I just finished a speech for the local Rotary Club. I confidently explained that a few years before, I would have had difficulty presenting to them. As a communication major with over twenty years in the corporate world, communicating face-to-face or presenting in front of multiple people created far too many anxious moments in my life that I’ve repressed from my memory. My experience and background may make some non-believers say that it couldn’t have been that bad. I must emphasize that it was that bad. I’ve been demoted twice in my career and was told that I would never reach senior management because I was never seen in the role. Yet, I can confidently tell you that I have never been happier or more satisfied personally or professionally. In the midst of a down-turned economy, I’ve had more raises, promotions, and increases in job responsibility then I could ever have imagined. I am doing things I never dreamed of, including writing two books and being part of the National Speakers Association (NSA). I give much of the credit to my transformation to my increased confidence level. Learning to get over my stage fright saved my career and created an abundant amount of new opportunities to succeed.
Most people want to improve themselves, including a countless many that have a targeted desire to improve their public-speaking skills. The most difficult part is crossing over the threshold from change-thinking to change-actions. As an example, just look at the countless New Year’s resolutions broken immediately after we announce we want to improve ourselves. What I want to provide is a guide to ensure you stay on the right track toward achieving your goals.
Have you ever been lost while driving without having an accessible map or GPS? We have an instant panic attack about what we need to do. The anxiety builds up more with each wrong turn. We lose our ability to think clearly and make rational thoughts. The exact same feeling occurs when we approach the podium to give a speech. Our mind plays tricks on us, which impacts our body. What if you could control if not even block these feelings, so you are able to clearly and confidently articulate your points?
I have seen people with normally rampant stage fright who have given amazing eulogies. I found it interesting that these individuals were so caught up in the anguish of death that they forgot, even if for a small moment, that they were supposed to be scared to be in front of a large audience. The thought of the death instantly jumped them to the last stages of what experienced speakers are taught: it’s not about you; it’s about them, the audience. The frightened thoughts are substituted for ones of passion and love for the deceased. With regular public speaking, you can take actions that will allow you to give rousing speeches and presentations that you once thought were never possible.
As a general rule of thumb, our minds are often numb to the potential triumph because we are too occupied with the heart-stopping anticipation of what is in front of us. What if you could be trained to think about the endgame and the potential success? It is possible. This book will cover many ways to identify the varying symptoms that often come with the pending act of public speaking. The symptoms are driven by deep-seated causes that we may not even fully understand about ourselves, yet. When you fully recognize the correlation between the onsets of symptoms with the ability to control your thoughts, you will see exponentially greater success, and get a deeper understanding of your own potential.
This practical guide provides examples and techniques that will make it real for you. It will show you that speakers of all levels of experience and anxiety will be capable to retrain their hearts and minds one tip at a time. The ultimate goal is to control the symptoms, and more importantly use them to your advantage to relate to any audience. Here are just some examples as to why we get anxious when we think about speaking in public:
- Uncomfortable situation
- New environment
- Potential failure
- Possible embarrassment
- Fear of boring the audience
- Anticipation buildup
Each of these examples can create the symptoms we fear: dizzy head, heart pounding, shaking, sweating, shallow breathing, and that sick feeling in our stomachs. These symptoms most likely will never go away completely, but they can be controlled with practice and preparation.
In Janet Esposito’s book Getting Over Stage Fright—A New Approach to Resolving Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing she discusses approaches that tie in the inclusion of spirituality and meditation to get the mind and body stabilized to find “inner strength for outward support.” Her premise is based on the need to understand that the escalation of anxiety is completely normal for most of us. Many actors as they approach the stage have varying levels of fear, but what makes the experienced ones different is their ability to teach themselves to transfer these feelings to their art. The important fact is that there is a direct correlation between your ability to tame the mind and your ability to control the body.
I took a class in college more than twenty years ago on visualization. As I walked into the first class laughing, I was expecting some easy credits. It was taught by one of the university sports coaches, and the class was full of athletes. The study of visualizing and sports psychology was a growing field at the time, and was not fully understood. We were asked to take one routine act, such as shooting foul shots, and start tracking our progress physically as we slowly introduced new mental practices to calm ourselves down. The intent was to visualize our own success and growth through true focus. I was skeptical for much of the semester. I selected a three-mile run that I had been doing for years. I had been doing it for so long that I typically finished close to the same finish time each day. I saw very little room for improvement. There may have been some times when I could sprint through it for a quick event-driven improvement, but the goal of the class exercise was sustained improvement.
I watched in amazement as I worked on my breathing techniques, on measuring my strides, on keeping my arms straight rather than having them come across my chest, and—most importantly—on the belief that I could accomplish more. My times continued to go down regularly. I did reach a plateau, but it was at a stabilized level that was far better than my predicted outcome. Visualizing success is now a common practice among athletes, and it can be important to your own success when preparing for situations that cause stage fright. Maybe the old fictional character, Stuart Smalley, played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live segment that first aired in 1991, wasn’t too far off when he said the following catchphrase into the mirror: “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggonit, people like you.”
