It’s said that everyone has a set of fears about public speaking (aka stage fright). In this article I want to share four techniques to help you reduce your fears and perform at your best.

Anxiety = a fear of the future

You may have noticed that the amount of anxiety you experience before a public speaking performance varies for different situations. Some of the common situations in which people experience more anxiety are:
• speaking at an especially important occasion
• speaking in front of more senior people
• speaking to a large audience
• speaking in front of cameras

People tend to experience less anxiety when they are speaking to an audience who they don’t feel is particularly demanding of them (e.g. their team), when they are speaking on a topic they know extremely well, or when they feel they have really mastered their material.

Your goal is not eliminate public speaking anxiety

To attempt to do eliminate all of the public speaking anxiety you experience, would be wasted effort because, anxiety is a normal emotion which everyone experiences.

In fact research shows that a little anxiety before speaking, or any performance, helps us to become more alert and focussed on what we have to do. It increases our ability to perform simple tasks better and more quickly, up to an optimum point. However, if the anxiety goes beyond this optimum point, then our performance starts to deteriorate, we begin to make mistakes, and may even eventually lose it altogether, if our anxiety level gets too high. As we’re all unique individuals so our optimum level of anxiety is different for each of us.

While professional performers look cool and confident on stage when asked they will confess to experiencing some anxiety before performing, even when they have had many years of performance experience. The secret is that they have learned to manage their anxiety and use it to energise and lift their performance.

Anxiety activates our stress response and once we’ve activated the stress response we automatically switch into survival mode known as the fight or flight response. This response shuts down the access to our logical, rational thinking brain, limiting our ability to look beyond the imagined worst-case scenario or acknowledge that other outcomes are possible – many of them positive! If we experience the fight or flight response while delivering our speech or presentation we may find our mind goes blank and, as hard as we try, we just can’t remember what to say next.

Research has also shown that anxiety adversely impacts on our ability to learn [Perry 2006]. So fear can stop or hinder us from successfully learning our material. That’s why it’s important to spend time performing a simple relaxation technique, or exercise, prior to learning anything.

The fact is you can’t be anxious and calm at the same time. When you’re calm you have full access to the thinking brain. A simple diaphragmatic breathing exercise like the 711-breathing-technique is great for triggering the body’s natural relaxation response. I teach this to most of my clients because it’s such a great life skill.

So here are four things you can do to help reduce the anxiety you may experience before and during a public speaking performance.

1. Rehearse
Repetitively practicing the speech material aloud instils and expands confidence. With each practice round, the fear of forgetting lines or exceeding a time limit eases. This step may seem like a no-brainer, but many speakers find themselves unprepared when they let overconfidence keep them from rehearsing. The more you practice, the more your confidence will increase. As you do this, you will be able to put nervousness into perspective.

2. Review your rehearsal
Use your smartphone or laptop/notebook to record your rehearsals. From body movement and hand gestures to facial expressions and timing, these factors figure into the success of a speech/presentation. Practice until you like what you see and hear.

3. Adopt a challenge mind-set
If you perceive the performance as a threat, you will experience anxiety. This will trigger the classic flight or fight response. However, you don’t have to perceive it in this way — you can reframe it is as a challenge.

This mind-set shift is powerful because the way your mind/body responds to a challenge is totally different from that of a threat. A challenge response gives you energy and helps you to perform under pressure. When you are operating with a challenge mind-set, you are able to focus on what you are trying to achieve and you interpret any nervousness as a readiness or excitement to get on with the job. Excitement produces an energy that overcomes apprehension and makes you want to do your best to meet the challenge.

People who report being in the flow state where they are completely absorbed in what they are doing display clear signs of the challenge response.

4. Develop an awareness of your negative self-talk and change it into positive self-talk
At every waking moment we ‘talk’ to ourselves about our experiences and things happening around us. We might think `I’ll go for a run at lunch’ or ‘I’m feeling great today’. Most of this thinking/self-talk happens outside of our conscious awareness (i.e. at a subconscious level).

Perceiving your upcoming performance as a threat is an example of negative self-talk and perceiving it as a challenge is an example of positive self-talk. You can lower your anxiety and boost your self-confidence about your performance through replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk such as:

‘I feel really comfortable about this opportunity to speak.’
‘This is a challenge and an opportunity for me to grow as a person.’
‘I’m going to make a mistake, but I’m human and everyone makes mistakes. It’s no big deal.’
‘I believe that everything is a learning experience.’
‘I believe public speaking anxiety is only natural. Being a great speaker isn’t about not being nervous. It’s about using the nervous energy to your advantage to deliver an energetic message.’
‘I believe I am someone worth listening to.’
‘I am feeling excited about speaking.’
‘I’m in control.’

or you can undermine it through negative self-talk, such as:

‘It’s going to be a complete disaster.’
‘Everyone will know I’m no expert.’
‘I’m going to make a fool of myself in front of a room full of people.’
‘I’m so boring I’ll probably send everyone to sleep.’
‘I’m hopeless at public speaking and will be glad when it’s all over’

It’s important that your positive self-talk honestly acknowledges what is happening, so that it is believable when you think it. For example, if you decide to only prepare your speech the night before the event and you don’t have time to rehearse it, then there’s little point in telling yourself, ‘I’m prepared and ready to deliver an outstanding speech’ because, your mind is not going to believe this.

To begin monitoring your self-talk, write down the typical things you think/say to yourself or others in relation to your upcoming performance, then experiment with converting the negative thoughts/self-talk into more positive and realistic self-talk.

In the Confident Performer author David Roland recommends writing a list of positive self-talk affirmations for each of the four different stages of the performance process. These are:

1. PREPARATION: the period of time from the point you first know you will give a particular performance until the moment you arrive at the venue.
Example: I’m looking forward to this challenge.

2. BEFORE: the period of time while at the performance venue before you go on stage to perform.
Example: Although I feel a little nervous, this is normal and once I start to speak it will go away.

3. DURING: the period of time while you are performing.
Example: Breathe easily.

4. AFTER: the period of time after you have finished your performance and while you are still evaluating it in your mind.
Example: What can I learn from this performance?

People who have had coaching sessions with Tony have found it to be incredibly helpful to support their progress in learning how to better manage their fear of speaking or performing and move beyond the limitations they experience due to this fear. You don’t have to go it alone!

Consider giving yourself the gift of coaching with someone who is an expert in this area and who can really help you. Contact Tony today to set up an initial session and see for yourself how helpful coaching to overcome performance anxiety, can be with Tony.