Maybe you know this feeling: knees trembling, voice shaking, mind going blank, heart beating loudly and fast… What are you about to do – walk into a lion’s cage? Or speak up in public?
Feeling fearful and even having a phobia about speaking in a public setting afflicts many of us – as many as 75%, according to some reports. Why? Well, getting up and speaking up is a step into the unknown – you can never be quite sure how you are going to go down and this feeling can push us into fight or flight syndrome.
What happens when we get nervous is that it causes a chemical reaction in our body creating the so-called stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. We tense our body preparing to deal with the ‘impending danger’. The tension in our body means we can’t breathe fully and only fill to the top of our lungs. We therefore quicken up the breathing process to ensure that we get enough breath in to our body and the oxygen in our blood is prioritised to our limbs to better “fight or flee” and our heart beats faster to get this job done. As a consequence less oxygen is directed to the brain and this can create a ‘brain freeze’, where we forget what we were going to say, even though we knew what that was in advance, and our voice has a more strangled quality. This is a basic instinct which has evolved to allow us to react quickly to life threatening situations – that lion for example, or an oncoming car or a fire – and help us literally to fight or flee. It is a really important response when faced with a real danger. Unfortunately, we often go into this state when we are faced with other stressors – such as public speaking – which is an overreaction to a non-life-threatening situation. So you can end up closing yourself down when all you want to do is to inspire an audience with your words.
My first career was as an actor. I can so remember as a 19 year-old (and before drama school), how I was thrilled to be cast as Princess So-Sweet-Lee in a local production of the panto, Aladdin. Yes really, that was the character’s name!! I was on cloud nine. I sailed through the audition process – not believing I would get the part, I was simply relaxed and free. During the rehearsal process however, I began to tighten up. When you are working creatively and growing into a part it is natural (and essential) to get that adrenaline flowing. However, I got stuck in fear.vI struggled to produce that free flowing voice and I got so nervous and tense once that I literally lost my voice and someone else had to go on for me. It was a deeply unpleasant experience, and only when I went to drama school and learnt about diaphragmatic breathing was I able to really understand what had happened and how to combat it.
It was also a lesson that I learnt to use not only as a performer, but in other aspects of life when I needed to come across with confidence and certainty. For example, in interview situations or being calm when having difficult conversations; and when speaking up in social situations to a group.
Understand that it is totally normal to feel nervous when speaking up in situations other than friendly chatting with friends, but that you can take control of the unpleasant situation. Relax and breathe. Before you speak, breathe deeply so that you can feel the air pushing into your rib area, stomach and lower back. Activate muscles in the torso, limbs and face on the out breath. The best breath for speaking is a “centred” one – i.e. breath fills your whole lung and rib cage area, rather than just being drawn into the top of your lungs and the chest cavity.
As mind and body are linked, this breathing more deeply will not only relax your body, but your mind too, meaning that you can take control. Those unpleasant physical affects in your body may never go away completely, but by breathing fully and taking your time, you will take control and they will lessen. In public speaking we say that it is about getting the butterflies in your stomach to fly in formation. As the brain receives more oxygen you will be able to think on your feet more easily and ‘freeze- brain’ will melt.
The great news is that the adrenaline that you create when you are fearful is the same adrenaline that is created when you are excited about something that you actually want to do! Obviously, it is a bit of a mix of the two, but if you are seeing the excitement more than the fear, then the whole experience is going to be much more pleasant.
The neuroscientists tell us that we have the ability to decide to experience a situation as positive rather than negative. So, by reinforcing positive thoughts alongside diaphragmatic breathing and some basic speaking technique, speaking out really can be an exciting and invigorating experience rather than a terrifying one.
Fiona Whytehead at Locus Coaching runs workshops and one-to-one coaching sessions to help you develop your skill at, and enjoyment of, all types of public and formal speaking; thereby helping you to communicate at your best. Get in touch to find out more: firstname.lastname@example.org or through the contact page on the website.