Your heart pounds so hard you fear they can hear it. Your voice shakes uncontrollably. Your mind goes blank. The words don’t come. And all the time the audience look on expectantly.
This combination – being highly visible and feeling out of control is the peculiarly toxic mix that most people connect with that dreaded phrase “Public speaking” Why wouldn’t you dread something that makes you feel simultaneously out of control and judged? Its a pretty daunting combination I think we can all agree. But it doesn’t have to be like that. You can learn to make your public moments feel positive and in control rather than rabbit In the headlights.
For the last 15 years, I’ve worked with, (and learned from) actors, execs, schoolchildren, politicians. I’ve watched people overcome their fears and speak with confidence in their big moments. In the process I’ve heard almost every fear you can imagine about public speaking. I’ve learned that everyone gets nervous sometimes. Even Helen Mirren gets shaky hands when she has to make a speech. A Cabinet minister told me of an extremely senior politician having to hide in the disabled loo before speaking to a local association. I’ve heard from the new FTSE 100 CEO of the abject terror he feels before his first Board meeting. It’s strangely calming to know that these feelings are ubiquitous. They are human. And when you normalise your nerves, you can use them to power you not panic you.
First things first. Can we agree to put the phrase ‘public speaking’ in room 101? It’s so deeply 20th century, redolent of lecterns and death by powerpoint. We don’t talk about ‘public dancing’ or ‘public singing’ do we? Shall we agree to call it speaking from now on, no matter who you are talking to. Then it feels normal- human, even. If you can have a relaxed conversation with two people, know this – with the right skills in place you can have a relaxed conversation with two hundred. And here’s how, my top tips to give you the control back when you speak
1. If you dread public for weeks before… stop making the disaster movie
Dread often comes when we make the disaster movie of what could go wrong in front of an audience. I’m no Pollyanna, it’s definitely a good idea to contemplate the risks before stepping out on stage. But the trouble is I talk to so many people who dread it so much that they avoid all preparation. Don’t do it. Flip from victim who is immobilised by fear to the hero who fins their courage. When the dread comes take control. Ask yourself, ‘if I knew I could do this, what would I do?’ Imagine how you would speak if you felt confident. Make a movie in your head of it going well – what do you see, hear and feel in that dream movie?
The key is not to stop there – once you’ve got clear on the vision – then do the work. Map out what you saw and heard in your movie. Then a gentle way to practise is on voice notes on your phone. Speak it in sections and listen back. Get the look you visualised right. Do what you need to get you feeling as confident as possible on the day. And if after this you are still dreading it a little bit (totally normal by the way), make sure you have a treat you have waiting for you when you finish, it gets you through!
2. If you get impostor syndrome… think how can I help?
So often we worry about speaking in public because we think ‘I’m not good enough’. We compare ourselves to all those other confident types out there. It can make public speaking seem like a solo act where we are competing with others. Competition is the wrong frame. When you are asked to speak, you are there because you know something that can help others, You are there to contribute, not compete. Make ‘how can I help’ your mantra when prepping to speak, as it puts you in service of others, which takes the edge of the anxiety. And when you step out in front of the audience, show up with contribution in mind. If you help people who cares if you are better or worse than the next person. It’s irrelevant. You are you. You are enough.
3. If you feel nervous… use it
Nerves are not a bad thing. They are helpful, you just have to get your nervous system under control. Adrenaline is really just arousal – the racing heart, the flushing. This can also be a good thing can’t it? It can happen when we fall in love as much as when we make a speech. To get those butterflies flying in formation there are some ground rules. You have to tell your system it’s safe, not under mortal threat. First step away from your phone. it may be tempting to distract yourself but it’s a big no-no if you want to be in control. Your phone is your pocket saboteur for public speaking, because it can trigger breath-holding and text neck – two big culprits when it comes to making you wired and adrenal – a toxic combination.
