Fear of public speaking manifests itself in a number of ways. Nervousness and feelings of anxiety, of course, are often at the top of the list. (To reduce your nerves and increase your focus, download my free cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves before Speaking.")
In a previous blog, I pointed out the need to go beyond one's thinking to be able to speak with skill and confidence. An important area from my acting career that I discussed is the body in performance—that is, the need to be on our game when we rise in front of others.
In today's blog, I'd like to discuss the last of the three essential areas to work in to eliminate speaking fear: the focus and mindfulness needed to be truly present and reaching listeners.
Whenever we experience stage fright, our focus becomes fractured. Though we'd like to attend to getting our critical message across, we become distracted by fear, anxiety, and self-consciousness. So how can be bring ourselves back to where we'd like to be: a degree of focus and mindfulness necessary to reach the hearts and minds of listeners?
The three exercises below are a great start.
Exercise #1: Focused Relaxation
This first exercise is excellent for achieving a relaxed state, slowing your breathing, and learning not to listen to intrusive "self-talk" that will interfere with your focus while speaking. That's quite a list of benefits for a simple 5-minute exercise!
- Find a quiet place. Sit comfortably in a well-supported position, feet flat on the floor.
- Close your eyes.
- “Listen” to your breath for the first minute as you breathe slowly and calmly. Let your body teach you how breathing nourishes and sustains you. Fill your lungs completely with life-giving oxygen.
- Once you're breathing slowly and calmly, focus your awareness on a visual image in your mind's eye. A simple shape and color work best: a yellow circle, a blue square, a green triangle, etc. "See" that object with as much clarity as you can.
- Thoughts, feelings, and images will rise in your consciousness. Notice them but don’t engage with them. Instead, bring your focus back to your image. Do nothing; simply let your awareness be.
- Your breathing will become slower and deeper. Notice with your mind and your body what this state feels like. Maintain this level of calm and focus as you go about your daily tasks. Call upon it when you speak.
Exercise #2: Contemplating the Shadow
Another helpful exercise—and a reminder to be rather than do—is to contemplate this Zen saying:
“Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it’s dark.”
When it comes to overcoming fear of public speaking, are you standing in the way of your own becoming? It's common to blame "the other" for our speaking fear: the high-stakes situation, the audience of strangers, the unusual scenario of speaking to a large group. But in a great paradox that comes to us from the world of acting: We are both the center of attention in public speaking and the least important person in the room. To become a great speaker, you must forget yourself in your message!
Exercise #3: Opening Your Senses
This exercise is designed to dissolve the invisible wall that exists between you and your audience. In speech anxiety, your natural response is to escape—to create distance between you and the cause of your discomfort. Yet this is the opposite of what has to occur: to reach and persuade listeners, you must approach them, not run from them.
True presence in public speaking, then, literally starts with being present. You must therefore teach yourself to be present! An excellent way to do so is to allow yourself to open up sensually to your surroundings—to experience the here-and-now not only intellectually but physically. Here's one way to do so:
- Lie on your back, with eyes closed and arms and feet uncrossed.
- Follow your breath, as in the Focused Relaxation exercise above. Give yourself over to your breathing—let it fill your consciousness.
- Focus your awareness on the present time and place. Listen to the sounds around you. Smell the air in this room. Become aware of the sensations of the floor underneath you and the air on your skin. Does this place have any taste associated with it? If you opened your eyes, what would you see? For a few minutes, fill yourself with this sensual input. Now let this place and time dissolve in your consciousness.
- In their stead, go to a favorite location in your mind—a beach on a summer day, a field in springtime, a hammock in early autumn, a cozy fire in a ski lodge after a day on the slopes. Once again, open yourself completely to what you're experiencing through your senses in your imagination.
- Spend five or ten minutes enjoying this place. Then slowly let it dissolve in your consciousness, as you come back to the location where you’re doing this exercise. But keep the level of deep relaxation and sensory input you’ve achieved. This place is the same as it was before, except now you’re experiencing it much more fully. Let it flood into you.