A training participant stepped up to the podium for an exercise. “What do I do when my heart is pounding?” he asked.
I thought it was a brilliant attention grabber. But, no. He was asking me, in front of his colleagues, what he should do in that moment of public speaking anxiety. He couldn’t begin his exercise because his fight-or-flight response system was kicking in.
As a public speaking coach focused on policy experts, business executives, non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders, and lawyers, many of my clients are comfortable with public speaking and seek opportunities to hone their skills. Other clients are potential rising stars who want to improve their communication skills so they can reach the next level.
To help these clients overcome public speaking anxiety, I needed to incorporate anxiety reduction skills into some training modules. For guidance, I checked in with corporate wellness expert Tara Antonipillai. She suggested I explain the scientific causes for public speaking anxiety reactions and give participants tools to address them.
The physical reactions many people experience when speaking in front of a group are a response to our primal instincts. Whether we perceive a physical threat, such as lions and tigers that might attack us, or a psychological threat, such as group ostracism, our body prepares in the same way. The sympathetic nervous system, which manages these responses, doesn’t differentiate between types of threats.
According to The American Institute of Stress, physical signs of your fight-or-flight mechanism kicking in include increased heart rate and breathing, pale or flushed skin, and trembling. For some, these responses create just enough adrenalin to sharpen the senses and boost energy. For others, public speaking anxiety can be debilitating.
Tools to manage these reactions include preparation, breathing exercises, and confidence building.
- Preparation: As you know from your own experience preparing to give trainings, preparation and practice go a long way. Encourage your participants to jot down some notes about what they want to say before they begin. This doesn’t need to take more than a couple minutes. You can build it into the exercise, regardless of the content you are delivering. If you can structure one practice round in front of a small group before presenting to the larger group, that bit of preparation can make all the difference in managing their nerves.
- Breathing Exercises: Slow, deep breaths are a great way to center oneself ahead of any event. If the setting is right, you can walk your participants through a breathing exercise. This can help get everyone on the same page, calm people down if a topic is creating tension, or bring the group back to the moment if you sense people are turning to their phones or are distracted with side conversations.
- Confidence Building: When you develop a training that will include participants presenting in front of a group, it can be effective to build in some power posing. You can frame it as an opportunity for people to stand up and stretch out. Taking an expansive stance sends messages of power and confidence to our brains. Another approach is to tell them how to feel. That’s right. Tell them the presentation portion of the event is going to be fun. They are going to feel good about sharing their recommendations with the rest of the participants. Help them visualize how well it will go.
When you deliver training that requires your participants to speak in front of a group, it is helpful to prepare them ahead of time to manage potential nervous reactions. Weave preparation, breathing exercises, and confidence building into your program before participants speak. This approach can smooth the way for you to deliver your content and for the participants to feel comfortable presenting in front of their peers. It is also a great way to ease tensions and pull a group together. As Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”
Choose your tools and get to work.
Eileen Smith is a public speaking coach and former diplomat. She helps trainers, business executives, lawyers, and NGO leaders deliver their message through public speaking, executive presence, and body language. Click here to subscribe. Connect with her on LinkedIn at: Eileen Smith