How can one control their nerves during public speaking or test taking? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
The main solution to my phobia, as I discovered, lay in paying attention to the way I was breathing. I was breathing very shallowly, from the top of my chest. This doesn't bring in enough oxygen to properly oxygenate the body. The result? My body felt a feeling of panic that related much more to the lack of oxygen rather than (as I had previously supposed) to the fear of speaking in front of people. The drawing at the left below is an attempt to illustrate upper chest breathing (left) versus "lower down" breathing (right).
It's really quite a simple technique to breathe from deeper down. It almost feels fake, to breathe so that you expand from around the belly rather than around the rib cage. But it works. About 90 seconds before you're due to go on, when that "yikes" feeling of anxiety really starts kicking in, start consciously breathing from deep down, expanding your chest like a barrel. This will help to minimize that squeaky, breathless voice that often comes with fear of public speaking--or fear of test taking! Try breathing this way in a few brief practice sessions before you have a "real deal" public speaking event or test.
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The tips I'll give below relate more directly to public speaking.
One important issue is the context of who you are speaking for. Imagine that you are standing in front of a glass cage with a rattlesnake in it at a zoo. No big deal, right? Now imagine the glass disappears. Very big deal! It's all in the context.
You want to shape the context with which you are viewing the audience. First of all, imagine there's a pane of glass between you and them--hey, they're in a kind of different world, so it's okay to just be yourself. Next, remember that you're not there to be YOU--you're there to channel a helpful and informative message to them. Think about their needs, not yourself. It's okay to pretend you're someone else while you're channeling the information you are sharing. Pick whoever you'd like and admire. In my case, before I go on, I remind myself that I am channeling Joan Rivers. It doesn't matter if I'm actually conveying something very deep and scientific--Joan's my gal. She loved being in front of audiences. I can pretend to be that way too, at least for an hour or two, until my speech is done.
When I'm speaking, I'll get nervous sometimes inside and think--I'm so nervous! What if I say something really wrong! But I just let that thought go by and keep going. It's actually perfectly natural for those kinds of thoughts to arise. I've also discovered that if I feel really nervous inside, it's actually not visible on the outside, as long as I have my breathing under control.
On important talks, like my, or the I gave for the National Academy of Sciences at the Sackler Auditorium, I must have practiced on the order of 70 hours each. was a good guide in getting ready for those important events. Basically, even though I was petrified with fear inside, I'd given the talks so many times that my mouth knew what to do even though my mind often didn't. I looked casual and calm, even though I certainly didn't feel that way inside!
Those two big practice talks were great, though. They gave me a solid foundation for speaking so that I learned I could stand and speak in front of audiences, even with high pressure, without freezing. The more I speak, the easier it gets. One trick, if despite your best efforts, you still find yourself a bit panicky mid speech, is to pause for a drink of water. Use those spare seconds as you're walking over for the glass of water to get your breathing in line.
I've found by sharing confidences in the green room before speeches, that even highly experienced speakers will go over their slides before a speech, even if they've given the speech dozens, if not hundreds, of times in the past. If they've last given the speech only a few days previously, a couple minutes of review will do. But if it's been a few months since giving a particular talk, it's a good idea to go through the talk again completely sometime during the day before, just to get those neurons all back in tune and firing. Doing the review the day before instead of the same day as the speech allows your brain time to re-synthesize and get everything properly back in mind.
I can't emphasize enough how important it is nowadays to have good visuals that draw people's attention. Not just a bunch of clip art, but well made visuals that are directly relevant to what you're speaking about. Your audience will really appreciate the fact that they are getting key ideas both verbally and visually.
Becoming a good public speaker is probably one of the key life skills I've learned--it enhances everything else I do as a researcher, writer, and innovator. I try to have fun with audiences--to treat them as if they're my friend and collectively, we're sharing a joke. Surprisingly, it can be easier to speak to a thousand people than to two people. With a thousand people, you know exactly what you're going to say, and you're in control of the situation. With only two people, not so much.
Twenty years ago, I remember looking shyly at one of my professors and thinking "I could never speak in front of a class like that!" And that was just a simple class of twenty students! I would never in a million years have thought that I'd eventually be prancing the stage in front of an audience of 2,000 in Jakarta with my beautiful batik, or joking around on a panel in front of 500 students in Taiwan, or madly ad-libbing fifteen minutes (probably the funniest, most informative part!) of my talk in South Africa as technicians struggled to bring up a dead connection to my Powerpoint. Incidentally, my rule of thumb is that something always will go wrong technically somewhere in a talk, no matter how carefully prepared you are, and no matter how many times you've gone through the presentation with the technicians beforehand. If you think that way, the possibility of a glitch becomes a sort of running joke in your mind, and it's easy to have fun with the audience when the little (or occasionally big) glitch might finally pop up.
Sometime I'll give three or four big speeches in a day, sometimes doubly extended because the speeches are sequentially translated (here's avideo in Spanish of a talk I gave recently in Medelln for the 25th anniversary of the great organization , which sends Colombians to great universities around the world). People will presume I get tired after a long day of giving speeches, and I do. But the reality is that an elementary school teacher with a full day at work generally has a more challenging day than I do when I'm giving talks.
Trust me and trust yourself that with a little patience and practice, you can be not only a good public speaker, but a great one, if that is what you would like to do.
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