Fear of public speaking—one of the most common and debilitating forms of social anxiety—doesn't always announce itself ahead of time. Many people deal with a lifelong dread of getting up to speak in public. But for others, the inability to order one's thoughts or to speak effectively arises suddenly and without apparent cause. The attack is no less severe because of its suddenness. (To learn how to relax and become a more confident speaker, download our cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.")
Sudden Speech Anxiety Can Strike Experienced Executives
Recently, a prospective cient contacted my company, Public Speaking International, with a serious complaint. She told us she'd been giving the type of presentation she's done for years. This time, however, she lost her train of thought. And she couldn't retrieve it. Knocked off her track completely, she took a drastic measure: she announced she couldn't go on, and left the room.
She didn't tell us that she'd experienced a sudden panic attack, though it comes to the same thing. When you go beyond nervousness, beyond a shaking voice, or even a flush that you can feel climbing your neck, to actually fleeing the speaking situation, you have panicked. (If you think everyone will notice how nervous you are, you're subscribing to one of the 4 dangerous myths of public speaking.)
It's a situation I've heard described before. In fact, a sudden awareness of speaking anxiety by experienced executives isn't as rare as you might imagine. Often it presents this way: A professional in his or her mid-40s to late-50s, who has been speaking in high-stress situations for years without incident, suddenly experiences during a meeting or presentation a loss offocus, forgetfulness, or outright feelings of panic. No immediate cause announces itself, and the person thinks, "Well, that was odd," and then forgets about the incident.
The same thing happens again a week, a month, or two months later, however. Usually the executive takes the second occurrence in stride as well. But when the anxiety or panic strikes for the third time, that person begins looking for professional help.
Dealing with Your Anxiety in the Here and Now
As a former professional actor, I use techniques of overcoming stage fright to help these executives. Some of the most effective approaches for giving a great performance, of course, are theatrical techniques for business training. Specifically, I've developed a three-pronged approach that includes changing negative self-talk into positive coping statements, body awareness, and theater-based techniques of effective performance.
It's in the latter two areas where speech trainers with a background in acting can be most helpful. Performing while in a state of anxiety produces definite and pronounced physical responses; in other words, your own body in performance impinges on your consciousness and your ability or inability to feel strong and relaxed. In fact, it's the lack of those two "body-states" that puts you off your game. Time-tested and successful techniques of performance from the theater can also help you reach awareness that you're fully present, speaking effectively in the "here and now."
Something as basic as breathing and relaxation exercises for speaking with confidence can help. It may interest you to know, for instance, that people who fear public speaking have higher heart rates than individuals with generalized social anxiety disorder. Literally, then, public speaking fear is not only “in your head.”
When your pulse rate begins to gallop, when your heart pounds so that it feels like it’s going to break out of your chest; when the engine of your circulatory system is startled out of its natural rhythm—when these things happen, you can’t escape the fact that the situation is out of your control. You want to establish equilibrium again quickly—in fact, you desperately need to do so if you’re going to present a calm, confident, and professional demeanor.
If you have an overwhelming or sudden fear of public speaking as described above, you can benefit from the type of biofeedback that will calm your heart so the rest of your body and your mind can follow. The exercise which follows is one you can begin with.
Calming the Heart
Start by becoming acquainted with your own “normal state”: the place that you can return to in times of stress. Here's how:
First, determine your resting pulse. That’s the number of beats per minute when you’re not under stress or in physical exertion. Count your pulse rate for ten seconds and multiply by six; or continue taking your pulse for a full minute. Make a mental note of that number. Now continue feeling your pulse as you . . .
. . . take a DEEP breath and hold it for a few seconds. Now release that big breath all at once: WHOOSH!
Did you just notice any change in your pulse rate?
You may have felt your heart slow down briefly just after you whooshed out the breath. When you breathe deeply, a full reservoir of air moves from your lungs to your heart where it is pumped into the bloodstream, oxygenating the cells throughout your body. Since your heart has just received a generous supply of oxygen, it doesn’t have to work as hard.
Oxygen means life, and when the heart is fully oxygenated, it can slow down and not “try as hard.” The other important effect produced here, is that the sheer controlled slowness of the breathing process counteracts the rapid heartbeat that accompanies the sense of being out of control that’s part of your fear response. In a sense, the heart can take it easy again because you’re giving it permission to do so.
This is an important physiological response for you to learn, in order to counter the loss of control that comes with speaking anxiety. By inducing your heart to slow down, to relax, you are countering one of the most noticeable and worrying effects of stage fright: the sensation that your body is working against you.
This simple exercise is a way to reestablish control and to create a positive rather than negative physiological response to speaking in public. It also helps directly link breathing and heart rate, demonstrating that control of this process is possible. (For more on maintaining focus and control when speaking, see my article "Leadership Skills: 10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking.")
Practice it some more now: Monitor your pulse rate, breathe deeply, and link the two. The more you learn slow controlled breathing in the face of anxiety-inducing situations, the more you will be able to calm yourself and handle those situations.
Nicely done! You’ve just started using biofeedback to reduce your stress response to public speaking.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- Fear of public speaking can occur suddenly even to experienced executives.
- If it occurs more than once, you probably need to address the problem.
- Positive statements, body awareness, and performance techniques can help.
- Find ways to be fully present rather than "escaping" your anxiety.
- Breathing fully and deeply helps keep you calm, centered, and strong.
 Hofmann and Otto, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, 10.