No Freaking Speaking: 3 Techniques for Managing Speaking Anxiety

so let's get started with anxiety management 85% of people tell us that they're nervous when speaking in public and I think the other 15% are line hey we could create a situation where we could make them nervous too in fact just this past week a study from Chapman University asked Americans what are the things you fear most in among being caught in a surprise terrorist attack having identity your identity stolen was public speaking among the top five was speaking in front of others this is a ubiquitous fear and one that I believe we can learn to manage and I use that word managed very carefully because I don't think we ever want to overcome it anxiety actually helps us it gives us energy helps us focus tells us what we're doing is important but we want to learn to manage it so I'd like to introduce you to a few techniques that can work and all of these techniques are based on academic research but before we get there I'd love to ask you what does it feel like when you're sitting in the audience watching a nervous speaker present how do you feel just shout out a few things how do you feel uncomfortable I heard many of you going yes uncomfortable it feels very awkward doesn't it so what do we do now a couple of you probably like watching somebody suffer okay but most of us don't so what do we do we sit there and we nod and we smile or we disengage into the nervous speaker looking out at his or her audience seeing a bunch of people nodding or disengaged that does not help okay so we need to learn to manage our anxiety because fundamentally your job as a communicator rather regardless of if it's planned or spontaneous is to make your audience comfortable because if they're comfortable they can receive your message and when I say comfortable I am NOT referring to the fact that your message has to be sugar-coated and nice and for them to hear it can be a harsh message but they have to be in a place where they can receive it so it's incumbent on you as a communicator to help your audience feel comfortable and we do that by managing our anxiety so let me introduce you to a few techniques that I think you can use right away to help you feel more comfortable the first has to do with when you begin to feel those anxiety symptoms for most people this happens then the initial minutes prior to speaking in this situation what happens as many of us begin to feel whatever it is that happens to you maybe your stomach gets a little gurgle e maybe your legs begin to shake maybe you begin to perspire and then we start to say to ourselves oh my goodness I'm nervous oh they're going to tell I'm nervous this is not going to go well and we start spiraling out of control so research ion mindful attention tells us that if when we begin to feel those anxiety symptoms we simply greet our anxiety and say hey this is me feeling nervous I'm about to do something of consequence in simply by greeting your anxiety and acknowledging it that it's normal and natural heck 85% of people tell us they have it you actually can stem the tide of that anxiety spiraling out of control it's not necessarily going to reduce the anxiety but it will stop it from spinning up so the next time you begin to feel those anxiety signs take a deep breath and say this is me feeling anxious I notice a few of you taking some notes there's a handout that will come at the end that has everything that I'm supposed to say okay can't guarantee I'm going to say it but I you'll have it there in addition to this approach a technique that works very well and this is a technique that I helped do some research on way back when I was in graduate school has to do with reframing how you see the speaking situation most of us when we are up presenting planned or spontaneous we feel that we have to do it right and we feel like we are performing how many of you have ever acted done singing or dancing I'm not going to ask for performances no okay many of you have we should note that we could do next year maybe a talent show of alums it looks like we got the talent there that's great so when you perform you know that there's a right way in a wrong way to do it if you don't hit your the right note or your right line at the right time at the right place you've made a mistake it messes up the audience it messes up the people on stage but when you present there is no right way there certainly better in worse ways but there is no one right way so we need to look at presenting is something other than performance and what I'd like to suggest is what we need to see this as is a conversation right now I'm having a conversation with a hundred plus people rather than saying I'm performing for you but it's not enough just to say this is a conversation I want to give you some concrete things you can do first start with questions questions by their very nature are dialogic they're two-way what was one of the very first things I did here for you I had you count the number of F's and raise your hands I asked you a question that gets your audience involved it makes it feel to me as the presenter as if we are in conversation so use questions they can be rhetorical they can be polling perhaps I actually want to hear information from you in fact I use questions when I create an outline for my presentations rather than writing bullet points