It is now normal to watch athletes and actors visualize their performances. They are making every effort to stretch their peak performance. I recall seeing Olympic skiers on TV with their eyes closed and hands in motion as they simulated their progress through the course. Their hands moved smoothly in unison with their thoughts by going side-to-side and up-and down to mimic the exact course they were about to go down. I believe that they all saw themselves as the winner.
Limiting thoughts can significantly impact performance. Shaquille O’Neal was a consistently poor free-throw shooter in college and in the NBA. His physical technique was often identified as an issue because of the lack of arc he had when shooting the ball into the hoop. However, as his career continued and more coaches and sports psychologists became involved in his training, his issue was often noted as a mental block. He finished his career with a 52.7-percent success rate. Wikipedia states that in the NBA, most players make between seventy to eighty percent of their attempts. A combination of more mental focus, physical preparation, and practice could have increased these results substantially.
Some people see the deep-rooted causes of their own public speaking as obstacles too large to break through. We fill ourselves with excuses that it’s too hard to try to identify and fix due to personal time constraints. We convince ourselves that it’s not worth the effort or we are unable to visualize our own success. I was one of those people until I ironically got more personal in a speech and showed a significant amount of vulnerability. I begin to sing onstage for part of a speech. My apprehension turned to confidence when I saw the audience’s reaction. I was consistently off key and had no rhythm, yet there were tears in the eyes of some of the audience members as they began to relate to the message of my story. You can use your own individual hurdles, roadblocks, and triumphs to strengthen your own message.
There are many options that can be taken to create synergy between your mind, body, and soul. I am not an expert, so I suggest consulting the professionals. However, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and yoga have been identified as potential alternatives to prepare you for the big meeting or your moment on stage. I’ve even turned to the Nintendo Wii game console to do yoga on the Wii Fit Balance Board before a speech competition. The exercises are calming and relaxing, while it stretched out my building tension. I continued this routine before I got mad at the game. It predicts your fitness “age” based on certain physical tests. At the age of 40, it continued to tell me I was over 60 years old. This was not helping my mental stability. I needed to visualize success, not being 20 years older.
Once we understand the potential causes of the fear, we can take the actions to build our confidence level. The psychology of fear can have a devastating direct link to the physical effects of the built-up symptoms. An article from www.owningthestage.com notes that there are certain things you can’t control such as “…your genes. Some people are simply more prone to anxiety than others, and if you’re unlucky in the DNA you probably know it. Blame your parents. With the genetic factor, you have to play the hand you are dealt.” This argument still allows for the possibility that we have the ability to control much of the causes around us. We will cover much of this in detail later in the book. The article does go on to state that:
“It’s ‘only’ in your mind. It’s important to understand that stage fright is subjective: it exists only in your mind and your own perception. It might be painful, but it’s not like a poke in the eye. It’s a purely inner struggle.
Sometimes stage fright can feed on itself, like when you’re deathly afraid of getting stage fright! It might seem crazy but we’re not talking about rational, logical thoughts here. This leads to a kind of perfect storm of anxiety. You might make a little mistake, like a slightly out of tune note or a badly timed entrance or a loss of balance. That triggers a bit of anxiety, which kicks off your overblown fear of anxiety, which causes a few more mistakes, and so on until you faint, or have a coronary, or at least consider faking one.
And even though stage fright is ‘only in your mind,’ it is still very real for a lot of people.”
The Eric Education Resource Information Center notes that many inadequate theories of stage fright tie into the “cumulative effects of emotions” that include “neurological, body reaction, and a two-factor theory of body reactions and environmental cues.” However, they theorize that stage fright goes beyond that to become a culmination of “behavioral, physiological, and the cognitive.” In other words, the behaviors of avoiding the situation of public speaking because of perceived failure or embarrassment, leads to physiological symptoms of sweating or shaking that impacts the “consciousness of both.” There is a continuum of mind, body, and behavior actions that are related to each other. All can impact our ability to give our best unless they are controlled.
Some ways to prepare for your time in the spotlight include: write out what you want to say; practice by repeating the message often; increase your stage time; and be a student of yourself. Specifically, being a student of yourself can include your ability to be more willing to be open to feedback and videotaping.
As you continue your public speaking growth through mental and physical preparation, you will be taught how to visualize success and how to get to know the audience. Additionally, you will begin to truly believe that the audience wants to listen to your message, and understand that not all of your feelings are fear. Some of your built-up anticipation might just be excitement to be there. On the physical front, you can prepare with deep breathing, stretching out the tension, avoiding caffeine, exercising prior to the presentation, and staying within your routine, if possible. Many of these tips will be detailed in later chapters.
You can become a solid public speaker, or simply someone who doesn’t faint when they do it. It takes time and effort. However, the preparation and practice are easily accomplished with a commitment to get better, and are not as difficult as you think. The beast of public speaking can be tamed. You can find the way to sustained success. It is time to cross over the threshold from wanting to change to actual change.
Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):
- Down the Chute: A Toboggan Tale (children’s book)
- Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
- Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
- Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
- The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
- From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
- The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood