Let’s talk about dealing with your body’s reactions to your fear of public speaking
Our bodies are supposed to do what we want them to do, right? So why do we get the shakes, feel our knees go weak, or get nauseated as we approach the podium to give a speech?
My friend Joy said she’s not afraid of public speaking, she’s terrified of what her body is going to do to her.
She makes a great point. What are we afraid of?
Bringing the bad news to a hostile audience
Have you ever had to present bad news to a hostile audience? I have.
The news I had to deliver was unpleasant, but not unexpected. I was a member of an organization is a deep crisis – the leadership had been removed and the remaining members were highly polarized and barely speaking to each other. I had taken on a task and it was time to report on it – and it was bad. Very bad.
No, this wasn’t last week. But it might have been because I remember this day and this meeting very well. My hands were shaking. I was hot and felt cold sweat all over my body. I could barely breathe and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to talk to these leaders who were on the other side of the situation than I was.
I was terrified.
Because everything was poised against me. Now, I don’t want to sound paranoid – but look, everything was going against me. The people I had to talk to – the topic I had to address was about the future of the organization – or the lack thereof – and the news I had was very bad.
Today on the podcast, let’s finish up our series on overcoming your fear of public speaking with two important keys.
How do you give a speech when you’re afraid of public speaking? If you want to learn or improve your public speaking skills, Toastmasters is here for you to help you develop your skills, your message, and your voice. This is Toastmasters 101 and I’m your host, Kim Krajci.
Back to Basics: Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking
Key #1 – Learn To Recognize The Difference Between Your Body and Your Audience
Whatever your stress reactions are, learn to recognize them for what they are: physical manifestations of energy your body is producing. You can let this power drive you – or you can drive this power into your presentation. You may not be afraid of public speaking, you may just not know how to deal with this unexpected energy in your body.
That’s different from being afraid of your audience.
Was I afraid of my audience for the speech I had to give that I talked about at the beginning of this episode? Not physically, but events at the time had proven that most of this audience was not friendly to me. I might not have called them enemies, but they’d proven they were not friends. To top it off, I was not going to away – my commitment to the task was evidence of that. Quite honestly, there was a drive to get me to leave the group.
So I think my physical reactions that night were very reasonable. But…
Your Body and Your Fear of Public Speaking
Whether you’re giving bad news or you’re just so new to public speaking that you don’t know what your body is going to do – your body feels like it’s working against you.
When I needed to sound clear and competent, my voice wobbled. My notes were shaking in my hands. I’m pretty sure I was about to vomit and I’ll bet I was pale and my skin looked clammy.
I’ve said on this podcast and said at many Toastmasters meetings, getting used to being on the stage will help you learn your public speaking stage fright symptoms and you’ll learn how to deal with them.
You have to be willing to get up there first to discover what they are.
Many of these physical reactions are outside of our control. I don’t know about you, but I can’t convince myself not to be nauseated.
We may not be able to control these reactions, but we can compensate for them.
The obvious one is
If your hands shake, then the simplest solution is to keep your hands out of sight.
Toastmasters recommends that we stand up straight and keep our hands at our sides when we don’t have a purpose to move them.
I don’t know about you – but I talk with my hands. In fact, if you saw me record this podcast episode, you’d tell me to watch how much I flail around with my arms. I’m very expressive during recordings. I knock my microphone stand, I hit my hands on my desk. You wouldn’t believe what I have to edit out of these recordings.
So I think this is good advice – that I often ignore. When I try to control my hands, I put them behind my back. This irritates my evaluators, but it’s the only position I’ve found I will keep my hands still.
But what if I have notes that I need?
When I teach high school speech class, I talk about this problem with my students. I never say that notes aren’t useful, I do demonstrate how notes can be dangerous. Rattling papers distract the audience and send a message that a speaker doesn’t want.
The best way to handle shaking hands – is to know your material very well and don’t need notes. If you feel you must need notes, consider note cards, not paper. You don’t need your entire speech written out in front of you. You need a few notes.
If you’re dealing with numbers that you’re going to have to say and you need to be accurate, I strongly suggest you use a handout to make the numbers clear and eliminate confusion.
You may be just starting out and suggesting that you use a computer presentation software is adding a complication you might feel is beyond you right now – but numbers on a screen are a lot simpler for everyone.
My friend Judy just did a presentation at an advanced club about how to present statistics. It was eye-opening to see how we can show numbers in ways that clarify our points. You can find out ways to do it well!
So – avoiding paper, hiding your hands, and using computer graphics helps you hide the shakes.
This is actually kind of easy. Wear something that hides your knees. Locking your knees won’t work and actually works against you. It makes you stiff and awkward. It reinforces your nerves because it’s not how we stand.
For women, you might want to consider what shoes you want to wear. Would heels be better? Would flat shoes? What are you most comfortable in?
Find the clothing that suits your comfort level and the needs of the presentation. If your audience is expecting a professional presentation, you need to dress appropriately. You can practice your presentation so you don’t have to worry about how your clothing is going to affect you.
In the last podcast episode, I talked about breathing.
But what about nausea?
I wish I had a good answer for this one.
I have been giving a presentation with a fellow toastmaster for a non-profit organization for several years. In this year of the plague, we discussed moving it online.
I am not a lover of webinars. I have a maximum span of attention online.
Look, I watch many Youtube videos on double speed because I get bored. I’ve been conditioned to believe that if I get bored online, there’s something else for me to look at. Or a game for me to play.
So – doing a webinar – not my thing. In fact, I’m leading a webinar tonight and I’ve limited it to half an hour because I can’t take it. I’ll bore myself in that amount of time!
