You sit uncomfortably on your cushioned, faux leather boardroom chair doing your best to appear anything but. One by one, each of your colleagues stands to say their name, job, and how many years they've been with the company. It's a large meeting and introductions are taking a while. Inevitably, it will be your turn. There's a lump in your throat, in the soft spot just above your collarbone. You try to swallow but it's stuck, and your mouth is dry. Your heart is beating so fast it feels like it's moved up in your chest and you can't take a full breath.
Over and over, you repeat the information you're about to share with the group but you're having trouble remembering it. It's your name for crying out loud, your own name! It's your turn now so you move to stand but it's a little too fast and your legs lift the chair slightly. The sound it makes as the rollers settle back on the floor is deafening. With a weak voice and shaking hands you begin to speak. As quickly as it began, it's over and you sit down. Your turn has passed but the panic lingers on.
It's called the fear of public speaking, stage fright, or performance anxiety and it can change a normally strong person into an emotional wreck. A lot has been written on the subject, and most of it centers around preparation, rehearsal, and shifting the focus from yourself to the audience or the message. It's all good advice and absolutely necessary for delivering a great speech. For people who truly suffer from this anxiety, the advice falls short of addressing the issue. A complete understanding of the reaction and a strategy for controlling it are important factors in managing the fear of public speaking.
The root of the problem really isn't fear, it's found in our central nervous system. Evolutionarily speaking, we are hardwired with a mechanism meant to protect us from danger called the fight or flight response. When we feel threatened, regardless if the threat is real or not, chemicals are released into our bloodstream by the limbic system. Before we even realize there is a problem, cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine, and others flood our body. The result is hyper awareness, faster reactions, and more strength; all in preparation to stand our ground or run away.
Fight or flight can come in handy if you see an oncoming vehicle veer into your lane but not as much when you stand up to speak. After a real threat goes away, a rise in serotonin levels in your body , counteracts the others and allowing you to go back to a resting state. In the case of stage fright, the threat persists so serotonin levels remain low. If nothing changes, you become trapped in a state where your body continues to pump the fight or flight chemicals and you run the risk of locking up. Often for people who suffer from the fear of public speaking, it's only sheer will keeping them from running or freezing up completely.
The moment anticipation of a speaking opportunity begins, sufferers from the fear of stage fright start to experience symptoms like those described above. For anyone willing to gut it out and keep subjecting themselves to speaking in front of people, the subconscious mind will eventually stop seeing it as a threat. Many don't make it that long. They hide in the shadows and avoid every opportunity to open up in public. Fortunately, there are a few tricks to help manage the symptoms.
Vigorous exercise before a speaking opportunity helps manage the fight or flight chemical levels and releases endorphins. Avoiding rehearsal immediately before speaking is also very helpful. Anticipation becomes intense while rehearsing and, combined with the stress of being at or headed to the venue, the anxiety can be overwhelming. Look for a distractions like taking a quiet walk, listening to music or watching ducks swim on a pond.
After you've prepared and rehearsed, just before your turn to speak, draw in a deep breath, tense all the muscles in your body and hold it for about 30 to 45 seconds. Release your breath and relax your muscles, then stand and begin speaking. It sounds a little foolish (And you don't want to make it noticeable), but it uses up some of the fight or flight chemicals, and the sudden relaxation helps calm you down.
The fear of public speaking ranks among the most common when polled. Conversely, the ability to speak in public is one of the most highly rewarding and sought after of the soft skills. Overcoming the fight or flight response and learning to deliver passionate impactful speeches is one of the most rewarding pursuits one can take. If you are among the many who dread so much as introducing yourself at a meeting, please consider taking steps to overcome your fear. There is no promise of an easy road but the result will be worthwhile.