We’ve all experienced nervousness when speaking to a group of familiar faces or to a room packed with strangers. And while symptoms of nervousness vary by individual, some combination of shaky hands, trembling voice, flushed face, beating heart, and even brain-deadness can ambush us like a sneaker wave, upend our confidence, and undermine our message.
Fear of Speaking in Public is Widespread
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s famous joke in reference to a well-known Gallop poll is one of my favorites. He said, “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Yikes!
I just finished reading Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool. This new book covers recent research on the biology and psychology of fear and stress. The book’s many enlightening stories show how ordinary folks, soldiers, businesspeople, and entertainers handle (or fail to handle) their fears and respond to stress or danger. The book also provides tips for facing one's fears and reacting successfully in stressful situations. The book got me thinking about people whom I help with their presentations, and what advice is immediately helpful to reducing their levels of nervousness.
Of course people breathe when they stand up to speak, but the breath is often shallow. Thus, too little oxygenated blood reaches the brain, and the heart beats faster to try to compensate. Then the body heats, the brain gets foggy, panic sets in, and… well, you can imagine where this story will end.
To learn how to breathe properly, simply watch a sleeping baby. Notice that the baby’s belly goes in and out as she rhythmically takes in and expels air with the help of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the strong belly muscle. Adults are so intent on “sucking in” our stomachs to look fit that instead of allowing the belly to move out (and take in more air), we hold the belly in and raise our shoulders (allowing less air in).
If I could I’d stand beside you I’d urge you to place your palms around the area of your belly button, keep your shoulders low, and breathe in. Feel your belly expand. Now exhale and feel your belly collapse as you expel more air. It’s a matter of physics – more space in the belly allows for more air. Since I can’t stand beside you, below is a drawing from my book, Improve Your Spoken English and Pronunciation , of how to breathe properly.
A diagram showing the airflow when you breathe
When you can breathe deeply, the symptoms I mentioned above ease. Your heart rate slows, your body remains cooler and steadier, your voice is stronger, you retain enough air to finish each sentence, and you think clearly!
Tips for conscious breathing
• Start breathing through the diaphragm before you stand up to speak. You’ll get a rhythm going, your blood will be more oxygenated, and you will be steadier when you do stand.
• Sit up straight while waiting to speak, and stand up straight when speaking. Allow as much air as possible to enter your lungs. Slouching works against you.
• Pause a second or two before you begin to speak. Use that time to breathe deeply through your nose and center yourself.
• And smile. A warm, wide smile not only connects you with your audience, but it helps you breathe deeply. Try smiling now. Notice that you breathe in. A smile happens on the in-breath. Thus, smiling is a great start to reducing nervousness.
In upcoming blogs I’ll discuss others ways to handle nervousness when speaking.