Do you suffer public speaking panic attacks? Here are 5 powerful ways to get yourself in the moment and be a successful presenter.
If you suffer from panic attacks due to public speaking, you know how devastating such attacks can be. Despite the best efforts at cognitive restructuring, you can't think your way out of such a predicament.
Perhaps the realization that you really know this stuff doesn't help. When your courage seems to be dissolving like sugar in tea, subject knowledge alone and even adequate preparation isn't enough to get you out of hot water.
You won't be surprised to learn that stage performers know the world's best techniques for overcome stage fright. So why not use these theater-based approaches to deal with your own fear and panic attacks? Become a more powerful speaker, even if you have just 5 minutes to spare! Download my essential cheat sheet for nervous presenters, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking."
How You Contribute to Your Own Speaking Anxiety
Does the following scenario resonate with you?
[SCENE: YOUR TOWN, USA]
Today is the day of your big presentation! And just as you've known for months would happen, you're a nervous wreck.
You’ve been preparing for the past month—seriously preparing. You'll be presenting to the whole company, as you explain the marketing plan for the new product. You’ve been chosen to speak because your team has done all the hard work. It’s definitely your moment to shine. And yet you’ve been thinking, over and over, of all the things that could go wrong.
In fact, it’s been a steady drip-drip-drip of anxiety for you the entire time. You’ve been sleeping poorly, because you’ve been dreading the arrival of . . .
As you drive to the office, your shoulders are knotted, and you’re gripping the steering wheel so hard your knuckles are turning white. You’re sure you’re going to make a fool of yourself. You're going to sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Man, you’d rather be anywhere than here, in the car, on your way to your destiny.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
The Physical Symptoms of Public Speaking Panic
As you enter the lobby, the familiar physical symptoms begin: Your heart feels like a hummingbird's, and you're breathing about as deeply as a mouse. You're walking on legs that have turned to rubber as you make your way to the cafeteria—the only space large enough to hold the entire company. Now that you’re here, it’s your hands: you can see them shaking as you pick up the PowerPoint clicker. Oh, yeah—everybody's noticing that, for sure.
Uh-oh. You’ve just made your opening remarks and YOUR VOICE SOUNDS WOBBLY. You know everybody hears that too. You can’t let go of the thought that everyone in the building now knows that you're terrified of public speaking.
And now a new and panic-inducing thought arises: You’re going to forget everything. All those wonderful talking points you’ve been preparing for the past month . . . Your mind is suddenly going blank!
YOU HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE! But you can’t do that because the CEO is sitting right there in the front row. This presentation is important to him along with your company’s profits for the next billion years.
You’re trapped. There’s no way out.
You’re in the pressure cooker now, for sure.
How to Cope when a Panic Attack Hits
And through all of this misery, you’re supposed to stay poised and professional: the picture of confidence? Are you serious, universe?
What are you going to do? What can you do?
If you find yourself in this unlucky position, or something like it, there's help available. Try my 5 techniques for dealing with public speaking panic described below. These are quick-fixes that can be remarkably effective in those last few moments before speaking when you need them most. Save this list and keep it with you if you find yourself longing to disappear just before you have to speak!
But before you do anything, start to breathe more slowly and deeply.
Now, proceed with my 5 steps:
- What's the One Thing? Focus on making the various areas in your awareness become a single area: What’s the ONE THING you want to say to this group? Now marshal all your resources into relating to these listeners and saying it. To give yourself power and direction, here are 10 ways to stay fully focused when speaking.
- Open the Emotional Gate: Rather than running away mentally from the speaking situation, accept it and open yourself up to it. Closing yourself off emotionally—and blocking your emotions—is part of what made you brittle and closed off from your audience in the first place. Instead, become fully present in this moment in your life. Live it and enjoy it.
- Facial Relaxation/Animation: Allow your face to go completely slack, devoid of any animation; lifeless. (Don't do this while talking to your boss!) Now allow your personality to flow back into your face. You should feel both relaxed and energized after your brief “rest."
- Move! Find any excuse to move to somewhere else: a task, a person, the bathroom, or to check the arrangements on stage. The concept of “embodied cognition” tells us that movement itself helps thinking. And you’ll dissipate some of your nervous energy.
- Ground Yourself: Place your feet flat on the floor at shoulder-width, distributing your weight evenly. Feel the power of the earth beneath you. Here's the perfect exercise to use grounding to feel more confident. You are solid and steadfast, and energy flows through the ground into you. Now speak.
Finally, remember that your mind is looking for an escape hatch. But you don't need to escape. You simply need to become present in order to connect with your audience. And that's an impossible task if you're busy hiding in a mental closet.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- Thinking your way out of a panic attack isn't possible . . . start breathing instead!
- Quick-fixes for panic attacks can be done if you only have 5 minutes to spare.
- Rather than trying to hide, engage with listeners. It'll make your job easier.
- Movement can help you think and make you feel less trapped.
- Use the earth itself (or the floor) to make you feel stable and secure.
This blog was originally published in 2012. It has been updated here.
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