If you suffer from stage fright when giving a speech or presentation, you'd probably rather be someplace far away. But to positively influence your audience, you're much better off dealing productively with the situation and the people at hand. (To speak with influence and impact and not just deliver information, download my free cheat sheet, "4 Characteristics of an Influential Speaker.")
That's because public speaking panic attacks usually arise from your attempt to divorce yourself from your audience in some way. You may view your listeners as hostile, bored, uncaring, or judgmental. But whatever characteristics you believe that audience has, there's almost always a feeling of me and them, as though a chasm separated your listeners and you.
Added to that is the fact that you can't avoid a panic attack by actually escaping from the room—not unless you want to destroy your influence and probably your reputation. So just as in other facets of your life, when it comes to public speaking panic, the only way out is through. And the time to deal with the situation is “now.”
How to Stop a Panic Attack. To halt a public speaking panic attack in its tracks, you must eliminate the cause of the panic, which is your divorce from your listeners mentioned above. When you can bring yourself back to the here-and-now—of you talking to your audience on a topic of mutual interest—you will share with your listeners something immensely valuable: a moment of shared communication.
So even though you can't literally escape, here are 3 strategies or "escape hatches" that can help when you're in the grip of public speaking high anxiety. Any one of them will help you make the leap from fear and panic to enjoyment of speaking—the real reason you and your audience are sharing this time and space.
Escape Hatch #1—The Only Way Out is Through: In this scenario, you should follow these four steps, in this sequence, for handling a panic attack that occurs during your speech or presentation:
- STOP whatever it is you are saying, doing, or thinking.
- Breathe deeply, once. Use diaphragmatic breathing to calm yourself fully.
- Bring yourself back into mindfulness: Inhabit the present moment again fully, without wishing you were someplace else. Look at the people before you.
- Resume talking about whatever it is that matters to them, NOT you. If you weren’t doing that before, do it now! Here are 4 more easy ways to become a more charismatic speaker.
If you’re concerned that the moment when you stop and take a deep breath will be too noticeable, use body language to make it look as if you’re gathering your thoughts. Or take a drink of water after you breathe. Use your wits!
The key to Escape Hatch #1 is that when you give yourself over to the needs of others, you yourself disappear. Notice that Step 4 says, “Talk about what matters to them.” As soon as you do, you’ll realize that you’re in the right place, with the right listeners, discussing something that you’re both interested in. After all, it’s not about you—it’s about what you need to tell them and what they need to hear. If you do so, you'll understand that you belong here with them, and they with you.
It’s a reminder that dealing with reality is so much more effective than running from it. And that honesty trumps showmanship every time.
Escape Hatch #2—Movement Will Set You Free: Have you heard of the theory of embodied cognition? It states that you think not only with your brain, but also with your body. Think about that for a moment and you'll see it makes perfect sense. Don't you pace back and forth while pondering a difficult question; and don't ideas pop into your head when you’re driving or showering or taking a walk?
The common element in each of these situations is movement. Embodied cognition goes even further, saying that you can actually use movement to help you think better. As a recent newspaper article reported:
A series of studies . . . [showed] that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking. Another recent study suggested that stage actors remember their lines better when they are moving. And in one study published last year, subjects asked to move their eyes in a specific pattern while puzzling through a brainteaser were twice as likely to solve it.
It stands to reason that moving can help you think at that other moment when you desperately need to do so: during a public speaking panic attack. So if you find yourself in the speaking pressure-cooker and you're worrying that you won’t remember what to say next . . .
Cross the room to point out something on your PowerPoint slide. Step away from the lectern. Circulate to a section of the audience you haven’t visited in a while. It doesn’t really matter what you do, just move! (To learn how to use movement effectively when you speak, download my cheat sheet, "5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language.")
Simply by moving, you’ll think more clearly and help bring yourself out of the moment of panic. You'll feel less trapped. Also, the nervous energy building in your muscles from adrenaline needs a release, and movement will help provide it. So use the outlet of movement before you overload.
Escape Hatch #3—Inhabiting Your Body: As I mentioned earlier in this article, a primary cause of speech panic is the desire to escape your audience: you'd rather be anywhere than here in the present situation. But you must be here, so you have to deal with it. Longing to be elsewhere in the universe is momentarily comforting, but it keeps you worlds away from the present, where your listeners are depending on you.
In a situation like this, it’s time to get physical. You need your body, in other words, not to help you escape, but to make you fully physically present. You should also become aware of the image you're broadcasting through body language. Here are the three steps to become more physically aware while you're speaking:
First, ground yourself: feel the soles of your feet on the floor and the firm foundation that gives you. Imagine you have roots that go downward into the earth through the soles of your feet, reaching deep and wide, making you steadfast and secure.
Second, feel your breath energize you. Imagine that your breathing is electric. When you inhale, you’re a cylinder of pure power, lit up like a neon sign!
Third, become aware of the physical sensations inside you. Where is the tension? the energy flow? the power? the heat? The miracle of life is running through you, giving you strength and animating you. To notice what’s going on in your body is to be completely present—to absolutely occupy the here-and-now.
Inhabiting your body fully in this way is a potent antidote to the fear-induced need to escape your circumstances. You don’t need a place of refuge at this moment. You’re right where you need to be, mentally, yes, but also as a body occupying an enjoyable moment in time.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- Anxiety can make you feel divorced or apart from your audience.
- The solution isn't to think of escaping, but embracing the present moment.
- Remind yourself to think and talk about what matters to them.
- Moving will not only release tension, but actually help you think!
- Being aware of your body's sensations is a way to occupy the here-and-now.
 Drake Bennett, “Don’t Just Stand There, Think,” Boston Globe, January 13, 2008.