Public speaking is a performance art, whether it's an actor performing Shakespeare or you presenting to your internal team or pitching to a client. And just as is true of actors, what you bring to the stage will help make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
(To remain in The Zone so you can present at this level, download my free cheat sheet, "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking.")
Consider further this connection between the theater and business: Actors speak from a script, just as you use content in your presentations. In either case, the sheer information delivered can't achieve the type of influence desired.
For instance, a bare script will never convince an audience they're watching a real human being with real passions . . . and neither will your PowerPoint or handouts. The key ingredient in both situations is the speaker in performance. Along with strong intentions, that means the uses and responses of the body.
How Your Body Responds to Speech Anxiety
A normal reaction to such a make-or-break presentation is speech anxiety or glossophobia. Millions experience it, from pre-speech nerves or "butterflies," to extreme self-consciousness to full-blown panic. Fear of public speaking can manifest itself in many ways—but a reliable symptom of stage fright is the physical response the speaker experiences.
Your body's reaction to any fearful situation can be powerful. It's one reason speech anxiety is such an uncomfortable and seemingly intractable problem. (Another factor is the inappropriateness of the body's response: Public speaking isn't a truly dangerous situation, though if you have speech phobia you experience it that way.)
Three physical responses predominate: (1) Galloping heart rate (sometimes with a pounding sensation); (2) Rapid and shallow breathing; and (3) The release of stress hormones, in particular epinephrine ("adrenaline") and cortisol. A wide array of other symptoms may include sweating, a shaky voice, nausea, trembling hands, light-headedness, etc. But the responses above are the reliable "Big Three."
Dealing with Your Physical Symptoms
Fortunately, there are some simple and effective techniques for dealing with the physical symptoms of speaking fear. (For help with negative thinking, read my article on the "4 Dangerous Myths that Will Hurt Your Public Speaking."). These approaches in particular can bring quick reliable relief:
1. Progressive Relaxation. Lie on your back with arms and legs uncrossed. Imagine a warm feeling in your scalp releasing all tension there. Keep that feeling on the top of your head, as you slowly allow that sensation to "flow" downward, relaxing each part of your body in turn. Now bring this feeling of total relaxation into your muscle memory. You can then call on it when you're getting nervous and tightening up prior to a speech.
2. Diaphragmatic Breathing. Breathing with the diaphragm or "belly breathing" is natural respiration. That's because the diaphragm needs to flatten so your lungs have maximum room to expand. Slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing like this oxygenates you fully, helping calm the heart and alleviating the rapid shallow breathing of anxiety.
3. Movement. Adrenaline is part of a "fight or flight" reponse which has nowhere to go: you can't fight your audience and you can't run out of the room! Simply moving will help dissipate this nervous activation. While waiting to speak, for example, tighten and release your muscles. And while you're speaking, make gestures and the use of space part of your performance.
Your physical reactions to public speaking fear are a reminder that speech anxiety isn't all "in your head." That's good news, since techniques to counter the body's responses can be more easily enacted, with a quicker payoff, than the more time-consuming task of restructuring your thinking. When you have that time and you're ready, though, here's how to achieve the positive mental state of mindfulness in public speaking.