It still surprises me when I see a list of the Top Ten Fears in the World and notice “Public Speaking” topping the list. Number One! Over the fear of snakes, heights, spiders… even over the fear of death is the Fear of Public Speaking! Once I asked a friend to explain this phenomenon and she responded, “Well, at least when you’re dead, it’s OVER. But when you speak, it goes on and on and then afterwards there’s Q&A and if you’re good, they invite you back. It never ends!”
When I started consulting with speakers who were flat out terrified (my favorite kind of students), they shared that the only advice they had been given for managing nerves was “just realize that everyone’s nervous,” or “imagine the audience naked” or (my personal favorite) “just be confident!”
I’m a practical “get it done” person, so I reached out to individuals and groups that deal with high stakes/traumatic situations every day. Professional actors. The Military. Commercial airplane pilots. I looked at what these folks do in order to perform expertly, every time, without letting anxiety block their effectiveness. All three groups simulate the exact environment (or close to it) in which they’ll be performing. They rehearse. They participate in bootcamp. They climb into flight simulators. In addition to sharing tried and true relaxation skills from the theatre, one of the best ways I teach students to feel relaxed and confident in front of an audience is to simulate their presentation experience before the big day. In other words, rehearse your presentation in the room where you’ll be presenting. Wear the clothes you plan to wear. Bring a friend with you who can be your audience. Experience the sound of your voice in the space. Are there glass walls or mirrors that could distract you? Notice that audiences cough, text, and unwrap candy from plastic wrappers. They get up to leave for the bathroom. A lot. Experience all of this before your presentation so none of this will distract you. So many students give excuses for why they didn’t rehearse before their big day: “The room was locked,” or “I was still writing my speech that morning” or “I rehearsed in the shower and in the car on the way over to the presentation, so I didn’t need to do it again.”
Hmm. Sounds like a Top Ten Fear is talking!
Can you imagine attending a Broadway show where none of the actors had ever rehearsed their script? Suppose a military recruitment officer signed up soldiers at a mall one day and sent them into battle the next day with no time to experience what war might look like, sound like and feel like. What about being a passenger on a flight where your pilot had no experience flying through a storm or handling a flock of birds crashing into the wind shield?
Top Tip for Handling Speaking Anxiety: Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!