Speaker Coaching: How to fight stage fright

Seven keys to getting the butterflies to “fly in formation”

Most of us have had bad experiences speaking before others. All of us can relate to times when we had an opportunity to speak and it didn’t go well. We may have spoken when we weren’t prepared or we may have been put on the spot by a teacher or boss. Then we quickly recall the negative feeling associated with public speaking, and the butterflies-in-the-stomach uneasiness comes flooding back and we begin to lose control. Those feelings compound the difficult task of speaking and contribute to even greater stress and panic within the speaker. Further, today when we speak, we are frequently putting even more stress upon ourselves to perform well and not “goof up” in front of others. We have developed over the years an anxiety-laden self-consciousness that fills us with apprehension and, for many of us, speaker’s panic. It’s no wonder that so many fear public speaking. I’m convinced we don’t hear many outstanding presenters because so many of us just want to survive the experience!

By understanding the anxiety reactions we can help ourselves take a more confident approach to public speaking and not panic. First, it is normal and natural to feel some stress before a presentation. However, when our hearts are pounding and we feel like running away and the “butterflies” are running amok, we cannot rationalize a calm approach. In other words, it has become my job to get people’s “butterflies” flying together. I like the way Edward R. Murrow put it: “The best speakers know enough to be scared. Stage fright is the sweat of perfection. The only difference between the pros and the novices is that the pros have trained the butterflies to fly in formation.” Also, Herbert Benson, M.D., who has been associated with Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, tells us that the stress reactions many of us expe-rience are predictable. In his best-selling book, The Relaxation Response, he states: “… people react in a predictable way to acute and chronic stressful situations, which triggers an inborn response that has been popularly labeled the ‘fight-or-flight’ response.” This response is a natural, instinc-tual reaction and when someone tells those who suffer with speaker’s panic they will have to make a presenta-tion, there is a predictable reaction. However, Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, taught something quite empowering: “Fears are educated into us and can, if we wish, be educated out.” In other words, we can unlearn our fears.

So what do I recommend? My antidote to speaker’s panic is my speech anxiety reduction program, “The 7 P’s of Speech Anxiety Reduction.” I have seen thousands helped by these seven positive adjustments, which I still use myself.

1. Positive Perception Start seeing public speaking and all your oral communi-cation tasks as opportunities to “build a bridge” to others … as opportunities to connect … to communicate. Further, start seeing speech as power that must be harnessed. Ralph Waldo Emerson re-minds us: “Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” In addition, recognizing a moderate amount of stress and anxiety could help you. My perception on anxiety was changed when I read this from Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian: “… Anxiety always arises whenever we confront the possibility of our own growth.” I made a perceptual shift and realized I was no longer taking an anxiety attack; I was now taking a “growth attack”! Finally, embrace the wis-dom of Marcel Proust to improve your perceptions of speech: “The real voyage consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Have eyes that see public speaking and speech as power.

2. Positive Thinking Norman Vincent Peale wrote a wonderful book, The Power of Positive Thinking! It is a great title because it reminds you there is power in your thinking. The second P requires you to monitor your thinking and determine if your thoughts are positive or negative. If they are negative, your thoughts are defeating you and keeping you from growing as a speaker. Cognitive therapists teach a simple and yet profound truth: Your thoughts set you up for failure or success. There is a Japanese Proverb that reflects the power of our minds: “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.” I teach everyone I work with this: “As we think, so we become! Think correctly.”

3. Positive Self-Talk Whenever your thoughts are negative, you must immediately go into Posi-tive Self-Talk. Og Mandino, the famous self-help author, wrote many books that helped me and millions throughout the world to change our self-talk. His book The Greatest Secret in the World is particularly helpful. For example: “I will persist until I succeed. Today I will be the master of my emotions.” There is great wisdom in the Old Testament thought that should be embraced too: “Supervise especially your thoughts, because it is they which determine your life.” Get in the habit of speaking correctly to yourself about public speaking and all your speech challenges: “I will persist until I succeed and excel at public speaking.” “This audience needs to know what I know and I am a gift to them be-cause of my expertise and experience.”

4. Positive Visualization See yourself doing your presentation and doing it well. Use the power of your imagination and begin to daydream positively about your presentations and all your oral communication challenges. Rehearse in your mind before you actually do your speech. Try making up a positive visualization script in which you write down specifically how you want to deliver your message and present your thoughts. I teach everyone I work with this: “The model must precede the statue! The visualization must precede the speech! You must see a new way before you can deliver it!” Positive visualization is a way to map your mind with public speaking success. I call it a psychological blueprint for how we are going present.

5. Positive Breathing I call this “belly breathing” because you breathe from your tummy instead of from your chest. Positive breathing allows you to control your stress reactions. Do not breathe from your chest. Take two slow deep breaths before you speak and exhale slowly as you focus on your tummy ex-panding as you inhale, and your tummy deflating as you exhale. Note: Watch great singers. They breathe from their tummies. Or watch woodwind or brass instrument players. Even newborns teach us how to breathe. Put babies on their back and they breathe from their tummies. You will control your speaker’s panic by being mindful of your breathing and by breathing deeply from your tummy. (This is called diaphragmatic breathing.)

6. Positive Preparation Thomas Edison said: “Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets with preparation.” You should do a thorough audience analy-sis (i.e., a demographic, psychographic and geographic analysis) as well as prepare your topic meti-culously with a well-thought-out thesis. Further, you need good research informa-tion to back up your statements and to increase the “ethos” and credibility of your speech. This kind of preparation will decrease your stress reactions. When you know what you are going to say, you don’t have to worry about your message. Also, rehearse your speech several times before trusted colleagues and friends who can give you constructive feedback. Further, anticipate any questions someone could ask you and know and rehearse your answers. In all my years of helping people grow in their public speaking, I am still amazed at how many do not prepare. As Dale Carnegie, the famous speech teacher, said: “Only the prepared speaker deserves to be confident.”

7. Positive Behavior/Performance Finally, on the day you are speaking, behave as you want to behave, regardless of your feelings. Take your positive visualization script and begin to behave as you have visualized. Act as you want to be. William James, the famous American psychologist, taught it this way: “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the mere direct control of the will, we can indi-rectly regulate the feeling which is not. Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there. If such conduct does not make you feel cheerful, nothing else on that occasion can. So, to feel brave, act as if [you] were brave, use all of [your] will to that end, and a courage fit will very likely replace the fit of fear.” In other words, if you begin to behave confidently, even if you don’t feel that way, your behavior will begin to dictate your feelings and you will improve your presentations and be less likely to be panic-stricken.

Speaking before others does not have to be dreaded. If you follow “The 7 P’s of Speech Anxiety Reduc-tion,” you will notice an improvement in your presentations and you will be less likely to experience speaker’s panic. I have seen my approaches work for over 7,000, and as I admitted previously, I use the 7 P’s too. There are other suggestions I recommend for my students and clients, but my 7 P’s will help you if you apply them, and you will find yourself confidently delivering your messages without being panic-stricken. Empower yourself through my 7 P’s and when someone says, “Excuse me, you’re on,” you will relish the opportunity to connect to others … to influence others.

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