Speaking in front of other people — even a small group — can be nerve-wracking. You feel anxious, terrified that you’ll make a fool of yourself. While the butterflies may never go away completely, there are still some things you can do to help clear your head before your big moment.
Start with the Right Perspective
First of all, it’s important that you know there’s nothing wrong with you if you feel stressed. Public speaking anxiety is incredibly common, so remember that you’re not alone. Mark Twain once said “There are two types of speakers: Those who get nervous and those who are liars.” It’s the truth. Even the most experienced public speakers and performers get a little anxious right before they do their thing. To get a little personal: I once performed shows six nights a week for houses of 1100+ people, and I got a little nervous every single time. Over time it gets easier, but it never goes away completely.
So ask yourself: What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen? Chances are people are not going to boo you, laugh at you or walk out because you make a few mistakes. Stop banging your head against the wall and focus on doing the best you can. Whether you’re giving a presentation, giving a speech or performing, you need to manage your expectations of the experience and what you’re capable of. Preston Ni at Psychology Today explains that it’s especially important that you don’t expect perfection from yourself:
We magnify our imperfections, while ignoring all that’s good and well. The truth is, even the best, most experienced speakers make many mistakes. When they do, they recover, keep going gracefully, and all is well. This is one of the keys to public speaking success: to keep going gracefully. The audience will never know most of your mistakes, unless you halt your speech, break down, and confess them. Carry on with poise. Give yourself permission not to be perfect.
If you go in knowing that you’ll have a few flubs, your perception of public speaking can change dramatically. Accept your future mistakes as quirks or nuance and take them in stride. The more you stress about your capabilities, the more it compounds with the normal stress of speaking in front of others that you already have. Remember, you’re only human and so are all the people you’re speaking to.
Practise Where You’ll Speak
A lot of the stress and fear comes from the unknown. You don’t know what’s going to happen, maybe you don’t know who is going to be there, and you may not be familiar with the space. You can reduce that fear factor some by eliminating as many unknowns as you can. Performance coach Edwin Rice at Noomii suggests spending some time in the space before other people get there if possible:
Knowing the quirks of a room and it’s layout will help without being thrown on the day of the actual performance. You will be able to plan out where you will stand and move during your presentation and how to deal with getting around various obstacles like long rows of office chairs. It’s similar to the psychological effect of a sports team having the homefield advantage. Especially in baseball, the team is used to the grass and layout of their field, the position of the bleachers on the sidelines, and even the height of the outfield walls.
Think about it: sports teams warm up on the field, musicians have sound check on the stage, and performers rehearse in the space they perform in. Explore the space if you have the chance. It will give you a chance to go over your material and you’ll feel a lot more comfortable eliminating an unknown.
Stay Hydrated, Exercise and Remember to Use the Restroom
There are a few things that you should do during the day that can help decrease your stress. First, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water. Dehydration can make you feel tired and it can make your mouth, throat and lips dry — all bad things when you’re trying to speak in front of people. Suddenly you can’t think of your talking points because you’re distracted by the fact that your mouth feels like a desert. Then you’re not only stressed about how you’ll be received, but you’re also stressed about whether you can even get the words out.
It’s also helpful to exercise. If you have time earlier in the day, a good workout can help you reduce overall stress for the rest of the day. You’ll get those endorphins pumping and it will keep you out of your own head. If you don’t have time to do a workout earlier, a few minutes of some vigorous exercise beforehand can help too. Some push-ups, jumping jacks, or planks will do the trick. Just make sure you don’t start sweating too much or wear yourself out. You don’t want to stress about that too.
This should go without saying, and it seems silly to say, but 10 to 15 minutes before your engagement, try to use the restroom. You may not think you need to go, but there’s a good chance you’re so stressed that you’ve been ignoring your body’s signals. You don’t want to be worried about having to go mid-speech or suddenly getting the urge 30 seconds before you walk out on stage.
Take Deep Breaths and Visualise a Simple Object
There’s a reason so many people say to take a deep breath and relax: it works. Taking slow, deep breaths helps lower your heart rate and change your mindset from “fight or flight” mode to “everything’s chill” mode. Of course, it’s easier said than done, so Gary Genard suggests visualising a simple object at the same time to help your focus:
…focus on a visual image you can see in your mind. Make that image a coloured shape – a green circle, a yellow square, a blue triangle. Choose any object that doesn’t have emotional overtones (whatever you do, don’t pick red; red is a real rage and anxiety colour – just ask a matador). See that object in as close to crystal clarity as you can. This will take concentration and you’ll need to practice to perfect it. Other thoughts, images, and feelings will emerge; notice them and let them go. Keep a gentle, persistent focus on your image.
