No matter how interested and experienced we may be in public speaking, anxiety cannot be avoided. We experience it especially as the day of the speech gets closer. We start to ask questions that make our stomachs churn. For example: Will the audience like me? Will my mind go blank when I begin to speak? Have I prepared adequately?
If the thought of delivering a speech makes you nervous, you are not alone! According to a commonly quoted survey, more people are afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. People who experience a high level of apprehension while speaking are at a great disadvantage compared to more conversational, confident people.
Individuals who confidently express themselves are viewed as more competent. They also create a better impression during job interviews and are more likely to be promoted than apprehensive people.
Confidence develops a positive impression while anxiety creates a negative one. When we speak, we are communicating in three ways - verbally, visually, and vocally. Our verbal delivery may be clear and well organized; but when we are anxious, the audience will likely notice more our negative vocal and visual signs (for example, lack of eye contact, poor posture, hesitant delivery, and strained vocal quality). Yet, when we are confident and our verbal, visual, and vocal signals are in unity, we look more credible.
If we want people to believe us when we speak, if we want to improve the impressions we make, we need to boost our confidence. This chapter will give you some tips on how to manage speech anxiety to give more confident and professional deliveries.
Call it speech anxiety, stage fright, or communication apprehension; you have to understand it for numerous reasons. First, speech anxiety can incapacitate you. Second, misconceptions about it can strengthen your anxiety. Finally, knowing the strategies for managing speech anxiety can help lessen your apprehension.
Factors Contributing to Speech Anxiety
Speech anxiety is not new – it’s been around for as long as people have been talking to one another. Most speakers who have experienced speech anxiety know the importance of being calm and confident when speaking.
Some feel nervous while others stay calm and relaxed when speaking. Factors in speech anxiety differ from person to person. But general factors apply to all of us.
Knowing the causes of speech anxiety is the first step in managing it effectively. Many anxiety-generating factors affect nearly all of us, including:
- Poor preparation
- Inappropriate self-expectations
- Fear of evaluation
- Excessive self-focusing
- Fear of the audience
- Not understanding our body’s reactions
Misconceptions about Speech Anxiety
No one would agree that experiencing speech anxiety is enjoyable. However when we better recognize why our bodies respond as they do, we become more prepared to face our anxieties.
Let us examine some misconceptions and how to counter them.
Myth / Misconception
1. Everyone will know if a speaker has speech anxiety.
Few, if any, will notice. So keep the secret to yourself and start acting confident.
2. Speech anxiety will intensify as the speech progresses.
It’s all up to you. Mostly, a well-prepared speaker will relax as the speech progresses.
3. Speech anxiety will ruin the effect of the speech.
If you let it, it will. On the contrary, speech anxiety may improve a speaker’s effectiveness.
4. The audience is inherently hostile and will be overly critical of what we do.
Most listeners are polite especially when the speaker is obviously trying to do well.
Strategies for Managing Speech Anxiety
Every speaker has to know the different strategies available for managing speech anxiety. As you give speeches, you learn strategies that work especially for you. Let’s look at some strategies that have been very effective to many speakers.
1. Be Well-Prepared and Practice Your Speech.
Nothing can make you feel more anxious than knowing that you are not well prepared. After all, isn’t your anxiety all about looking stupid in the eyes of your audience? Poor preparation will guarantee this.
To prepare adequately, first, try to know your listeners beforehand (if possible) and organize your speech and visual aids for this specific group.
Next, prepare easy-to-follow notes. Using these notes, practice your speech three or more times from start to end – speaking out louder each time. Mentally thinking through your speech is not the same thing as actually speaking in front of the audience. For instance, if you will be standing during your speech, stand while practicing. If you will be using visual aids, practice using them. As you practice, time yourself to check if you have to shorten or lengthen the speech.
Lastly, expect possible questions and prepare answers for them. Knowing that you are well prepared will help lessen much of your apprehension.
2. Warm Up First.
Speakers are no different from singers who warm up their voices, musicians who warm up their fingers, or athletes who warm up their muscles before a performance. Before giving a speech, you’ll need to warm up your voice and loosen your muscles. Various techniques can help you do this. For instance, try singing up and down the scale, the way singers do before a concert. Read aloud a note or a page from a book, changing your volume, pitch, rate, and quality. Do some stretching exercises such as touching your toes and rolling your head from side to side. Practice different gestures such as pointing, pounding your fist, or shrugging your shoulders. Just like musicians and athletes, these warm-up exercises will help you relax and will make sure that you are prepared to present at your very best.
3. Use Deep Breathing.
One fast way to calm your anxiety is through deep breathing. This involves taking in deep breaths through your nose, holding it while you count to five, and then slowly exhaling through your mouth. As you exhale, think that the pressure and nervousness are slowly draining down your arms and out your fingertips, and down your body and legs and out your toes. Repeat the procedure a second or third time if necessary.
4. Prepare an Introduction That Will Relax You and Your Audience.
Most speakers find that once they get a favorable audience reaction, they will relax. This is why several speakers begin with humor – it relaxes them and their audience. If a humorous introduction is improper or you are uncomfortable with humor, sharing a personal experience is another alternative. Whatever you prefer, make your initial moves work so you can feel comfortable throughout your speech.
5. Focus on Meaning.
Rather than worrying about how you look or sound, or about whether you are impressing your listeners, focus your energy on getting your meaning across to your audience. In other words, be sure your listeners are following the order of your speech and understanding your ideas. Pay close attention to their nonverbal feedback. If they look confused, explain the concept again or add another example. A speaker who is focusing on the audience soon forgets about being anxious.
6. Use Visual Aids.
Visual aids make listening easier for your audience and increase your confidence as a speaker. They make it practically impossible for you to forget your main points. If you’re unsure of the next point, just put up your next visual aid. Moreover, using visual aids such as posters, flipcharts, or actual objects not only can add eye-catching movements to your presentation, but can also keep you fully engaged in your presentation, so you’ll be bothered less by your appearance.
7. Develop a Positive Mental Attitude.
With positive imagery, you develop a positive, vivid, and detailed mental image of yourself. When you visualize yourself speaking confidently, you become more confident. In your mind, you can simulate feelings (of pride, for instance) even when no real situation exists. Obviously, positive imagery alone will not give you the outcome you want unless you prepare and practice your speech.
Positive self-imagery can be used in many aspects in life. It can help us manage apprehension in job interviews, problem-solving discussions, testing situations, or any circumstances in which our confidence needs a boost.
To succeed in public speaking, you have to visualize yourself as a successful speaker. No amount of talk, encouragement, or practice will make you successful if you deem yourself an anxious or ineffective speaker.