Updated: May 16
Speaking in front of others, whether in-person or on video, can unearth many feelings. Everything from “What do I do with my hands” to “I’m going to die.”
There’s even a word for that heart-pounding, weak-kneed, dry-mouthed, self-conscious nightmare known as “there’s no freakin’ way I’m getting up and talking to those people even if I picture them naked in blue tutus” fear. It’s called Glossophobia and it can be crippling for some.
If you’ve ever felt nervous about public speaking you’re not alone. Seventy-five percent of people are right there with you. That means three-quarters of the faces staring back at you when you’re giving a talk are thinking “Dude, I’m glad it’s not me.” But they’re also thinking, “I’m so glad this person is up there giving this talk. Because I WANT to hear what they have to say.”
As one of my teachers, Richard Strozzi-Heckler says in the quote above, “People sense the presence of a good leader.” This could also be said of a good teacher, presenter, or practitioner.
No matter how skilled and knowledgeable you are, when you pressure yourself to be the best, creativity, wonder, and joy can become a tangle of fear and anxiety.
We’re biologically wired to feel this way. And for good reason! Historically, belonging equaled survival.
Think about it. When you make a good impression your peers and colleagues look up to you. They say nice things, buy you fancy drinks, ask for your autograph, and fly you to their private island.
You feel like you belong, and you acquire status within your tribe/community/cohort. And with that status comes safety. No one’s gonna boot you out of the sharing circle when you add value to it. But if you “screw up,” it’s easy to fear the worst.
Public speaking puts your status on the line, right out there for everyone to see. And as far as your body is concerned you’re a gazelle standing on stage being stared at by a bunch of salivating tigers.
What’s happening in your body?
That heart-pounding, weak-kneed, dry-mouthed, nightmare is called the fight or flight response. Episodes of the fight or flight response are sponsored by the Amagdalae, a cluster of cells hanging out at the base of your brain. They are your cellular storytellers, regulating emotions, storing memories, and assigning those memories to specific emotions.
Sometimes this response kicks in when you don’t need it. You’re not typically fleeing from tigers, (and if you are please comment below, I’d love to hear about what you do for a living). Public speaking can trigger that same adrenaline-pumping, let’s get the f outta here reaction.
Prioritize connection over perfection
Unless you are teaching a mandatory driver improvement class to someone who got pulled over doing 80 mph on their way to a yoga class (no, that wasn’t me…) then the people you’re talking to want to hear what you have to say! They’re on your side.
One way to manage anxiety is through embodied presence. Staying in the present moment and finding safety and connection in your body helps you to observe thoughts and feelings without reacting to them. Prioritize connection with yourself and your audience over perfection. Be yourself. Be real.
As an improv performer, trauma-sensitive practitioner, embodied educator, and public speaker I’ve learned a few tricks for calming down the amygdala overlords. (A cool metal band name, by the way). Here's the three-step process I use with clients as part of my Find Your Voice process.
Step One: Embodied Presence
Find your ground. Sign up for a free training on how to do that right here.
Breathe. Speaking at a conference, in front of a camera, or doing a presentation will not kill you. But not breathing will (or at the very least, it will make you feel dizzy, anxious, and ungrounded.) So slow down, take a deep breath, and don’t rush.
Project your voice. Slow down and say each word with dignity. Speaking with purpose and meaning will get your point across more powerfully. Especially after you’ve edited what you’re going to say (more on that later.)
Eye contact. As tempting as it may be, try not to stare at your notes. Let people see you. And let yourself be seen. We’ll talk about the power of soft eyes and peripheral vision later.
Be yourself. You don’t have to be anything other than who you are. You don’t have to pretend to be polished, experienced, or perfect. It’s ok to be exactly where you are: actively learning and growing.
Step Two: Practice Makes Presence
The following practices will train your body and mind to be at ease with your subject, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. So when you make your actual presentation in front of a group of people, a camera, or online, you’ll recall the feeling of support and acceptance that you experienced while practicing.
Remember your presentation is not about you, it’s about sharing important, vital, helpful information with people who need and want to hear what you have to say.
Choose a favorite poem or story. Pick something that makes you feel utterly yourself. This is important. Because you’re training yourself to hear the sound of your voice in a low-pressure way. Practice standing and reading it out loud.
Practice giving a short talk on any subject. Give the talk to something or someone that projects a sense of calm, unconditional love, and acceptance. It could be a plant or tree; your cat, dog, or pet squirrel; or a picture of a spiritual teacher, friend, or something representative of divinity to you.
Practice with another person. If you want to practice with another human being, make sure to set clear guidelines. You only want them to listen and be present with you while you practice. And not to offer any suggestions or critiques.
Take your presentation for a walk. Go for a stroll in a quiet place and speak your presentation aloud. Tell the trees, a stream, your garden, the birds, and the sky about the thing you are wanting to tell the world. Practice being present with all of your senses while speaking. Soften your eyes. Open your peripheral vision. Look at the play of light and shadow, feel the breeze.
Record yourself. If it feels comfortable, use your phone to record your voice. You can record yourself riffing on your topic while driving, doing your hair in the morning, or taking a walk. Like a nature photographer catching a wild creature in action, let your wild, uninhibited self be recorded. Do your best to set it and forget it. The recording is for your ears only. Listen to it later on, you might just surprise yourself with what insights, ideas, and connections come out when you are in the flow.
Step Three: Write it Out
You’ve given yourself space and time to explore, to tune into your body, nature, and your subject, and to speak aloud and be witnessed by the creatures, plants, a supportive image, and nature.
Write out a three-minute version of your presentation. You can write a paragraph or use bullet points. Whatever works for you.
Be sure to:
keep it clear and simple
get to the point
use stories to invite people in
include accurate information and usable data
allow your passion and interest in the topic to lead you
Once you’ve got that, use the tips outlined in part one and time yourself. Don’t rush. Speak in a natural, easy tone.
If you run over your three minutes—ask yourself what needs to go? Is there anything repetitive? Is there a more concise way you can get your point across? Keep trimming until you have a neat, tidy, punchy, to-the-point talk.
Now, can you say what you need to say in one minute? Trim some more until you have condensed your brilliance to one minute.
Once you've done that you've got the seed of your presentation, the distilled essence of the most important points you want to deliver.
Use this same process for any length talk or presentation.