I list questions that I'm going to answer and that puts me in that conversational mode if you were to look at my notes for today's talk you'll see it's just a series of questions right now I'm answering the question how do we manage our anxiety beyond questions another very useful technique for making us conversational is to use conversational language many nervous speakers distance themselves physically if you've ever seen a nervous speaker present he or she will say something like this welcome I am really excited to be here with you they pull as far away from you as possible because you threaten us speakers you make us nervous so we want to get away from you we do the same thing linguistically we use language that distances ourselves it's not unusual to hear a nervous speaker say something like one must consider the ramifications or today we're going to cover step 1 step 2 step 3 that's very distancing language to be more conversational use conversational language instead of one must consider say this is important to you we all need to be concerned with do you hear that inclusive conversational language has to do with the pronouns instead of step 1 step 2 step 3 first what we need to do is this the second thing you should consider is here use conversational language so being conversational can also help you manage your anxiety the third technique I'd like to share is research that I actually started when I was an undergraduate here I was very fortunate to study with Phil Zimbardo of the Stanford Prison Experiment Fame many people don't know that zim actually was instrumental in starting one of the very first shyness Institute's in the world and especially in the country and I did some research with him that looked at how your orientation to time influences how you react and what we learned is if you can bring yourself into the present moment rather than being worried about the future consequences you can actually be less nervous most of us when we present are worried about the future consequences my students are worried they're not going to get the right grade some of you are worried you might not get the funding you might not get the support you might not get the laughs that you want all of those are future states so if we can bring ourselves into the present moment we're not going to be as concerned about those future States and therefore we'll be less nervous there are lots of ways to become present-oriented I know a professional speaker he's paid $10,000 an hour to speak it's a good gig he gets very nervous he's up in front of crowds of thousands behind the stage what he does is a hundred push-ups right before he comes out you can't be that physically active and not be in the present moment now I'm not recommending all of us go to that level of exertion because he starts out of breath and sweaty hey but a walk around the building before you speak that can do it there are other ways if you've ever watched athletes perform and get ready to do their event they listen to music they focus on a song or a playlist that helps get them in the moment you can do things as simple as counting backwards from a hundred by tough numbers like 17 I'm going to pause because I know people in the room are trying yeah gets hard after that third or fourth one I know my favorite way to get present-oriented is to say tongue twist saying a tongue twister forces you to be in the moment otherwise you'll say it wrong and it has the added benefit of warming up your voice most nervous speakers don't warm up their voice they retreat inside themselves and start saying all these bad things to themselves so saying a tongue twister can help you be both present oriented and warm up your voice remember I said today we're going to have a lot of participation I'm going to ask you to repeat after me my favorite tongue twister and I like this tongue twister because if you say it wrong you say a naughty word and I'm going to be listening to see if I hear any naughty words this morning okay repeat after me it's only three phrases I slit a sheet a sheet I slit and on that slitted sheet I sit oh very good no shits excellent very good now in that moment in that moment you weren't worried about I'm in front of all these people this is weird this guy's having me do that you were so focused on saying it right and trying to figure out what the naughty word was that you were in the present moment that's how easy it is so it's very possible for us to manage our anxiety we can do it initially by greeting the anxiety when we begin to feel those signs we can do it when we reframe the situation as a conversation and we do it when we become present-oriented those are three of many tools that exist to help you manage your anxiety


  1. I like this guy. This stuff is gold. I have a 5 min presentation tomorrow, and then a 20min presentation next week. Wish me luck.

  2. Framing the presentation as conversation certainly helps, and starting with questions makes this aspiration a reality. Thanks for sharing this practical, often overlooked tip.

  3. +Matt Abrahams – Am thrilled to have discovered you as a new virtual mentor that will bring value to my skill set as I start my first post-graduate job. Keep up the good work! 
    p.s- be on the lookout for an article I am posting about your dynamic impact 

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