As I stood there on that stage, the only light was the one shining directly on me. Faces shadowed in the stadium seats of the theatre, silence screamed at me: “Say it! Say the next line!” I was petrified, racking my brain for the lines I had prepared so many times. All I could think was, “Oh, Gohd, make me disappear!” I wanted a trap door to open under my feet. Even a big hook from stage left pulling me offstage would have been better.
Speaking anxiety is a wild and burly beast, isn’t it?
I wish I had known these three strategies seventeen years ago on that stage in San Francisco.
They would have helped me recover from that moment. (In case you’re curious, I did recover – just barely. And learned a cool lesson, too. You can see me tell the story here.)
Let’s make sure you have these tools in your toolbox now so that next time you have the opportunity to speak and anxiety starts to interfere with your ability to be truly brilliant in that speaking, you can call on them immediately. Here are those three strategies:
1. Catch It Early:
Possibly the trickiest thing about anxiety is that the very thought of experiencing it can make us anxious. In fact you might even be feeling a tiny bit of it as you read this (if you do, go read point #2 below and implement immediately )
Here’s a classic example: You are given the opportunity (or assignment) to speak. Your heart skips a beat and your hands get damp (early anxiety arriving on scene). Without even knowing it, this reaction causes you to tuck away this assignment – to “deal with it later.” It’s in the back of your mind but every time it comes up again, that discomfort arrives with it, and you decide something else more pressing must get handled. (Is this sounding familiar? If it does, don’t feel bad. You are so not alone!) By the time you get to preparing for this speaking event, the anxiety has grown even more – and you are pressed for time to boot!
This also happens in the middle of speaking. It happens while standing at the front of the room or on the stage and seeing the first “sea of faces” – or when you realize you just told that last story wrong (even though they have no idea how the story was supposed to go anyway). These are moments when we can catch the anxiety rising early and head it off before it takes us over. The “catch it early” strategy is only about noticing. It’s recognizing in the moment that we are heading toward (but not yet in the spiral of) anxiety. We feel our heartbeat quicken, notice our attention moving away from our message and the audience and into our own heads. The only thing to do in that moment is to notice, stop and implement point #2 below.
2. Take a Belly Breath:
Immediately upon noticing signs of increasing anxiety in your body, take a breath slowly into your belly. You’re probably thinking that will look strange to your audience – stopping and breathing. Trust me, it will do a far better job of keeping your audience engaged and feeling peaceful than if you don’t do this. Of course, wait to finish your current sentence. But only wait that long. Then take a short pause, a deep belly breath – maybe while walking to the other side of the room or stage – then speak again. The calm and ease this will bring you is so good. If you aren’t familiar with how to take a belly breath (it’s quite different than most of us breath normally), here is a video I created last year that shows you how.
This works beautifully in the moment – and it also works way back when you first learn about your speaking opportunity. Take a few deep belly breaths and get started on the preparation immediately. Nothing will ease your anxiety as well as giving yourself plenty of time to prepare!
3. Stay Over with Them and Out of You:
This strategy leads directly from my own speaking mantra, which is: “This is not about me. This is about them and how I can serve them more powerfully.” Read that aloud, will you? This is the truth. This thing you are about to do – this sharing of your message (whether from the stage, as a contributor in class, or writing an article for publication) – it is about service. You are here to make life better for people with your message. The stage, front of the room or whatever other place through which that message channels – it’s just that, a channel for your service to them.
If you can remember this – that it’s all about them – then your “performance” is so much less burdened. Your need to be perfect doesn’t even make sense. Your perfection doesn’t inspire change in others, human connection and contribution does. Thoughtful, caring, connected communication does. And that’s what you’ve got in you, ready to share with them.
Because you started early enough, prepared like crazy and now, you are here to serve it all up for them.
These are three of my very favorites anxiety-reducing strategies. What are your favorites? Will you share them so we can all add them to our toolkit.