Stay focused on the image and make your breaths slower and deeper as you go. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly, and breathe in through the nose. Try and expand your diaphragm and not your chest so your lungs can expand and take in as much air as possible. Your body and mind will respond positively, and your anxiety level will lower a little.
Warm Up Your Body and Voice
When you’re giving a speech, your voice becomes an instrument. If you’re afraid of your body betraying you somehow, simple warm up exercises can help alleviate your concern. Just like an instrument, your voice needs to be properly tuned before you can start rocking the mic. Start with warming up your voice. Practice enunciation with tongue-twisters and other similar exercises to get your tongue, lips and jaw ready to go. Breathing exercises designed to help your voice projection are helpful too. The more ready you feel, the less stressed you’ll feel.
It’s important you know your material well, but don’t go over the entire thing over and over. You want to sound natural, and sometimes going over your entire speech can stress you out more. Instead, focus on practising the beginning and end. Messing up right in the beginning will throw you off and it might snowball your stress into an anxiety nightmare. If you’ve rehearsed enough and know all of your talking points, muscle and mental memory will kick in once you get started and you’ll hit your flow. Practicing the end ensures that you will not only start off strong, but also know the direction your speech is heading.
Lastly, you want to start getting your body warmed up and used to standing. Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, recommends standing up at least five minutes before you’re supposed to go on:
The sitting position is motionless, passive, and inactive. By standing, you summon energy ahead of time, give your body a chance to warm up, and place yourself in a posture ready for action.
By standing, you get your blood flowing and the body comfortable in the position it will be in for a while. From here, you can also do some stretches to help you loosen up a little.
The most effective advice I can personally recommend is to get a little silly. This can mean different things for different people, but the general idea is to act in a way you normally wouldn’t before you go out in front of people. For me, this means making funny faces, singing a song in an obnoxious voice, or dancing around like an imbecile. I do this because it helps me remind myself that I’m in control of how embarrassed or scared I feel.
If I can be ridiculous and feel comfortable with myself, than I have to feel comfortable with myself as a perfectly normal human being in front of other people. So get all of your weird out any way you can and remind yourself that all you’re doing out in front of your audience is talking. They don’t know what you did to warm up and they have no idea you danced your butt off backstage; they just see a person sharing information.
If my method for getting weird isn’t for you, there are lots of other things you can do. In the video above, YouTuber Impromptu Guru recommends you “do the penguin”. Scrunch your shoulders up to your neck as tight as you can with your arms to your side, then waddle around like a penguin. This helps release some tension in some stress-filled trouble spots and it’s a great way to get weird. You might feel a little silly, but feeling silly for a little bit makes feeling normal a whole lot easier.
If you need a quick fix right before you head out in front of people, Patricia Fripp at the Advanced Public Speaking Institute recommends you get your Taylor Swift on and shake it off:
…stand on one leg and shake the other. When you put your foot back on the ground, it’s going to feel lighter than the other one. Now, switch legs and shake. You want your energy to go through the floor and out of your head. This sounds quite cosmic; it isn’t. It’s a practical technique used by actors. Shake your hands…fast. Hold them above your head, bending at the wrist and elbow and then bring your hands back down. This will make your hand movements more natural.
Find some way to move around and remind yourself that everyone is weird — including the people watching you. It’s an aspect of our humanity that we forget as we approach the podium, and instead we perceive ourselves speaking to perfect individuals that will criticise our every move. It’s one of the reasons that picturing your audience naked is one of the most classic of tips. It makes them vulnerable, not you. However you choose to get weird — dancing around, power poses, or silly exercises — really give into it and you’ll feel a lot less stressed. You’ll feel comfortable and ready to just be you.
Public speaking isn’t easy, so don’t fret if it takes some time to get used to it. It can be scary, but if you can get better at it, you’ll find that it’s worth it. Don’t put yourself down, know your material front and back, and you’ll be wowing audiences in no time.