Public speaking is a topic that can freeze the heart with a cascade of physiological responses. While, to some degree, anxiety may be reasonable and based on real fears—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 a mortal attack by a fierce and hungry predator.
I should know. I am one who made an art out of nearly total dissociation when facing a public speaking event. Luckily, I had an internal sub-persona who could carry on, while the rest of me withdrew under layers of irrational terror. I could emerge from a speaking engagement to people around me telling me how great my presentation was, but not able to consciously recount a moment of my own experience.
With resistant and sweaty practice, and developing the following beliefs and skills, I still get nervous before a presentation, but once underway, I find that I am able to more fully engage with my audience and thus have an enriching experience myself.
For the massage therapist wanting to increase clientele, educating the public through public speaking can be an effective means of making potential clients aware of the benefits of regular sessions. So, it will benefit you not only in your human evolution but also in the growth of your practice to become confident at speaking to a group of people.
Ground the Self
In his book, The Courage to Teach, writer, activist, speaker and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, in Seattle, Washington, Parker J. Palmer, talks about “one of our deepest fears at the heart of being human—the fear of having a live encounter with alien ‘otherness’ … We want those encounters on our own terms, so that we can control their outcomes, so that they will not threaten our view of world and self.”
For me, I think, this is the root of why public speaking can be so deeply frightening: We are not in control, and so being authentic with our audience puts us in a vulnerable situation of exposure and risk.
Palmer suggests that teaching, and I would add, public speaking, is the meeting point of our stage presence and our backstage realities. Often, he wrote, we try to make our “performance seem relatively smooth and accomplished, but inwardly, [we feel] anxious and fumbling and inept.”
One result of this contradiction between how we experience ourselves and how we think other people view us is a disabling sense of fraudulence. Palmer writes, “driven by fear that my backstage ineptitude will be exposed, I strive to make my on-stage performance slicker and smoother—and in the process … I conceal my own heart and am unable to weave the fabric of connectedness” that effective public speaking requires.
I think the keystone to becoming comfortable with public speaking is to evolve congruence between one’s onstage and backstage lives. Rather than contract in fear for our whole, tender, imperfect, authentic Self, we could practice growing more at ease, accepting, forgiving and generously able to bring the unique qualities of our Self into our public speaking, so as to ground it in our depth and passion and one-of-a-kind perspective on life.
In truth, every moment of our lives presents opportunity for practicing making both intentional and spontaneous meetings authentic. We are practicing public speaking daily in all aspects of life’s activities.
Psychologist Florida Scott-Maxwell (1883–1979), 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.”
In a recent study by psychologist Arthur Aron, the exercise “36 Questions to Fall in Love” is based on two people asking and answering 36 specific questions that progressively get deeper and more personal. While it can be difficult to open ourselves to another person, especially a stranger, this exercise forces both people to share themselves through their answers and thereby become more vulnerable (and authentic) with each other.
Sharing increasing levels of vulnerability with one another can result in equivalent deepening of connection and intimacy. This is one example of how we can practice our trust and tolerance for being more open, authentic and vulnerable in all aspects of our life.
Step Up to Speaking
Practice the following three steps, each one for a week, as often as possible, in small and larger ways, and journal daily about your internal experiences. And after practicing, begin to apply these steps and their benefits to your public speaking activities.
1. Social psychologist 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. Try adopting postures that make you feel steady, grounded, open-hearted, and expanded, when standing in line waiting, when chatting socially with friends or colleagues, when having a confrontation, or when telling someone how much you care for them.
There are five 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 creates 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.
• 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.
2. 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, which you can resource to support you and your presentation.
At best, this can be a mutual embrace shared between you as the presenter and those who are in attendance to witness your presentation.
You are there in that moment of public presentation for a reason, likely for a coming together of many factors, known and not-known. So, as you prepare to give a public presentation and during the actual time of delivery, take stock of what it is that 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 that 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/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 and assumption. Present your ideas with the knowledge that as they extend outward into the audience, there is lots of responsive energy coming back to you.
3. Take care of yourself in preparation for a public speaking engagement. Dress comfortably and in a way that you feel attractive. Brush your teeth. Wash your face and reapply fresh makeup and some pleasing perfume or essential oil. 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.
There are three homeopathic remedies identified for stage fright. Gelsemium is for anxiety before public speaking with a sense of paralysis. Argentum nitricum 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.
It’s crucial to be prepared if you are giving a pre-scheduled public talk. One of my favorite feedback comments that I received after presenting my master’s thesis to the whole community, was that it was like I was skiing down a mountain and anticipating each curve so that I could take it smoothly and with confidence.
You need to be deeply familiar with every aspect of your presentation, have a good sense of the flow and timing, and be ready to convey your dedicated sense of why your ideas are worth sharing. Then, time can slow down and open up, and you can allow all the surrounding resources to flow into your presentation, as well as effectively navigate any challenges that may arise.
Come from Nothing
There are also times when we are spontaneously called on to speak at the spur of the moment, without any preparation. Naropa University performance professor Lee Worley wrote a book about the sacred art of acting, called Coming from Nothing. She suggests that, habitually, we focus on ourselves with a harsh, judgmental mind, but in order to learn to be an effective actor or public performer, we need to surrender the harsh critic. Embrace the person you have created, accept and honor yourself as you stand at the podium, and remember to come as you are.
“Protecting ourselves so well can actually imprison us,” Worley wrote. “Willingness to open does not happen all at once; it must happen continually over time and in many situations if it is to replace closing down.”
She offers us four foundations for public speaking with spontaneity:
• A willingness to open
• Trusting in your own experience
• Willingness to take a chance
• Holding the outcome lightly
Grab that next opportunity to speak publicly. Walk out 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 reframe 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 “The Interplay of Ethics & Self-Care: Compassion for Self, Compassion for Others,” for MASSAGE Magazine’s September 2016 issue.