Public Speaking Anxiety: Actions You Can Take

Jerry Seinfeld is known to have said, “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth in that joke. For many of us, anticipating a speaking event causes us anxiety but it dissipates once we get started. For very nervous speakers – those with extreme performance anxiety -- the effect is magnified. Even thinking about getting up in front of people brings on some physical changes: shallow breathing, heart racing, inability to concentrate, etc. These are all normal reactions to danger, but nervous speakers can experience them when it’s not a life-or-death situation. Once those “fight or flight” reactions kick in, it’s hard to stop them. So it’s a good idea to start calming yourself down before the anxiety reaches a peak. Here are 6 actions to take:

1. Breathe
Practice deep breathing techniques, such a “belly breathing.” Inhale slowly, filling your belly with air. When you exhale, push the air out, flattening your belly. Try to keep your shoulders and ribs still and just fill your belly with air like you would fill a balloon. Inhale slowly for 5 counts and exhale slowly for 5 counts. Practice this several times a day. Then it will be easier to do when you need it most: when thinking about your upcoming speaking event, and while waiting to go on.

2. Meditate
Take a few minutes to close your eyes and focus on your breath, allowing yourself to let go of thoughts and worries. If thoughts come into your head just label them “thinking” and bring your attention back to your breath. Practice this daily, and use it the morning of your presentation. If possible, take a few moments before your meeting to meditate in your office to calm your mind and body down.

3. Prepare
When you’ve prepared thoroughly it’s a lot easier to use the cognitive tools to calm yourself down. Sure, something unexpected could arise, but when you know your stuff and have organized how you are going to relay the information, you can realistically say you’ve done well. Then, after you practice (see # 4), you can let go, do your best job, and trust that you’ll be okay.

4. Practice
Practicing helps to take the bite out of anticipatory nervousness. Practice out loud – and while you do, picture the room, the people, and the visuals if you have them. Then you won’t be thrown off the day of when suddenly you hear your own voice, see people staring back at you, and encounter a screen with stuff you’re supposed to speak to.

5. Move
Get some exercise the day of your presentation. Go to the gym in the morning, take a walk, do some stretches. Not only will you energize yourself physically, grounding yourself in your body can help you focus…and breathe.

6. Stay present
Staying grounded in your bodily sensations and what’s going on around you can free you to focus on what you’re saying, rather than on what you think they’re thinking about you, or how you’re surely going to “mess up.” Feel your feet on the floor…the air coming into your belly. Look at the audience members and be attuned to their vibe. Look for and take in the support some of your listeners will surely be sending your way. Connect with them rather than shutting them out.

Try these strategies and you should feel better in your skin and less nervous. Even if you’re not a nervous speaker, making these strategies part of your presentation prep routine can bring out in you a calm energy that is compelling.

Author: Kayla Schwartz, LMSW, Clinical Associate