“I look around the room and see a blur of about 10 colleagues all staring at me waiting for me to talk. I can’t breath. Sweat is pouring down my face. My hands are trembling. I am red-faced and have such a dry mouth. I can’t swallow, something is caught in my throat. I need to pee. I am about to be sick. I can’t speak. I can’t see properly. My head is banging.”
This is one of my clients describing panic when giving a presentation at work. The anxiety she felt was so powerful and so unpleasant. She is confident, respected and highly competent in her job but feels so small and humiliated by the fear of speaking in front of others. She had often made up excuses not to present and had even missed out on job promotions due to a presentation element at interview.
With some help this client has gone on to confidently give presentations and has since been promoted at work. If you can relate to this, I hope you find this article helpful. Please don’t allow panic to stop you from getting to where you want to be in your career. You can overcome it with some help. In this article I am going to introduce you to six helpful tips to start you on your way to overcome panic and anxiety when giving presentations.
Understanding the fear
It is so common to experience panic and anxiety when presenting in front of people. Public speaking is one of the most common fears, also known as Glossophobia. It is estimated 3 out of every 4 people feel anxiety when speaking in public. So you are not alone, you are in the majority.
Why do we feel panic and anxiety when public speaking?
When we are in danger it is natural for the body to shift into survival mode. This is known as the flight/fight response. Adrenaline and cortisol is released and our body prepares to fight the danger, run from the danger or freeze so not to be detected by the danger. This is a very physical response in which we have amazing strength and abilities. You may have heard of mothers lifting cars to save their children who are trapped underneath or the mother in Northern Quebec who fought a polar bear to save her children who were playing hockey.
You might be thinking what does this have to do with my fear of public speaking. The answer is it has everything to do with it. The feelings you experience in your body when you are public speaking, or for some of you even the thought of public speaking, are triggered because you believe you are in danger and your body goes into flight/fight response. All of the sensations of panic are physiological changes perfectly designed to prepare the body for danger. Please see my previous posts including Managing the energy in your arms and legs during Stress – Fight or Flight for a fuller understanding of how each panic symptoms relates to helping the body survive.
Even though public speaking isn’t a physical danger requiring super strength, the flight/fight response can still help you. With the right level of adrenaline and cortisol, you will be more focused, energised and alert to give a great speech. When these levels go too high and panic sets in your ability to give your speech will likely be hindered. You might freeze on stage or you might have an urge to run away. You might interpret your sensations to be a sign that you are not able to give a speech or that something more sinister is happening to you.
It is important to know that your body isn’t doing anything wrong. It is responding correctly to your cues. You are signalling to your body that you are in danger and it is trying to help you. So here are my top six tips to help you to begin to believe that it’s okay to feel anxious when public speaking and how to help your body feel safe so you don’t panic.
Top Six Tips
We help our body feel safe by slowing down our breathing rate. Here is a short easy way of slowing down our breathing. This exercise only takes 30 seconds and can be done before and even during your presentation (one long breath rather than the 30 seconds). I would encourage you to practice many times daily before your presentation.
30 seconds breathing exercise
Stop what you are doing, close your eyes or look to the floor.
Breathe in a long breath by breathing in three times before breathing out a long breathe by breathing out three times. Each breath in should be even. Try not to hold your breath at any time.
Whilst breathing in say in your mind “breath” “ing” “in” then whilst breathing out say in your mind “breath” “ing” “out”.
Keep a steady pace finding a rhythm that feels comfortable for you. Keep breathing in for three breaths and out for three breaths for about 30 seconds or longer if you like. Open your eyes or look up and continue on with your day.
2. Go with the sensations, Don’t fight them
When we try to stop the flight/flight symptoms it can just make the panic worse. Try to just let the sensations be there and continue anyway. There is nothing dangerous happening to your body. It is just doing it’s job. Remember up to a certain level these sensations are going to help you perform better.
Help your body feel safe by being okay with the sensations of the flight/fight response. Subsequently this will reduce the sensations. Remember theses sensations feel so much stronger to you than to others viewing you. Others may not even notice that you are anxious or panicking.
3. Prepare to succeed
How we think can influence how we act. It is likely if you are anxious about giving your presentation, you are imagining it to go badly. This is just preparing yourself for failure. Instead prepare to succeed. Practice your presentation so you know it inside out.
Spend time imagining yourself giving the presentation and being super confident. Imagine yourself being the best you can be at the presentation. Imagine your audience listening to you intently and silently enjoying what you are saying. Imagine your audience gaining so much from what you have to tell them. Imagine yourself having finished the presentation and it going the best you can think possible.
4. Fake it
Many actors are socially anxious. If this sounds odd to you, there is an explanation why they can be in the spot light and perform in front of millions – they are not being themselves. They are playing a role. They are removed from that inner dialog of self-doubt and self-criticism because they are being someone else. They are free of themselves and their self-beliefs.
You can use this for your presentations. You don’t need to be yourself, you can be your presentation self – a super confident and incredibly talented public speaker. You can think up your own character and walk onto that stage like an actor. Eventually you might start believing that this character is in fact you and that you are the super confident and talented public speaker.
5. Use Props
Help yourself as much as possible with notes, powerpoint, props, anything that will help you to concentrate on what you are saying rather than the thoughts in your head. Keep yourself moving by using a laser pointer, walking if you have room, or using your hands. This will help keep your body stay loose and reduce the build up of energy.
The more you speak in public the easier it will be. Your anxiety will naturally decrease if you keep exposing yourself to speaking in public. So say yes to every opportunity to speak and create opportunities to present to others. The more you do it the more confident you will be.
I hope you have found something within this article helpful in overcoming and managing your anxiety and fear of public speaking. Please share with anyone you think might find this helpful and comment with any thoughts.
With thanks to David Laws for this week’s feature image.