Five tips for managing public speaking anxiety

career advice College public speaking
By Jack S.

Glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, is among the most feared things in the world—right  up there with acrophobia (fear of heights) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders). But unlike a sheer cliff or a venomous spider, public speaking can’t kill you. But that doesn’t mean public speaking  is any less terrifying, and building the confidence necessary to tackle a speech can take time.

If you want to finally conquer your fear of public speaking, check out the five exercises below. 

Mindfulness 

In the weeks, days, and minutes leading up to a speech, the anxiety we feel may become  overwhelming. Oftentimes, this anxiety is physical, and as we take the microphone, a heart  attack feels more likely than a successful speech. But, as we usually discover, the act of public  speaking is no danger in itself, and one word at a time, we trudge through the speech. In the end, you may even wonder why you were worried at all. Mindfulness allows you to briefly step  outside the anxious pre-speech mindset and inhabit the calm and confident headspace that comes  once the speech has finished. Mindfulness tutorials are widely available nowadays, so pick one  and try to maintain a mindful practice each day in the week or two leading up to your speech. This doesn’t need to be a huge commitment—just ten minutes of focusing on your breath each  day can have surprising benefits. As you remove yourself from the frantic pace of your internal  dialogue, you may find that a mindfulness practice is useful not just for public speaking, but for  managing the ups and downs of daily life.  

Positive (and Negative) Visualization 

When people fear public speaking, they don’t fear the action itself—they fear the embarrassment they imagine will accompany the speech. In the days leading up to the speech, we often find ourselves imagining the various scenarios (realistic or not) in which the speech becomes a major catastrophe. Sometimes this negative visualization occupies more of our time  than actual preparation for the speech does. To combat this, I suggest you try to visualize  positive outcomes as much as negative outcomes. Instead of mentally preparing for the scenario  in which you forget your lines and spill coffee on the distinguished guest, prepare for the (likely) scenario in which things go more or less as expected: you make it through the speech and the  Earth continues to spin. More importantly, confront the reflexive negative visualization with  grounding truths, like the inevitable end of the speech, the sense of reward you’ll feel after  finishing, or the relative unimportance of a single speech in a lifetime of dialogue. These visualizations, themselves a form of mindfulness, allows you to steer your anxieties into a deep sense of calm.

Breathing  

Without breath, there would be no speech, and public speaking is no exception. However, too often, in the midst of a nerve-wracking public pronouncement, we find ourselves out of  breath. A longer article would linger on this point (indeed, many books have been written on this  exact subject), but for our purposes, you simply need to remember to breathe. To take control of your breath, begin by choosing a “breathing pattern.” These patterns often take the form of: 4  seconds inhaling, 8 seconds holding, 4 seconds exhaling. Breathe in through your nose and out  through your mouth. The time spent in each portion is not particularly important—just choose a pattern that is comfortable for you, and that you can maintain for a long period of time. To get the full benefit of this exercise, you should practice the pattern throughout the day, and if  possible, while doing a practice run of your speech. By slowing down and regularizing your breathing, you’ll drastically reduce the chance you hyperventilate. And if you find yourself losing your composure during your speech, simply return to your chosen pattern and you’ll find  that your body reverts to equilibrium and your anxiety lessens. 

The Power of a Pause 

One of the most feared components of a speech is the dreaded pause—the silence that inevitably occurs when you’ve forgotten your next line and need a moment to recollect. Most  often, we will instinctually fill this pause with a filler word, like “umm” or “uhh.” Instead, I  encourage you to reclaim the pause as a positive moment in a speech. Many of the most charismatic speakers fill their remarks with rich, lengthy pauses. Rather than confuse or distract  the audience, these pauses serve to impart gravitas onto your performance and offer the audience  a moment to reflect. Consider scripting pauses into your speech when something particularly significant has been said. More importantly, practice embracing the pause when you don’t know  what to say next. Recording yourself or having a friend watch you speak is a great way to  remove filler words and become comfortable with a brief moment of silence. 

Own the Subject 

If someone asked you to talk about your favorite movie, you’d likely have no trouble diving into the details. On the contrary, we’re often asked to speak about a topic that we have  less passion for and knowledge of than our favorite movie. But if we allow ourselves a moment  of positive visualization, the subject on which we’re speaking can be infused with the same interest and excitement if we consciously make an effort to do so. If you’re giving a speech on the Battle of Normandy for your AP History course, imagine the speech as the script of a biopic  featuring your favorite actor or actress. Take ownership over the topic by placing yourself in the particulars, and imagine how you might sell the topic to the audience of a movie theater. There  are many different ways to take ownership over the topic, but choose one that keeps you excited  and engaged. The more creative your visualization, the deeper your commitment to the subject, and the greater your ownership and expertise on the topic will shine through in your speech.

These five exercises are a great starting point for anyone wishing to conquer their fear of public  speaking and regain their composure during difficult and anxious moments. Try to make a habit  of practicing these exercises—although they are simple, they will continue to benefit you if you  practice them regularly. 

Jack graduated from Harvard College with a degree in Government. He completed coursework for an MPhil in Political and Economic Sociology at the University of Cambridge, which he attended as the Lionel de Jersey Harvard Scholar. Jack is also a graduate of the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School.

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