Public speaking is a topic that can freeze the heart with a cascade of physiological responses.
While, to some degree, anxiety about public speaking may be reasonable—involving a fear of the vulnerability of exposure, of being judged or ridiculed for your personal reflections or for being wrong, or for disappointing those whose approval is important to you—often the extent of our response is highly distorted and more in alignment with facing attack by a fierce, hungry predator.
With resistant and sweaty practice, and by developing the following beliefs and skills, you might still get nervous before a presentation—but once underway, you will find that you are able to more fully engage with your audience and thus have an enriching experience yourself.
The key to becoming comfortable with public speaking is to evolve congruence between your onstage and backstage lives. Rather than contract in fear for our whole, tender, imperfect, authentic self, we can practice growing more at ease, accepting, forgiving, and generously able to bring the unique qualities of our self into public speaking, so as to ground it in our depth and passion and one-of-a-kind perspective on life.
Florida Scott-Maxwell, writing in her mid-80s, made the point powerfully: “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done … you are fierce with reality.”
Ground Yourself with These Techniques
Try practicing the following exercises, each one for a week, as often as possible, in small and larger ways, and journal daily about your internal experiences. After practicing, begin to apply them and their benefits to your public speaking activities.
1. Adopt postures that make you feel steady, grounded, open-hearted and expanded, when standing in line waiting, chatting socially with friends or colleagues, having a confrontation, or telling someone how much you care for them.
Amy Cuddy speaks about the importance of body language in how we feel when we are onstage and how others perceive us when we are presenting. There are three important, specific techniques for embodying a sense of grounded presence.
- Feel your feet on the ground. Really notice the sensations at the point of contact between your feet and the earth beneath.
- Bring awareness to your back body. Allow your shoulder blades, spine, sacrum and back of your neck to provide a sensation of support.
- Bring awareness and depth to your breathing. Fear causes us to constrict our breath, making it shallow. Several minutes of slow, steady, deep cycles of inhalation and exhalation create a body-minded physiological state of calm well-being.
Practice assuming a position of power for a few private moments just before a public speaking event. Once in front of your audience, take a moment to settle yourself, feet on the ground, strong back, breath in the belly, before you begin. Time can speed up when you are anxious and battling stage fright. You can take charge of your tempo by starting with a micro-moment of intentional grounding.
2. Extend your vision out into your environment. Really look into the shapes, colors and textures around you. Notice details, near and far.
We are often contracted into our internal environment and not attentive to the world surrounding us. Overstimulation can require us to filter out all the stimuli that can be overwhelming. (This is a skill as long as it does not become our habitual way in the world.)
Once you are standing in front of your audience, take a moment to really look at the people. Extend outward toward them through your eyes, to those in close proximity and those in the back row. Reach out visually to the environment surrounding the people, the walls and details of the room, even out the windows to the world outside.
There is vast energy in the space around you that you can resource to support yourself and your presentation. At best, this can be a mutual embrace shared between you as the presenter and those in attendance to witness your presentation.
3. Present your ideas with the knowledge that as they extend outward into the audience, there is lots of responsive energy coming back to you. You are there in that moment of public presentation for a reason, likely for a coming together of many factors, known and not known. As you prepare to give a public presentation and during the actual time of delivery, take stock of what it is you are offering to others within the venue of your presentation.
The concept of a mandala is that it includes all aspects within and surrounding that circle. Everyone—the stories they have brought to the event, the physical structure of the room, the weather of the day—everything is part of the wholeness of the moment, including you, the presenter.
Including you; it’s not all or only about you. It is an exchange. Your ideas and comments resonate with your listeners and generate energy, responsive creativity and potential changing of patterns of thought, belief or assumption.
4. There are three homeopathic remedies identified for stage fright. Gelsemium is for anxiety before public speaking if you feel a sense of paralysis. Arg Nit is recommended for those who have a fear of failure when having to perform in public, and who have a tendency to rush through things and get into a mess. Lycopodium is recommended for those who have anticipatory anxiety prior to speaking in public, but who are fine once they get started.
5. Take care of yourself in preparation for a public speaking engagement. Dress comfortably and in a way that you feel attractive. Hydrate well and then use the bathroom shortly before your presentation. Sometimes the simple things can provide a little extra boost. I sometimes put an inspirational photo with my lecture notes that I see just before beginning.
Master Stage Fright
Grab that next opportunity to speak publicly! Walk onto the stage fully prepared to incite creativity in the minds of your listeners. Stand there, accessing your grounded, expansive, alive and resourced self. Allow yourself to see and be seen with a soft heart of shared human compassion.
It has been said that the step from offstage to onstage is only one step. Consider that you could re-frame your stage fright into a sensation of benevolent, heightened aliveness coursing through you.
Through practice, you can learn to be the master of this energy and channel it into making magic through your public speaking.
Linda Derick has been a massage therapist and educator for 30-plus years. She is director of the Connecticut Center for Massage Therapy. Her leadership weaves together academic studies in movement from Wesleyan University, contemplative education from Naropa University, and her evolving avocation as a certified yoga instructor, specializing in stand-up paddleboard yoga. She wrote “Public Speaking for Introverts: Promote Massage to the Public,” for MASSAGE Magazine’s December 2016 print issue.