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Harness Your Presentation Anxiety

This article explains the root causes of speech anxiety and provides tips on what you can do to turn it to your advantage.

There are several good reasons why aspirant presenters seek coaching or attend training. The premise is that speaking to more than one person is harder than a one-on-one conversation and some attest to this being their personal experience. On the face of it this makes little sense since coaches will teach their students to speak as if they were speaking to just one person anyway – even though they may be speaking to an audience. So what’s the problem?

The problem often has little to do with speaking ability – it’s usually psychological and it is rooted in instinct. Going back to evolutionary times we are wired for fight or flight, in other words to protect ourselves from harm. Groups pose a greater threat than individuals. We fear the threat of consequences posed by an unknown group, or in certain cases a known hostile group. More about our evolutionary fears here.

Just as at a networking event our instinct is to remain in a tight group with those we know until we’re told to network, so we perceive a live audience as potentially hostile. This seems illogical, particularly if it’s your intention to persuade, influence or merely share a message, but it’s not logic speaking here, it’s instinct. This response is not easily unlearned either.

There are any number of fears that guarantee anxiety, from going blank (during preparation or delivery), to content pressure or fear of ridicule for any number of reasons. But since the likelihood of physical harm during a speech is relatively low, our anxiety has morphed into psychological fear – that the audience might reject or question what we say making us appear foolish. This fear relates to acceptance and belonging and is immense. Unexpectedly, this pressure can be even greater for a subject expert since their credibility is at stake. People could challenge our sources, our accuracy, how fresh our message is, our point of view or whether it’s interesting or not. Unless we have set out to be contrary (a cunning defence) these fears can lead to a great deal of anxiety.  

To defend ourselves we do some strange things without really knowing why. We hide behind lecterns, read our notes or stare at a screen with slides breaking critical eye contact, When our defensive efforts result in poor delivery, we console ourselves with the false realisation that we’re bad at this stuff. Yet, we seem to still be able to have an animated conversation one-on-one, or for that matter with friends around a table at a dinner party!

The good news about that anxiety we feel is that it’s not reserved for you exclusively. Neither is it unnatural or a bad thing. The world’s best orators also feel anxiety prior to and during delivery, but experience has taught them how to channel that anxiety in a positive way.

So what can you do to reduce nervous anxiety and channel your oratory energy optimally? Preparation and rehearsal play an important role as does a never ending learning mentality. Experience itself and a greater reliance on delivery rather than technology is also key. A focus on smooth logistics will help you get off to a good start – put simply, get organised! A mindset to be calm if things go wrong is also recommended, since there are many things that remain outside of your control. It’s almost a guarantee that the next surprise is just around the corner.

If you’re physically prepared you’ll remain on top of most situations. Take a few deep breaths prior to starting and do some vocal warm up exercises. Place a glass of warm water nearby to sip on – you blow out vapour when you speak and don’t want cold water constricting your vocal cords. Finally, that nervous energy that seems to race towards your extremes (finger tips & toes) should be mentally directed to your diaphragm. Thats the muscle that controls your breathing and sound. If you have control of your diaphragm you will feel and sound much more in control.

Presentation anxiety is normal. There is nothing wrong with you experiencing it in a mild or heightened form. You can however choose to alter how it affects you. You can allow anxiety to direct and control you, or you can decide to harness your natural energy (anxiety) to your advantage. It may take time, but it can be done.

Remember that an audience comprises a collection of individuals. You really need to be speaking to just one person. Thats not so hard really – we do it all the time!

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