movement helps even more than just generic movement because it tends to take your thought process in a different direction.
12. Do Sit-Ups: There is a school of thought that suggest that constricting the abdominal wall prevents the production of epinephrine, a hormone associated with fight or flight response. The most effective way to utilize this approach prior to speaking is to “crunch” and release the abdominal muscles while standing (lying down and doing sit ups is probably not optimal!)
13. Put the Pressure Elsewhere: The more interactive your presentation, the less pressure you will feel, as the presentation becomes a true conversation, and most people are much more comfortable in a conversation than delivering a presentation.
14. Caffeine Free: I always avoid copious amounts of caffeine (due to the epinephrine effect), and salty foods (to avoid drying out my mouth) on presentation day. I also tend to eat lighter on performance day as this keeps me sharp and “light.”
15. Utilize Props: A properly placed water bottle and well-timed break in the presentation to take a sip not only gives the presenter a break for a few seconds, it draws attention back to the presenter, and can be effective to “reset” the audience.
16. Work on your Open: The first minute of the presentation is usually when your tension will peak; having a well prepared, effective, engaging open will lessen anxiety dramatically. You can find some ideas on how to open effectively here.
17. The Restroom: Don’t laugh, on presentation day the restroom is your ally. Ten or fifteen minutes before presenting, head into the restroom to allow yourself the opportunity to breathe, listen to a last minute song or inspirational music, close your eyes and get into your zone. If called upon to do a last minute presentation, you will always be able to steal five minutes in the restroom – use it to pull yourself, and your thoughts, together.
18. Anxiety…Interrupted: When the anxiety is building and you are less than five minutes from taking the stage, your heart is starting to pound, heat is building and you keep telling yourself to calm down my favorite technique is to pick a random number – 1,795 and start counting backwards….by another random number – 7s, 9s, 11s, etc. It is not easy and allows for thought interruption, essentially plateauing the building anxiety
19. Anxiety…Distracted: Maybe you are a math wizard, or the number technique is not effective for you. Start reciting the alphabet backward (mentally). Again, more thought process disruption.
20. Remember the reality: I have worked with thousands of speakers over the years and have to come to the conclusion that you are always more nervous than you appear.
21. Remember the reality, Pt. II: In most cases, your presentation is infinitely more important to you than to your audience members – it is your job to peak their collective interest. The reality is that 99.9999…% of the time, the nightmare scenarios you envision will not come true.
22. Breathing Exercise # 1: Three Deep Belly Breaths – Sounds like what it is. Slowly inhale through the nose for a count of 5-15 (15 is optimal). Keep one hand on your diaphragm and feel it enlarge as you inhale. Hold for 5-10 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth slowly, again for a count of 5-15 seconds (15 is optimal). Repeat three times. This is awesome to do for the few minutes before you are actually going to be speaking.
23. Breathing Exercise #2: Ujjaiy Breathing – Also known as Oceanic or Victorious Breathing – it is remarkable. It is a yogic breathing technique I first learned from struggling through Vinyasa yoga classes. Similar to deep belly breathing, however this time the mouth stays closed the entire time.
24. Breathing Exercise #3: Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique (my favorite) – All you need for this is your thumb, your pinkie finger, and your nose. To begin, simply cover your left nostril with your left thumb, and slowly and deeply inhale for 5 seconds to start (10 is optimal). Then immediately cover your right nostril with your left pinkie finger, while keeping your left nostril pressed closed – at all times your mouth is closed as well, so at this point you are essentially holding your breathe. Again, hold for 5 seconds (10 is optimal). Then remove your left thumb from your left nostril and slowly exhale for a 10 count. Wait two seconds and repeat the same technique, inhaling through your left nostril as your right nostril is still closed, etc.
25. Use Notes: Memorization + anxiety = poor performance. An index card with key bullet points, just to keep you on track, will help free your mind to stay in the moment, rather than allowing the pressure to remember to add to the anxiety you are already feeling on presentation day.
There are other effective tactics and strategies including taking advantage of great programs that allow you to practice presenting in front of likeminded professionals (Toastmasters), seeking professional help to develop individual techniques to deal with a specific anxiety or aspect of presenting and in extreme cases seeking the expertise of a therapist.
One last technique is one I frequently suggest to people who have had a traumatic public speaking experience in the past, and the technique is scaling. After a traumatic experience your memory tends to exaggerate how poorly the event went, and the more time that goes by without that thought pattern being interrupted, the “bigger” the event feels, and the more anxious you feel prior to the next presentation. In this case it is critical to break this pattern, and that is done through scaling – finding low stakes…..
The next time you are about to present, do yourself a favor and take a deep breath. Picture Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln. Two of the greatest orators ever, both suffering from a fear of public speaking. Think about major Hollywood actors and actresses, many of who also suffer from glossophobia. You are not alone, and I can promise that if you institute much of what you just read, your next presentation will be better.