Lesson 16 Overcoming Anxiety

You’re sitting in the front row of a large auditorium that is crowded with people. A woman is on stage introducing the keynote speaker: you! Your stomach is knotting up; your throat is scratchy; you feel sweat trickling down your spine, yet you are inexplicably chilly. What should you conclude from these strange symptoms?

Youshouldconcludethatyouarenormal.Whetheryourealizeitornot,nearlyeveryonegetsnervousbefore speaking in public. I’ve been getting up in front of audiences in many different settings for more than 30 years, and I still feel my heart rate increase as the moment draws close. It’s such a common phenomenon that it even has a name: stage fright.

Indeed, we can learn a lot about stage fright from those who know it best, professional actors who literally get on stage night after night before a large audience. A professional actor will be quick to tell you that stage fright is a good thing, not a bad thing. It indicates that you want to do well, and that you’re taking the performance

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seriously. A lack of stage fright frequently leads to mediocrity, and actors learn to tap into their nervous energy to enhance their performance. You can, too!

the Fear of Fear itself

The frst and most important skill in overcoming stage fright is to recognize that it is a normal sensation. Even professional public speakers get nervous before stand- ing in front of an audience. When you feel those but- terfies warming up in your stomach, remind yourself that it is just part of the process of giving a speech.

What often happens to novice speakers, however, is that they convince themselves that they are nervous for good reason: They’re going to fail. That sort of think- ing can become a self-fulflling prophecy. If you remind yourself that everyone gets nervous before speaking, you will actually calm down a bit and your mental focus will shift from your fears to your speech.

When you listen to a skillful speaker, recognize that he or she was nervous before getting to the podium. If others can overcome their fears and per- form well, so can you. Stage fright is either too much attention on self or even on audience. In effective pub- lic speaking, the message must eventually transcend the medium.

Pretend to be confident

A cardinal rule when speaking publicly is not to tell the audience that you’re nervous. You might think that everyone can plainly see your shaking hands or beads of sweat on your brow, but the truth is that they can’t. Once again, recall the polished speakers to whom you’ve listened and ask yourself whether they appeared nervous. They didn’t, of course—yet chances are, they were.

Appearing confdent sends the audience the message that you are prepared and you know your

material well. This makes them confdent that you have something worthwhile to say to them, and their confdence in you will actually bolster your confdence in yourself. The opposite, unfortunately, is also true: If you tell the audience that you’re nervous, they lose confdence in your speech, which will reinforce your own nervousness.

On the other hand, if you are absolutely certain that you cannot hide the terror on your face or in your body mannerisms, you might want to consider, as a last resort, reverting back to the “we’re all human” school of thought and make a joke of it. Get the audience to laugh, briefy commiserate, and then once the ice is broken, focus, focus, focus on the message you are hoping to convey.

Here are some things you can do to project an air of confdence:

n Stand up straight. We have covered the impor- tance of this already, but here is another side to good posture. If you stand tall, your audience will interpret that as confdence, and it will make you feel more confdent as well.

n Focus and relax beforehand. Do stretches, breathing exercises, and some kind of medita- tion or mind-centering on a regular basis to be better prepared.

n Walk briskly to the podium. Don’t run, just walk with an air of eagerness. You want to communicate the notion that you are eager to start sharing your thoughts with the audience—not that you’re eager to get the ordeal over with.

n Greet your audience with a smile. This con- veys a friendly confdence to your audience, while it actually buys you a few precious moments to catch your breath and adjust your thoughts to your speech. In many cases, the audience will also respond verbally to your greeting, saying “good morning” back! That’s another bonus to help you calm your fears.

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n Do not apologize. As already stated, the audi- ence is not aware of your stage fright, so don’t spoil the illusion by telling them about it unless you feel it is absolutely necessary.

take a deep breath

This technique actually ties closely together with the good posture we’ve been emphasizing, since posture does infuence your physical tension. Standing straight and keeping your head up actually helps to remove some of that tension. There are other things you can do physically that will alleviate anxiety. Here are a few:

n Take a walk. Moving around is a great way of releasing anxiety, so plan on taking a short walk prior to your speech event. Stroll around and explore the building and grounds where you’ll be speaking. Make it a leisurely stroll, however; you’re not trying to work up a sweat, but merely get the blood fowing.

n Talk to people. Getting to know who’s in the audience will greatly reduce your anxiety. It’s far easier to speak to someone you know than to a complete stranger. When you get up to speak, you can look for those people with whom you spoke and make eye contact.

n Sit comfortably when waiting to be intro- duced. Anxiety tends to make us ball up into a knot, so deliberately stretch out your legs and wriggle your toes. Sit with your hands in your lap, not with your arms crossed. And avoid the temptation of cracking your neck. Many people jerk their heads to and fro to release neck ten- sion, but this will only tell the people around you that you’re tense.

n Squeeze your chair. This is somewhat the opposite of the previous suggestion, but it can be a good way to channel your tension if

relaxing doesn’t help. Discretely grip the edge of your chair and squeeze it tight, focusing your tension into your grip. You can do the same to the podium when you get up to speak. The key here is to be discrete, not to let the audience see your knuckles turn white.

be Prepared!

The greatest antidote to stage fright is the knowledge that you are well prepared. When you start feeling ner- vous, simply review in your mind how you intend to open your speech. Visualize how you will walk up front, what you’ll do when you get there, and how you intend to engage the audience. These things will reas- sure you that you are indeed ready, and your anxiety will decrease.

This, of course, ties back to nearly every lesson we’ve done so far. As I said in Lesson 1, being prepared before you begin will pay off big time when you actu- ally speak! As you listen to yourself being introduced, you will be glad you memorized your outline, glad you rehearsed many times over, and glad you did extensive research—overall, you’ll be glad you prepared in advance.

When you’re feeling stage fright just prior to speaking, simply refocus your mind away from your anxiety and onto your speech. Remind yourself what you intend to say; review your major points; visualize yourself speaking your opening words—and picture yourself speaking clearly and slowly. When the time actually comes, putting that mental picture into practice will fow like a habit; you’ll hardly even think about it.

Remember one fnal point about stage fright: It mostly disappears the moment you start speaking. As soon as you hit your stride and start getting into the meat of your lecture, you will stop thinking about your- self and your anxiety and focus entirely on your speech. All those hours of practice will now pay off, and nobody will know that you’re nervous—because you won’t be!