But my biggest stress reaction has always been in my guts. I get nauseated.
So my plan is pretty simple – I’m not going to eat much beforehand. I will try to limit what I eat to simple, fresh foods that aren’t going to give me indigestion before I start.
Lots of water – an hour before.
I get comments from some of my fellow Toastmasters about how much I drink during the meetings. Well, some of my meetings are in the morning and I’m still drinking my chai. Some of my meetings are after dinner, so I’m finishing up. Plus, I get dry. I usually have a glass of water beside me during the day, regardless of what I’m doing. The reason I don’t have water beside me at an in-person meeting is probably because I forgot my water bottle out in my car.
Avoid whatever makes you burp – carbonated beverages or seltzers.
And that’s pretty much all I can say about that – I still struggle with gasiness when I speak. Not pretty, but hey, I’m gonna be real here.
Many of your body’s reactions to stress and fear of public speaking can’t be eliminated. It can be masqueraded. It can be hidden or you can redirect your audience’s attention to something else. If you have a prop and your hand is shaking, using an image might work better for you.
You can come up with your own tips – and practice them at Toastmasters.
Did I ever tell you about the 10-minute speech I had to give and my knees were really bad – not just shaky, but I was in a lot of pain. I was shifting from foot to foot to try to get some relief – and I knew my evaluator would ding me on that – so instead, I gave the speech in front of the lectern. My topic was driving, so I set up two chairs – like the front seat of my car – and gave the speech as if I’d just gotten into my car. A little bit of play-acting – adjusting the seat, the mirrors, etc – and my audience joined me in a presentation that I’ve still gotten comments about 9 years later.
Nobody knew the reason why I wanted to sit – and still don’t. Don’t tell anybody I told you about this, ok?
Be creative in how you can camouflage your body’s reactions to stress. You will find your best solutions come out of your distress!
If understanding the difference between stage fright and fear of your audience is the first key, then the second is
Key #2: Know Your Material
The better you know your material and your speech, the better you’ll be able to perform.
When you’re preparing your speeches, especially your first Toastmasters speeches, do go for things that you know well. You can concentrate better on your presentation skills when you don’t have to stretch to remember your content.
This means spending the time in preparation. Write your speech and practice.
Should you write out your speech word for word?
Well, I do. It’s a way for me to know when I’ve got enough content because a speech that’s 3 pages long at 14 point font is about 5 minutes at my usual speed. But I don’t read my speech. I’ll take it up with me to the lectern and lay it down – face down – and give my speech. Is it necessary? Not really. Is it a security blanket? Nope. I’m not really sure why I’ve done it – but I do it, time after time. Ok, maybe it is a security blanket.
Preparation time is more than just writing a speech or preparing a computer presentation. It’s reading it out loud and looking for the best words, where to put pauses, how to gesture… all the components of a speech.
For me, the hardest part of a speech is the closing. I accept the irony that I always tell people to write their endings first, so they know where their speech is going – but I still often find myself redoing my ending – or not really having a good wrap up at the end. When I get enough practice in, I don’t have that problem!
I know many Toastmasters who can stand up and give a fantastic speech without any preparation because they know what they want to say. They know their material inside and out. Being confident that you know your topic and know it so well that you don’t have to worry about the content gives you the power to channel all that energy into your presentation skills.
What builds your self-confidence?
When you have a lot of self-doubt, you undermine your ability to succeed.
How do you overcome self-doubt? By starting with the simple tasks and building your confidence in your capabilities. If your goal is to speak to thousands of people, you start by speaking to a few and learning the skills you. As you gain experience, you’re going to fail. You’re going to goof up.
That’s ok. You’ll learn from those experiences too. Probably more. You’ll learn you can screw up and do better next time.
Self-doubt is the result of nothing more than you not yet having the chance to try. That makes sense – not everyone assumes they can do everything right away. But allowing that reasonable question to limit you is self-defeating.
This is why the gradual rise of your participation in Toastmasters will help you to grow. Starting with your story, learning how to receive and give evaluations, and how to research and craft a speech is the sequence Toastmasters recommends. This gives you the grounding you need to develop your basic skills. As you learn the foundations, you’ll build your confidence.
Self-confidence is our biggest tool against stage fright.
Channel that energy from fear of public speaking
In past episodes, I’ve mentioned that your body is producing energy. It perceives a need to act quickly.
The presentation I told you about at the beginning of this episode? In short, the organization survived. The fall-out from those events – now over 13 years ago – still haunts us. Some scars still hurt years later.
But I’m a different, more confident speaker now. If I had to give that presentation again, I probably would still feel nervous. I can’t imagine that I’d be calm and relaxed and ready to present in a good frame of mind – but I understand my stage fright reactions and symptoms now and I can separate the bad news from my body’s reaction to giving a presentation. I can channel that energy from a negative to a positive source to help me deliver a successful speech.
Presenting to a hostile audience isn’t an experience I’ve had at Toastmasters. But because I’ve gradually grown in my skills, I believe I’ll handle it better next time.
Wrap it up, Kim
Our music is from incompetech.filmmusic.io
Toastmasters 101 is a podcast production of Toastmasters District 10.
My thanks to Shane Whaley of Tourpreneur podcast – he’s the reason I went long. Blame him.
In the meantime, please recommend this podcast to the people you know who have a fear of public speaking. In Toastmasters, we have ways of making you talk – and you’ll enjoy them!
That wraps up this series on overcoming your fear of public speaking when you’re prepared. But what about when you aren’t? Let’s talk about impromptu speaking.
See you next time on Toastmasters 101 podcast.