By Ryan Foley
The first time I had to speak in front of an audience of more than 2,000 people couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. I was 15 years old and couldn’t speak more than five sentences without my voice cracking, slicing random words into high-pitched screeches that would have given a howler monkey chills.
My knees were shaking from the start. Three minutes of my speech had passed without incident when it happened. Then a horrible screech echoed through the sound system, followed by a heavy silence. I stood there, teeth clenched, afraid that my voice would betray me again. My face was hot, my heart was racing, and the audience was waiting, staring. All those eyes!
“Come on, Foley!” the voice in my head said, “Focus on your points.”
Two minutes later it happened again!
“We’re almost there, Foley. Clear your throat and keep going.”
I kept going, delivering my short presentation as best as I could without fear of sounding any worse than I already had. All I could do at that point was to concentrate on what I was saying, not how I was saying it.
I’m sure that none of the 2,000-strong audience remembers my voice cracking that day. The presentation had apparently gone over well despite my voice issues.
In retrospect, I did two things that day that helped drive down my anxiety, but there were two additional things I could have done to boost my confidence and poise.
What I did I do well?
I used my name instead of “I” in directive self-talk
Since 2010, the work of psychologist Ethan Kross and other researchers has demonstrated that when we talk to ourselves using our names instead of “I” in stressful situations, we create a psychological distance that switches on self-control, clears our thinking, and enhances our performance (Weintraub, 2015). This is a mechanism we have had available to us since we were toddlers, talking our way through learning challenges the way adults would talk us through them.
Don’t say: “I’m so nervous right now. I need to focus. I need to get through this!”
Do say: “[Insert your name], this is not the first time you’ve expressed yourself in front of others. Stay calm and focus on the message you have to deliver. Do your best, just as you have done a thousand times before, and know that even if it is not perfect, it won’t be the end of the world.”
I took one to three deep breaths before opening
Growing up, I was fortunate to have been mentored by a few very competent public speakers. Every one of them had this piece of advice for me: Take three slow, deep breaths before you step in front of the audience. How does it work? Fear is a function of our amygdala, a primal part of our brain. Focused breathing breaks the vicious cycle of fear from fueling itself and simulates a calmer physical state, which in turn delivers a true sense of calm. Increased oxygen levels in the brain decrease the production of cortisol, the stress hormone, further enhancing a calm focused state.
Don’t focus on shaking hands, racing heartbeat, nervous sweat.
Do focus on taking one to three long, deep breaths. You know you are breathing deeply if your belly, not so much your chest, extends outward as you breathe in.
What else could I have done?
Strike an assured pose to kick start confidence
Striking a pose that conveys confidence and success for just a minute or two before going on the platform can cause a shift in mood away from fear and toward self-confidence (Driver, 2010). Picture the posture of an athlete who has just won gold at the Olympics or footballer who has just scored the winning goal. That is the posture we need. It might be best to do this in a private room or bathroom to avoid having to provide an explanation to baffled observers.
Don’t sit huddled over your notes, head down, shoulders slumped forward and ankles curled around the chair legs.
Do remember a time when you felt supremely confident and focused. Stand up straight with a wide stance and raise your fists to the sky in victory. Smile. Be in the moment for a couple of minutes and open your eyes to your confident self.
Watch the other presentations
Watching earlier presentations takes a speaker’s focus off his/her own nerves and affords insight about the audience and their expectations (Anderson, 2013). Learning a new point or a helpful suggestion gives you the same feeling of satisfaction and appreciation the audience will have during your delivery. Seeing the audience responding appreciatively to other presenters, with all their quirks and slip-ups, can be extremely helpful in relieving stage fright.
Don’t isolate yourself in order to practice your already well-rehearsed presentation for long periods before you speak.
Do enjoy being a part of the audience for as long as you can before delivering your own presentation. Get to know the audience from the inside, but most of all, give your attention to the other speakers and the points they are making.
The big four
That voice-cracking incident all those years ago, once just an embarrassing story, gave me an opportunity to see how well my anxiety-reducing strategies were working and also analyze how I could have fared even better.
If you find yourself suffering from anxiety or even a bout of intense stage fright on the day of your big speech, use the four techniques outlined above. The voice in your head will be a helpful guide, your confidence will surge, and the nervous energy you feel will switch from being debilitating to an exciting thrill that charges your delivery.
Anderson, C. (2013, June). How to Give a Killer Presentation. Harvard Business Review .
Driver, J. (2010). You Say More Than You Think. New York, NY, US: Crown Publishing Group.
Weintraub, P. (2015, June). The Voice of Reason. Psychology Today.