Speaker Anxiety

Do you ever feel like the man in the picture?  You’re not alone.  In the U.S., the most feared situations are: public speaking, death, bee stings, snakes, heights, and in that order.  Can you believe public speaking outranks death? So Jerry Seinfeld was right when he said “most people would rather be in the coffin than delivering their own euology.”

Over eight years teaching public speaking in the college classroom, I think I’ve seen almost every display of speaker anxiety known to man.  An overly confident sorority girl in one of my classes literally crouched down behind the podium into the fetal position when it was her turn to give a speech.  When I went to check on her to ask what she was doing, she said, “I just had to hide from all of them.” Another student from a different class ran out of the room crying and refused to come back.  And yet another one had a full-fledged panic attack in front of the class.  Now you might think I’m a tyrant in the classroom, but I actually think of myself as a pleasant and friendly teacher.  The fact is, that even in the most supportive environments you will most likely experience some kind of speaker anxiety. I have been teaching public speaking for years and speak to 100s of people at conferences and I still experience a bit of speaker anxiety.  My heart rate increases, I sweat profusely, and get butterflies in my stomach.  It is a normal reaction!  Your response to speaker anxiety may not be as extreme as my students’ stories, but you can still benefit from learning a few tips and tricks to manage your own anxiety and actually use it in your favor.

  • Embrace your nervousness as “excitement” to give to your speech.  Those people who have little to no anxiety tend to give very flat and boring speeches.  Your nervousness will transfer energy from you into your audience members and make the experience much more enjoyable for everyone.
  • Practice your speech.  Not only once or twice, do it as many times as it takes for you to feel comfortable with the material.  The more you feel like you know it, the more confidence you will have and the less anxiety you will experience.
  • When you are waiting to be called to go up to the podium, practice deep breathing techniques.  I didn’t really believe this worked until a colleague of mine forced me to try it right before my dissertation defense.  I was on the verge of a meltdown and she walked me through the steps.  Take a deep breath in from the diaphragm; blow out slowly (I usually count to 7) and then slowly breath back in counting to 7.  If you haven’t tried this try it!  I promise you will be a firm believer in breathing techniques.
  • Muscle relaxation can also decrease anxiety.  I like to clench one of my fists under the table and then slowly release the pressure.  You can also do this with a leg muscle (of your choosing) if you would like to be more incognito.  Hold the tensed muscle for about 30 seconds and then release.
  • No 1 speaker anxiety myth:  Imagine your audience naked.  Now really, that will not do anything but distract you from the message of your speech.  Focus on the words you are saying and the feedback cues (head nods, etc) you are getting from your audience members.  As you see their positive responses to your talk you are going to become more comfortable and relax.  Remember to focus on your audience and nothing else.  Try not to stare at your notes, powerpoint, or the floor.  You will only increase your anxiety and the audience will be bored in 5 minutes flat.
  • Don’t apologize!  It is completely normal to have speaker anxiety and display it in a number of ways.  Your audience will be more than willing to overlook it because they can empathize with your anxiety.

Use these tips to help manage your speaker anxiety and you will have your audience eating out of the palm of your hand, figuratively of course ;)

Happy Speaking!