When it’s time to stand up and speak, do you feel a surge of adrenaline? Of course you do. It’s a human, bio-chemical reaction to being the center of attention. Everyone is subject to nervous energy when standing to speak.
Elvis Presley said this about a case of the jitters: “I go through it every show… It’s a new crowd out there, it’s a new audience, and they haven’t seen us before. So it’s got to be like the first time we go on.”
Work with the Adrenaline
Here’s a secret known by athletes. Harnessed adrenaline can be a very good thing, because it gives you a heightened platform of energy that elevates your power and performance. For members of the audience, your adrenaline kicks up the electricity in the room and their experience is more vivid.
Unfortunately, too often when we become the center of attention, adrenaline startles us. We hesitate and become self-conscious. We stove-up and try to push down the sensation. We worry that we’re looking bad and being judged by the audience.We become winded, the mind goes blank and we perform poorly. These experiences reflect the negative stress of too much adrenaline pumping through our blood stream.
Here Is an 8-Step Process That Will Help You Harness Adrenaline When Speaking in Public
- Know your material inside and out. Submerge your psyche in it so you can be conversational. Use bullets but don’t rely on notes. If you memorize anything, memorize your opening lines so you can say them without thinking. This will help you push through the “adrenaline wall,” which happens in the first 30 seconds.
- Welcome Your MOJO. Watch for the adrenaline to show up and don’t let it surprise you. Determine how adrenaline manifests for you—butterflies, palpitations or racing thoughts—and begin to expect these symptoms as a natural prelude to speaking. As soon as the symptoms show up, say to yourself, “Oh, good. My MOJO is here!” It’s true! When you harness adrenaline, you command the room. Why would you want to resist this power? The challenge is not overcoming nervousness, it is turning fear into energy before you begin over-thinking the process.
- Breathe. Breathe slowly through your nose, from the diaphragm. Breath work is worthy of your attention. See “Breathing Exercises” below.
- Engage one person at a time. Have a “mini conversation” with each person as your look about the room. This kind of audience connection helps you focus on your message. If you try to see the entire room it creates a surreal experience of speaking to no one.
- Move. A surge of adrenaline can be very uncomfortable if you are nailed to the floor. Disperse the extra energy by moving with purpose. If you’re in a big room, walk from one side to the other. This doesn’t mean you should stroll constantly. Take intentional steps and stop between steps long enough for folks to connect.
- Take control. Practice pulling yourself out of self-consciousness. When you feel yourself disconnect, gently focus and bring yourself back in to the room. Show up in your shoes and transmit your message to listeners. Say something directly to an individual in the group, as though you are the only two in the room. Tether yourself back into the moment. It takes practice but you can do it.
- Practice. If the idea fits, consider Toastmasters International for the sheer practice of getting on your feet. Successive successful experiences will give you command.
- Watch yourself on video. The rush of adrenaline does not mean you aren’t doing a good job. People generally don’t believe this until they see a video of themselves (which is why we include video in our training courses). It is amazing that the effects of this performance anxiety—this heightened energy—are hidden from the audience. As viewers and listeners we see only a fraction of the symptoms; and once you relax into a conversation, we don’t even remember them. See “The Riddle of Intense Speaker Anxiety” below.
In the West, we tend to take shallow breaths and practice chest breathing, which uses limited lung capacity. When you stand to speak, your chest can tighten, and suddenly there is just a small stream of oxygen going to the brain. We’re out of air and can’t pump enough in through the chest. This is a terrible sensation.
The diaphragm is the muscle wall between the chest and the abdomen. It’s the major muscle we use in natural breathing. If you develop the habit of diaphragmatic breathing, not only when speaking and presenting but in everyday life—the benefits can be transformational.
Diaphragmatic breathing uses more lung capacity, sends more oxygen to the brain, relaxes the chest and releases your tone of voice and vocal volume. Here is a simple exercise to help you practice.
- Find the diaphragm. Lie on the floor, on your back. Place one hand on your chest, and the other on your stomach with little finger just above the naval. Breathe slowly and notice the movement. The movement should come only from your lower hand.
- Breathe into the diaphragm. Breathe through your nose. Your stomach should push out like a balloon. Once it is full, allow the balloon to slowly collapse. Let the air slowly out of your mouth as you continue pulling inward as far as it will go, until you have no breath left.
- Exercise daily. Practice for a few minutes before you get out of bed in the morning and when you get into bed at night. Consider enrollment in a yoga class through a local community or fitness center. Well trained instructors will educate how the breath is used to enhance well-being with yoga practice.
Great performers like Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep have suffered with acute stage fright, which is more than run-of-the-mill nervousness. They have learned to overcome the affliction with the help of a professional.
But if you’re like me, you can embrace this process of risk and grow from it. If we have nothing to risk, we become lackluster and stagnant. On the other hand, if we become the center of attention, stand tall, breathe through the nervousness and stay focused on saying something real, we lean into our greatness.
The Riddle of Intense Speaker Anxiety
Researchers have attempted to solve the riddle of how intense speaker anxiety is consistently underestimated by such a large number of people observing it. In 1959, Theodore Clevenger first observed that speaker-reported and audience-observed anxiety operate at low levels of interdependence. Since then, a number of investigators have confirmed Clevenger’s observation. Studies conducted in 1987, 1990, 1992 and 1996 have substantiated the tendency for audiences to miss anxiety states reported by speakers.
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