Overcoming Speaker Panic: Six Tips

Not long ago, while attending an industry conference I bumped into a smart, professional woman I know. She asked what tips I had for people, like her, who panic when they speak.

"Just power through it," I said. "We all get nervous."

"No, not NERVOUS," she said. "I don't get nervous. I PANIC. I'm petrified. My throat tightens, I get cold sweats, my skin gets blotchy and I feel like I could faint."

Oh. That's different.

We're all a little uneasy when we speak, or at least we should be. Often, merely stepping into the spotlight triggers a burst of adrenaline that manifests itself as nervous energy. That's just our body's way of helping us rise to the occasion. For most, the stage fright wears off once we settle in. 

But for others, the reaction and recovery time are far more severe. For those poor souls, public speaking isn't just unnerving. It's debilitating. 

If you suffer from severe stage fright, a professional speaking coach is likely the surest route to success. A speaking coach can address your specific anxiety and customize a plan to help. Consider interviewing a handful of coaches to find one whose style is a good fit. 

In the meantime, there are strategies you can try on your own. Here are a few of our favorite tips for overcoming speaker panic:

1) Speak as often as you can in low-risk situations.

Make a toast at a dinner party. Stand and speak before immediate family. Lead a meeting or speak at a non-work function. No doubt, those situations bring anxiety too. But they provide a safer environment for gaining confidence. 

2) When preparing your remarks, mentally divide your material into small sections. 
The Open, the Product Overview, the Case Study, the Pitch, the Close. When it's go-time, you won't feel as if you're crossing a raging river, rather stepping from stone to stone until you're safely on the other side.  

3) Rehearse. Out loud and repeatedly. 
I know, initially practice may seem to make things worse. But keep at it. In the end, every minute of rehearsal translates to greater confidence on stage.

4) Physically calm yourself before you speak.

Fifteen minutes prior, step into the restroom and take three or four "cleansing breaths," by fully inflating your lungs, then slowly and completely emptying them. Or try the "power pose," holding your arms high above your head for two full minutes (so long as you don't feel dizzy.) Both cleansing breaths and the power pose send biological signals that stem the physical symptoms of panic.  

5) Begin with a story to create a personal connection. 

This is always a good idea, but particularly for the panicked speaker. By telling a story, you'll create a connection with the audience, then sense their approval and start to calm down. Practice your story beforehand to ensure it's relevant, succinct and on point. 

Finally my favorite tip:

6) Forget about you; worry about them.

When I get too spun up before a speech, I step aside and imagine one person in the audience who desperately needs to hear what I'm about to say. Maybe my remarks will save them money or time or even their job---but they need this. Suddenly my self-consciousness falls away and I'm focused squarely on making a personal connection and driving home key points. Better still, if I fumble or lose my place, I get right back on track, knowing my audience is counting on me to pull it together.

Yes, speaker panic is a real and often debilitating condition. But the good news is, it's also curable. Follow these tips and remember you're in good company. As Mark Twain said "There are only two kinds of speakers in the world. 1) The nervous and 2) the liars."

Give it a try and let us know how it works or what else might work better. For more great ideas and tips for rock solid communication, check out our blog "Let's Be Clear," visit bluestoneexec.com, like us on Facebookor follow us on Twitter @bluestoneexec.   

Next Time, Try Skipping the Agenda

If you begin every presentation with an agenda, here is a quick and helpful hint to make your next presentation instantly better:

Stop doing that!

Sure, your high school speech teacher hammered home that foolproof formula: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; Tell ‘em; Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” But today’s audiences expect something different----or at the very least a modern riff on that familiar refrain.

When an executive stands to deliver a presentation, then pauses to “review the agenda,” he or she risks slamming on the brakes before things even get rolling. In many cases, the executive senses the audience’s boredom and starts adlibbing details about each agenda point, dragging out the painful opening and stealing the thunder of the actual presentation.

Yes, your audience wants and deserves some assurance that you’re going to cover the points they want to hear. But perhaps a better plan is to craft a great open that leaves no doubt your presentation will be both interesting and relevant. Consider scrapping the agenda altogether and diverting the extra time and effort to a compelling open, persuasive key points and a provocative close.

Of course, if you’re part of an organization that requires presentations begin with an agenda (and don’t assume that because everyone else does it, it’s a requirement), you may have to go along with the program. Still, there are a few ways to comply with company policy without sabotaging your show.

1. Let a paper agenda suffice: Distribute a printed agenda ahead of time so audience members can peruse it before you take the stage. They’ll know what to expect, but you won’t waste precious moments (or their attention span) going over rote details.

2. Give a quick verbal agenda, rather than a visual one. Skip the agenda slide and instead quickly run through your game plan verbally, before launching into your carefully planned open.

3. Outboard the agenda. If your organization absolutely insists that you begin with an agenda slide, treat it as its own entity. Keep it as short as possible. Then stop. Give your audience a signal that the REAL presentation is about to begin by taking a long pause, changing your floor position, flashing a blank slide, telling an interesting story --- or all of the above.

The best way to captivate audiences is to convince them early on they’re about to hear something they’ve never heard before. Do that, and they won’t be wondering about what you’re going to cover. They’ll just be looking forward to it.

Give it a try and let us know how it works or what else might work better. For more great ideas and tips for rock solid communication, check out our blog posts at “Let’s Be Clear," visit us at bluestoneexec.com, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @bluestoneexec.