By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.
Roger’s palms are dripping, his breath is hurried and his heart feels as if it is thumping in his chest. He feels a sense of danger but doesn’t know what to do. He has a case of the ‘butterflies’ and it has his stomach tied in knots. Roger has heard of the term ‘knees knocking’ but now it has special significance. Running is not an option, neither is fighting, so what will Roger do and how can he lessen these feelings in the future?
These are some of the symptoms that people have to deal with when they have to speak to audiences. I know this because one of the courses I teach is public speaking and students privately and publicly share that they have these experiences all of the time.
Recently, after a class, I had a number of students approach my desk. It was about the usual; tardiness, missed assignments or to confide, inches away, that they had a communicable illness but felt they couldn’t miss any more classes. One student, however, actually wanted to discuss a topic dealing with public speaking. He glanced around sheepishly and then asked, “How do you deal with anxiety about speaking in public?”
It is a question that college students often ask, but the concern is common to all of us. So I would like to share some quick fixes as well mid to long-range solutions to lessening anxiety and improving your ability to speak in front of an audience.
Most Fear Isn’t Visible
Many people are nervous about public speaking because they believe that their body will betray them. They feel that cool and casual demeanor that we all tend to display when we are out and about will not stand up to public scrutiny. Well, a quick tip is that many of the indicators of fear cannot be detected by the naked eye. Shortness of breath, ‘knees knocking,’ increased hear rate, ‘butterflies,’ enlarged pupils and sweaty palms cannot be detected by an audience.
To a large degree the cracking of voices or shaking of hands can’t be seen either. When a student tells me their voice cracked during a speech I immediately ask the class if they heard it. I have never had a class say they have. As far as hands shaking is concerned, I advise people to keep papers out of their hands and rest them on the podium if they begin to shake so others will not be able to see it.
Nothing provides a quicker boost of confidence than being prepared to give a speech. Scouting out your audience in advance, writing your speech well before the delivery date and practicing it numerous times reduces an enormous amount of pre-speech jitters. Why? Because you know you’ve done everything in your power to be ready for the experience.
Positive Self-Talk and Visualization
Although the fear that most people have of public speaking isn’t serious enough for them to visit a psychologist that doesn’t mean that psychological theory can’t be used to reduce anxiety. Psychologists Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck were pioneers of cognitive therapy and both believed that you could talk yourself into a negative or depressive state with irrational logic. And with public speaking many people make themselves nervous through terrible reasoning.
What we say to ourselves matters. So when you know that you have to deliver a speech it is best to go ahead and begin to mentally prepare for your success. Think about times when you have successfully spoken before a group of people or a sizeable audience. Imagine how hard it would be to fail when you have prepared thoroughly. Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen and what could you do to counter it. If you feel that you are going to swallow constantly or develop dry mouth you could bring a bottle of water. If you think you will forget your speech you can reason that it would be hard to do if you have well prepared notes and prompts.
Additionally, visualize a successful and pleasant experience. Think about what would make your experience ideal and prepare and practice so that reality will match your internal visualization.
This last piece of advice requires a lot more effort but it is worth it for individuals who will have to speak to a lot of audiences in the future. If this is the case, it is best not to just wing it until you get the hang of it. Instead, you should be proactive. Join a class, group or organization that teaches public speaking.
Being involved in a class or group gives you the opportunity to gain repeated exposure to an audience in a positive and constructive environment. It allows you to gradually reduce anxiety and increase your skill set at the same time. In the classes that I teach students get at least 30 opportunities to come before a group and work on almost every aspect of public speaking. Within a few weeks the biological response commonly known as ‘fight or flight’ syndrome becomes manageable and within a few months anxiety and nervousness is not an issue at all.
Public speaking anxiety is real but so are the methods to reduce it.