If you suffer from fear of public speaking, here's a question: Do you see yourself on a therapist's couch talking the whole thing out?
Talk therapy can be helpful in uncovering the root causes of social anxiety, and also to eliminate negative thinking in a process known as cognitive restructuring. But there's more to your stage fright than your brain. There's also your body. For more on physicality in speaking, see my free cheat sheet "The Body Language Rules: 12 Ways to Be a More Powerful Speaker."
Getting Out of Your Head and Into Your Body
When you speak in public, you aren't a talking head. You're a body moving (performing!) in space. Not only is that important concerning the visual and physical aspects of public speaking. It's a reminder that much is going on physiologically, especially in response to speaking fear. To both understand and conquer your fear of public speaking, you need to be on a physical wavelength as well as a mental one.
In other words, you need to get out of your head and into your body.
That just makes sense, doesn't it? If you could think your way out of speaking fear, wouldn't a book, a CD, or a few hours on the couch do the trick? Some of my clients work with me in conjunction with therapy sessions to overcome their anxiety, which is reasonable. But the fear that underlies stage fright not only isn't a rational process—it isn't mainly a thinking process. It's a gut-level response to what the mind perceives as a dangerous situation.
The Mind Thinks, and the Body Responds
When you perceive a situation as dangerous, certain physiological processes kick in instantly to help you escape that danger. That's the well-known "fight or flight response." In terms of public speaking anxiety, the body releases a pair of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline prepares the body to fight the threat or to flee (if the danger is too great to fight); while cortisol assists in the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats—in other words, to get you activated.
When the body experiences high levels of these hormones or undergoes long-term exposure to them, the effect is harmful rather than helpful. Even in the short-term, if the body's response to public speaking fear is strong enough, we experience the uncomfortable sensations of stage fright: shortness of breath, sweating, rapid heart rate, nausea, feeling hot or flushed, a shaky voice, etc.
Obviously, a strong physiological response like that can't be countered by thoughts alone. Diaphragmatic breathing, biofeedback, embodied cognition (moving to aid thinking), and physical exercise are all body-centered ways you can control and even overcome speaking fear.
Using Your Body to Help You and Your Audience
In addition to bodily awareness, are there ways you can use your body to be both calmer and more effective when speaking in public? Absolutely. Here are 3 techniques from the theater that work marvelously in this regard:
- Grounding. Being aware of simply setting your feet properly can help you feel more secure and confident. It also gives your audience the impression that you're a steadfast and steady speaker, increasing your credibility. Avoid the precarious stances of nervous speakers: feet touching or crossed, or leaning visibly on one hip. Place your feet armpit-width apart and maintain that stance. You'll look strong and you'll feel the power of the earth (or floor) beneath you. Quite an effective tool for gaining instant physical confidence!
- Move with Purpose. Many speakers move without purpose, either through nervousness or an attempt to be exciting. You've seen them: wanderers, strutters, swayers, and dancers. How much more effective to move when you have a reason to do so! Approach the screen to point out something on a slide; take a step toward a questioner; and definitely come "front-and-center" for your conclusion. Wouldn't moving in any of these purposeful ways feel more comfortable and appropriate for both you and your audience?
- Move to Specific Places to Aid Comprehension. Let's say I want to discuss three important aspects of the topic I'll be speaking on today. I begin with my introductory remarks. Then as I lead into my first main point, I move to Location A. My second main point finds me at Location B; and my third is delivered from Location C. (Understand that this may involve no more than a few steps, depending on the size of the stage.) "Placing" your points this way makes them easier for the audience to grasp logically. It can also boost retention of your three key points.
When you get your body into the act in these ways, you'll feel more in control and more purposeful as a speaker. As a result, your confidence should grow. You'll be using your awareness of your body, and the "exercise" of it, to reduce your anxiety about public speaking while becoming a more dynamic practitioner of the art.