I have mentioned my friend Wendy Warman in the past; she is the owner of Smartalkers and author of Loud and Clear. Wendy is a pretty well known and successful speech and communications coach who offers practical advice and helps people understand the communications process.
I love public speaking; I don’t remember ever being fearful of an audience, large or small, or anything involving talking. I love to talk, which is not always a good thing (but that’s another blog). I don’t usually experience the nerves that many highly skilled and competent speakers and entertainers experience when they head for the podium, or even think about giving a speech. Until one day, I did. And oddly enough, in a really small and friendly forum my unfamiliar butterflies turned into full blown panic. Huh? This was weird, and not at all pleasant.
I had no idea why it happened, but I can tell you that once you know it can happen to you, it does. I figured out pretty quickly that I was now afraid of the jitters, and not the speech or the audience; I was in a vicious circle. And it just got worse.
I called my friend Wendy and asked for advice. She knew, as I did, that it was no longer about the podium, but about fear of fear taking over, and she gave a me a little trick that I will now pass along to you. This works well for any situation in which you might have an involuntary (as if there were any other kind) feeling of panic, fainting, weakness, or fear–like an interview, a meeting, or a social situation that is unfamiliar. Stage fright is not only a player on the stage, but sometimes comes with you to the party, the boss’s office, or to the networking interview at the restaurant. Or even to the airport, and on to the plane.
This is simple. Push your stomach muscles forward, so that you expand your abdomen, breathing normally. While you are doing that, repeat to your self, “I am relaxed, I am relaxed, I am relaxed.” The expansion of your tummy gives your lungs some room to take in the oxygen you need to remain rational. The recitation of the mantra provides specific and comforting direction to your brain. Apparently, as Wendy explains, your body cannot do something that your mind is directly contradicting.
My personal experience is that this works well enough for a long enough interval to get you started, and the feeling of well-being helps you gain control and confidence. If you are prepared for your gig, whatever it is, the rest is up to you. If you are not prepared, I know why you might be anxious.
If you need more help, like good speaking skills, good planning skills, or just the mechanics of constructing information into understandable sentences that will stand you well in conversations, consider working with a coach, or join one of the organizations that provide you with practice, practice, and more practice. Toastmasters is the best known among those, but there are others.
It’s really important to be able to trust your ability to control your anxiety and its symptoms, or even to convert anxiety to simple nervousness. Dr. Martin Seligman, an American psychologist known for his work in the areas of learned helplessness and learned optimism, hypothesizes in his book entitled Learned Optimism that it is possible (if not probable) that feelings of anxiety do not cause physical symptoms like lightheadedness, stomach tension, sweating, shortness of breath. Instead, consider that the symptoms cause the feelings. If that’s true, and there is evidence that it is, then all you have to deal with is getting more oxygen to your brain so that you can confront your inner bully with rational behavior.
Then, still according to Dr. Seligman, your ability to control the symptoms will cause them to stop, for the most part, as a function of your subconscious anticipated intervention. All of this is very behaviorally oriented, and behaviorism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Though my B.S. is in Psychology, and I like a lot of the behavioral theories, there are lots of points of view out there and they aren’t always in agreement.
Psychology aside, I tried Wendy’s suggestion, and it worked. Really. Well. And I have suggested it to others, and it has worked for them, I am told. So don’t go around inviting a bad case of scary nerves by not being ready for your speech, interview, or meeting. But if you get a case of nerves that feels like it might get in your way, push your tummy out, and have a quick conversation with yourself: “I am relaxed, I am relaxed, I am relaxed,” and so on.