Most people say they “hate public speaking”, but I believe everyone can get over that with training! During 3-decades teaching public speaking, I developed 7-quickly applied tips using the acronym C.O.N.C.E.A.L. to manage the anxiety, nervousness and outright fear associated with public speaking, also referred to as speech fright, speech fear or speech anxiety.
Surveys reveal that most people fear or strongly dislike speaking in front of people, and for some, the fear is debilitating. After 3-decades teaching public speaking I’m convinced everyone can overcome this fear if they try, and I’ve learned helpful management approaches.
In this series we’ll review 7 tips to manage speech anxiety and more. In this introduction, let’s begin by understanding the CAUSE AND SYMPTOMS of speech fear:
Speechfear is natural! Everyone is naturally nervous before a public event. Athletes call it “performance anxiety or performance anticipation”. The feelings we experience are caused by the Sympathetic Nervous System, a natural physiological process also known as the “Flight-Fight Syndrome” (to learn more https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fight-or-flight_response). This is a natural survival adrenalin rush. If we are faced with danger, we are provided the adrenalin to fight or flee.
While public speaking isn’t life-threatening, the fear or feelings are normal and strong. Everyone is naturally nervous about performing, and these feelings including being embarrassed to fears of failure. While not life-threatening, these feelings are still very real and can be very overwhelming.
Cause of the feelings. The Flight-Fright Syndrome is causing a physiological changes in your body and these feelings can be pretty intense. Let’s review the list. You will probably not have every symptom in the list below, yet usually one stands out as particularly annoying and bothersome.
1). A racing heartbeat occurs when your heart bests more rapidly delivering oxygenated blood supporting the Flight or Fight Syndrome. People often comment they intensely feel their beating heart. No one will actually ‘see’ your heart racing UNLESS you also flush externally.
2). Breathing fast is caused by the need for oxygenated blood. There are three side-effects caused by fast breathing:
- A vocal quiver or shaking sound.
- Lightheadedness caused by hyperventilation.
- Talking too fast. Many people deliver too fast, speaking a full-sentence on a single breath without taking natural pauses until the next breath forces a pause.
3). Shaking. As your body delivers the oxygenated blood, the adrenalin rush will cause your body to shake, especially if you attempt to stand still and contain it. This symptom, in particular, is nearly universal and takes effort to manage.
4). Perspiration. This is a natural response of the body’s internal workout supporting the Flight or Fight Syndrome.
5). Digestion issues. Often described as butterflies, a lump/pit/rock in the stomach, and other gastrointestinal issues. Cottonmouth or dry-mouth symptoms is related. These symptoms occur because the body temporarily shuts down non-essential functions to redirect energy to the Flight or Fight Syndrome. The entire mouth, throat, stomach and elimination system is suspended. The stomach stops digesting and the mouth does not produce new saliva (i.e., dry mouth occurs). If the stress occurs too long, people experience other gastro-intestinal issues. This often mirrors how the person manages stress.
6). Heightened 5-Senses. The skin gets goosebumps and you might feel the hairs on your skin. Speakers experience this as an ‘itch’ or feel a single hair on their face. It’s not imaginary; your skin is experiencing heightened sensitivity.
7). Mental Block. There’s a joke that the “mind is a wonderful computer, storing every detail of our life for immediate recall, failing only when one gets up to speak”. Your mind may not provide you content and go “blank” because the inexperienced speaker is being overwhelmed and distracted by the Flight or Fight Syndrome feelings and cannot think clearly.
8). Anticipatory anxiety feelings occur if speakers begin feeling symptoms before the speech, even days prior. These feelings often mirror how the person manages stress and can include back pain, headaches, more serious gastro-intestinal reactions, stomach upset, insomnia, etc.
Speechfear is managable! I believe everyone can learn to manage speech anxiety. If you don’t manage this expected Flight-Fight Syndrome, you will feel uncomfortable and the audience will also see your reactions.
Speechfear can be reduced, and eventually could ‘go away” or change. Have you ever had someone tell you they “have no speech fear symptoms”? People tell me I do not “look nervous” and it’s true, I’m not feeling “fear”. What has happened over time and practice that the speech anxiety changes and becomes comfortable and changes names! What starts out as an adrenalin-fueled nervousness changes with enough experience and becomes both exciting and an enjoyable adrenalin-rush. Those experienced speakers who tell you they no longer feel fear will tell you they feel a rush or thrill doing a speech. This is the same physiological response occurring but it has changing names due to acquired comfort level and experience! This should be good news to beginners. In this series, I’ll show you how to get there.
Anything worth doing is worth doing badly….. at first. This line I’ve attributed to Dale Carnegie, the father of public speaking training. Public speaking is an acquired skill, and managing speech anxiety is also acquired.