What do Winston Churchill, Warren Buffet and John F. Kennedy have in common? Sure, all three achieved extraordinary success – but all three also suffered from a fear of public speaking. And each one overcame their fears and went on to become gifted speakers.
The reality is that everyone gets a rush of adrenaline before presenting – it’s the normal “fight or flight” response. The key is to choose fight instead of flight, powering through and effectively utilizing your uneasiness. At Princeton Public Speaking, we coach clients to use numerous techniques to do this. Here are five of the most surprising things you can do to quell your fears:
1. Listen to music. If you’ve ever watched a boxing or MMA competition, or went to an NFL or NBA pre-game show, you probably saw world class athletes entering the locker room listening to music, getting in the zone, eliminating distraction and chasing away anxiety and negative thoughts. This technique works well for public speaking, too. In fact, an iPod can be a presenter’s best friend. Before a speech, create a pre-presentation playlist. Pick your favorite uplifting music. You can even choose a power song – think Rocky and Gonna Fly Now.
2. Do crunches. It’s been suggested that constricting the abdominal wall may limit the production of epinephrine, a hormone associated with the fight or flight response. I can say from first hand experience it works for me. Try it by doing a round of sit-ups or crunches before giving a speech. If lying down isn’t an option where you are, you can still utilize this approach by “crunching” and releasing the abdominal muscles while standing. In addition to calming your nerves, it builds your six-pack abs!
3. Visualize yourself giving a great speech. It took Australian golfer Jason Day five sudden-death holes to win the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February. When asked what led to his victory, he said he’d visualized himself holding the trophy. While it sounds unusual, picturing the outcome you desire works. Professional boxers visualize an opponent while shadow boxing, and quite literally spar with that image. Elite athletes, musicians, actors and dancers regularly utilize visualization. Before you step up to the podium, close your eyes and picture yourself giving a great speech – maybe even imagine a standing ovation.
4. Shake out your nerves. A few minutes before taking the stage, waggle your jaw by moving it from side to side. Bend forward, dangle your arms and give them a shake. Or wiggle your hands over your head. Focused movements warm the body, relax the mind and calm your nerves. You can also utilize simple stretches. I know a CEO who does 20 pushups prior to every earnings call. And as a former amateur boxer, nothing prepares me better than light shadow boxing a few minutes before I speak.
5. Do some mental gymnastics. One of my favorite techniques to break the tension that rises before giving a presentation is to pick a random number – 1,795, for example – and start counting backwards by another random number, such as by 5s, 11s or 15s. It’s not easy and it interrupts your thoughts, essentially putting a plateau on your building anxiety. Not a math wizard? Mentally recite the alphabet backwards, recall all seven of Snow White’s dwarfs or name 20 people in your high school class. Anything that takes concentration will disrupt your thought process and take the focus off of your anxiety.
What’s your favorite way to calm pre-presentation jitters? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so share your comments below.