Long ago, I lost count of the classes I taught and the talks I’ve given. The number, though, must be in the hundreds. I can remember only a handful in which I wasn’t nervous beforehand – and they were uniformly disastrous. At least for me, anxiety about speaking in public is normal, so over the years I’ve learned to cope with it.
Notice that I said “cope,” not “eliminate” or “reduce.” In my experience, you can’t eliminate or reduce what actors call flop-sweat, and you shouldn’t even try. I strongly believe that nervousness is unchannelled energy, and the trick is contain and direct that energy so that you release it while speaking, and give your talk an extra edge.
How do I turn that anxiety to my advantage? If the class or talk is especially important, and I feel even more nervous than usual, I make sure that I exercise lightly or moderately in the morning. The exercise bleeds off the excess energy, and leaves enough adrenalin and endorphins in my body that I’m awake and alert.
If possible, I like to eat lightly about two hours before I talk. I don’t want to eat too much, because doing so would make me drowsy. Nor do I want to eat so little that I’m thinking about food when I should be watching how my audience is reacting to my words.
I also want to eat healthily. If I eat junk food, then the sugar rush will be leaving me just about the time I speak. Fruit or fruit juices are usually a good choice, I find.
About half an hour before I speak, I prefer to find a room – or at least a corner – where I can review my written or mental notes about what I wish to discuss. Even if the material is as familiar to me as the ring on my finger, reviewing the notes gives me something to do and reduces any fear that I don’t know the material. Besides, I may discover something new to say that enhances my presentation.
If I am more nervous than usual, a short, slow walk helps. During the walk, I concentrate on breathing regularly, and mentally go over my topic. If possible, I try not to speak to anyone. If talking is unavoidable, I’ll be friendly, but keep my responses to a minimum.
Just before I enter the room where I’ll be talking, I may also do some breathing and visualization exercises. One exercise that has helped for years is to count ten deep, slow breaths, imagining each one descending to my navel and sitting there. Then I take another ten breaths, imagining as I exhale that each breath expands from my navel through my torso and down my arms and legs.
In another exercise, I repeatedly imagine myself drawing a line from my forehead to my navel, my breath following the line. If I am alone, my hand may actually trace the line in the air, almost as though I am closing a zipper.
Both these exercises help to calm me and leave me centered and ready to speak.
Finally, just before I speak, I take a few seconds to look over the audience. This habit convinces me that the audience is not so fearsome as my imagination made it. But I also imagine that all the nervous energy I’ve been struggling to contain expands like a sphere to include the audience and myself – and, with that, I’m ready to begin.
As I talk, now and then I’ll mentally renew the sphere, sometimes imagining smaller ones reaching out to audience members who seem disinterested. Perhaps it’s a selective memory, or the disinterested audience members simply notice that I’m looking at them, but the visualization usually seems to refocus their attention.
Perhaps this routine is part neurosis or superstition. However, for me it works, so I’m not very tempted to tinker with it. I don’t suggest that everyone follow my routine, but I do suggest that people follow their own. And if any of my routine works for anyone else, so much the better. With a little experimentation, you should be able not only to control your nervousness about speaking, but also use that nervousness to help you speak with more energy and confidence.