The best way to make your system feel safe is to focus on your senses, not the chatter in your brain. Fill your attention with ‘I can feel air on my face, clothes on my skin, my feet on the floor. Look around to get a sense of what is all around you. Notice something you haven’t seen before’. Straighten up, ears over shoulders, to tell your system you are in control. As you walk out on stage imagine your audience are old friends and remember that you are lucky to be here, to be invited to speak. Embrace the rush as something fun, a sense of your power, rather than something to be feared.
4. If you’re an introvert… own it
Introverts can be great speakers too – you just have to do it your own way. Personally, I love nothing better than sitting quietly reading a book. But I’ve learned that I can feel confident as a speaker. There are two requirements. First give yourself quiet time before you speak. Second know that every pause is a moment to come back to yourself. Practise those pauses, audiences love a speaker who can think in front of them. Be comfortable with finding moments of stillness. Look out for speakers who do it well, and know that you don’t have to be loud on stage. Quiet charisma can be just as compelling.
5. If you go blank… rehearse
Fear can shut down parts of the brain as your system readys you to fight or run. So you need to get the words really deep in the muscle memory to make sure you can remember them no matter what. Rehearsal is key. You have to speak it as well as write it. As a rule of thumb, you need to have said something aloud three times before you say it in a high pressure situation. You need to say something three times aloud before you say it to an audience. Then when the butterflies come, you have a back up drive in your brain. Voice notes on your phone can be a pain free way to do this.Then it’s a really good idea to rehearse in front of someone supportive, because it gives you a sense of the adrenalin you will get on the day.
6. If you rush, or get the shakes… find your brakes
The rush when you walk out in front of an audience can feel totally overwhelming. The flight part of fight or flight takes over and you start to speak at hyper speed. Your brain screams ‘get out of there’ at you, but because all speech is out-breath there’s a really straightforward way to get the control back and feel comfortable in front of even the biggest audiences. The secret is to breathe out before you start to speak. Most people feel the adrenaline rush and do a gasped stressed breath as they start to speak. They then turn into a runaway train, accelerating through the talk without brakes. But we don’t gasp for breath in conversations with our dearest friends, we pause and wait for the next breath to come.
And that’s the secret to being relaxed, conversational and in control on stage. Cut the gasp, find your brakes. It’s like driving lessons this – you need to practise it for it to be yours under pressure. When you rehearse your talk practise this calm start. Then keep it going through the pauses. At the end of sentences practise closing your mouth and imagine smelling a rose with all the time in the world (NB it’s not a sniff – it’s a silent, relaxed easy in breath that looks and sounds like a relaxed pause to the audience). The biggest epiphany for me as a speaker was that I only had to think about one sentence at a time. Start well. Breathe. Next sentence breathe feels so much more manageable than runaway train, doesn’t it?
7. If you blush… focus out
If you feel yourself blushing, focus your senses out on something in the room. When we blush research tells us that it’s often because we are worrying about what someone else is thinking about us. Then we worry that they are seeing us blush and it spirals. You have to prise yourself out of your own anxieties and into the room. Notice what someone is wearing, or something yoy haven’t seen before to flip your focus. Or ask the audience a question and get the focus out on them.
While they are talking you then have time to subtly, imperceptibly lengthen your out-breath. Way back in 1921, a physician and pharmacologist called Otto Loewi discovered that when he stimulated the vagus nerve it released what he called vagusstoff, later identified as acetylcholine, the hormone of calm. This became the first neurotransmitter identified by scientists. By breathing out long and slow – extending your exhalation – you can generate your own vagusstoff, stimulating your vagus nerve to send calm through your system…When you do it you notice how quickly you can calm your system and take control even under pressure. Practise these tips in low level moments and they will be there for you, comforting and calming in those big moments where all eyes turn to you…
Caroline Goyder’s new book Find Your Voice: Secrets For Speaking With Confidence In Any Situation (Penguin Random House) 12.99 is out now.