Program Recap: Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety

We sat there frozen! What just happened?

Our speaker, Bonnie Tew, had just shaken her head, said “I am sorry, I just can’t do this…,” and walked out of the room. She had our full attention when she walked back in. She wanted to know if we had ever felt like that. Many of us nodded our heads in agreement.

Photograph taken at February 15 program, Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety.
Bonnie Tew, speaking to STC-SM members and guests about public-speaking anxiety.

Over the next hour, Tew walked us through ways to

  • identify and build upon whatever successes we have had with past presentations,
  • understand what speaking anxiety is and how to assess it,
  • prepare our presentations through do’s and don’ts, and
  • manage our anxiety.

But first, she wanted us to understand that we are all in the same boat. Jerry Seinfeld claims, in a clip from one of his comedy routines, that public speaking is the number one fear, ahead of death. (It isn’t, really.) Mark Twain said there are two types of speakers: nervous ones and liars.

Identify Your Successes

Start by identifying when you did succeed at a presentation. What was the context? What  positives  can you take away from that to use in a different type of situation? Identifying these pieces will give you the foundation for more success.

What Is Speaking Anxiety?

It has three components, each leading to the next: psychological, physiological, and physical. You really can psych yourself out, but you can also manage anxiety so it doesn’t manage you. Channel that anxiety, or physiologically, flight-or-fight hormones will kick in, giving you physical symptoms: light-headedness, diminished hearing, or tunnel vision—suddenly you cannot read your own notes; or you may feel queasy, sweaty, cold, or hot. You can talk yourself down from these reactions by building awareness and developing tactics that address your specific symptoms.

The real truth is, most audiences really want you to succeed as a speaker.

Do’s and Don’ts for Preparation

The following strategies can help us learn to get comfortable “in the speaker zone.”

Don’t procrastinate. Do prepare and practice.

Prepare:

  • What does your audience need? Why should they care?
  • Visit the location. Plan on commanding the room. Look at it, and the equipment, ahead of time.
  • Bring copies of the slides or a handout in case technology fails.
  • Memorize your first 30 seconds—your introduction, for a psychological boost.

Practice:

  • Record yourself, and listen to it to clear up any misconceptions you may have about the clarity or projection of your voice.
  • Give your presentation to a friend as a stand-in for your audience. Give them a rubric with your goals, and ask them to give you honest feedback based on the rubric.
  • Decide how you will involve the audience. The average adult attention span is down to three minutes from forty-five minutes 24 years ago.
  • Time your talk. Get comfortable with the pace of your delivery.
  • Move and gesture as you speak. Not only do people follow movement, but your nonverbal communication will aid understanding.

Don’t take shortcuts. Do invest in research and planning.

  • Know your audience. The research you do mirrors what you would do in preparing a written piece. Find out their knowledge level, interest in the topic, demographics, and their need. Define their purpose and an observable goal or objective to drive the main points of your presentation.
  • Know your topic. Research it thoroughly enough to have some background information and details, so you can speak more confidently and answer more questions in the Q&A.

Don’t memorize or read from a manuscript. Do have an outline.

  • Memorizing your presentation adds a layer of anxiety. Audiences respond best to extemporaneous delivery.
  • Reading from a manuscript makes it easy to lose your place and hard to maintain eye contact with your audience.
  • Using an outline will help keep you on track.

The Final Do and Don’t for Presentation Day

The day of your presentation has two more big challenges: waiting to give the presentation and starting your presentation.

Don’t talk yourself into stress. Do find ways to manage your anxiety.

There are several things you can do to manage anxiety while you wait:

  • Take a walk.
  • Stretch.
  • Contract and release muscles.
  • Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.
  • Use mind over matter: talk to yourself—remind yourself of your preparation. You can do this.

You can manage anxiety when you are starting your presentation:

  • Fidgety? Move to channel energy productively.
  • Cold or hot? Dress for how you will feel, not the temperature of the room.
  • Sweaty? Apply baby powder or bring a hankie to dab as needed.
  • Dry mouth? Bring cool water to sip—nothing caffeinated, icy, or hot. If all else fails, bite gently on the side of your tongue to release enough saliva to swallow.
  • Nauseous? Try ginger, herbal tea, or something like Pepto-Bismol.

In Conclusion

Tew recapped by telling us that when you start preparing for a presentation, remember where anxiety comes from, make a plan to succeed, and make a plan for while you are waiting and when you are just starting your presentation.

She involved us as an audience by giving us a handout and asking us to identify our own psychological, physiological, and physical reactions to public speaking after she discussed the do’s and don’ts. We broke into groups, swapped handouts as groups, and worked together to identify some of the ways to control and channel anxiety for the people whose handouts we received. Everyone left with actionable ways to help deal with their own speaking anxiety that came from the wisdom of the entire group.

It was certainly worth the drive to Washtenaw Community College on Thursday night, even in the fog. Bonnie Tew is a riveting speaker. She kept us all completely engaged right through the question-and-answer segment. She demonstrated to us through her thoroughly prepared presentation how useful these strategies are.

Thank yous

Thank you,

  • Lisa Veasey,  for planning this program,
  • Washtenaw Community College, for providing the space, and
  • Bonnie Tew, for showing us, as well as telling us, how to overcome public-speaking anxiety.