Do you suffer from performance anxiety? Here's an actor's advice on how to overcome a panic attack from fear of public speaking.
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.
Sometimes even the knowledge 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 aren't enough to get you out of hot water.
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Are You Contributing to Your Own Speaking Anxiety?
Consider the following scenario:
[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 new marketing plan. 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 can't help focusing on all of the things that could go wrong.
It’s been a steady drip-drip-drip of anxiety. You’re been sleeping poorly, too, and now it's . . .
Driving to the office, your shoulders are knotted. And gee, you sure are gripping the steering wheel tightly. Are you going to make a fool of yourself? Will you sound like you know what you’re talking about? The truth is, you'd rather be anywhere than here right now.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
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The Physical Symptoms of Public Speaking Panic
Now you're in the lobby, and the familiar physical symptoms begin: pounding heart, shallow breathing, rubbery legs. You make your way to the cafeteria—the only space large enough to hold the entire company. Now that you’re here it’s in your hands. You can see them shaking! Oh, yeah—everybody is noticing that for sure.
Uh-oh. You’ve just started speaking 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. Oh, no. You suddenly think you're going to forget what you're supposed to say. All those talking points you’ve been preparing for the past month . . . poof!
YOU HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE. But you can’t do that because the CEO is sitting right there. This presentation is important to him, along with the 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 seemingly impossible position, help is available. Try my 5 techniques for dealing with public speaking panic, described below. These are quick-fixes that can be effective in those moments when you need them most. Save this list and keep it with you!
But before you do anything, start to breathe more slowly and deeply.
Now, proceed with my 5 steps:
- What's Your Core Focus? Make the various areas in your awareness become a single point. What’s the ONE THING you want to say to this group? Now marshal all your resources into sharing it with listeners. To give yourself power and direction, here are 10 ways to stay fully focused when speaking.
- Connect Emotionally: Rather than running away mentally from the speaking situation, accept it and open yourself up to it. Blocking your emotions is part of what made you 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: For just a few seconds, allow your face to go completely slack, devoid of any animation; lifeless. 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. If it's prior to your talk, go to the bathroom or check the arrangements on stage. If you're already presenting, change your position on stage, approach the slide screen, or get out from behind the lectern. The concept of “embodied cognition” states that movement itself aids thinking. And you’ll dissipate some of your nervous energy.
- Ground Yourself: Place your feet flat on the floor at shoulder-width, which distributes your weight evenly. Feel the power of the earth beneath you. Here's the perfect exercise to use grounding to feel more confident. Tell yourself you are solid and steadfast, and that 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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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in theater-based public speaking training. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers in-person and online training to help executives and teams become extraordinary communicators. In 2020 for the seventh consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of The World's Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was recently named as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." Contact Gary here.