"According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy." ― Jerry Seinfeld
We all have to give speeches, whether it's at school, work, funerals, or a toast at your best friend's wedding. It's a little daunting to have all of those eyes on you, and it's completely normal to start sweating, get dry mouth, and feel your legs quiver underneath you, as if they're about to give out.
What is it about standing up in front of people that is so completely terrifying?
Gizmodo made a short film that explains the biological origin of this annoying reality.
It has only been for a short time in the evolutionary history of humans that we actually don't have much physical danger to worry about. Most people rarely encounter lions or bears out in the wild anymore, but we have the the biological means of dealing with it.
The "fight or flight" response happens when your brain perceives a threat. You have boosted adrenaline and other hormones that help you stand up and attack that threat, or run away from it as quickly as possible.
Your stomach gets tight because the parasympathetic system that covers the "rest and digest" function of your body is put on hold while you deal with whatever is scaring you. Suppression of this function is why people become too nervous to eat, and the stomach feels like it's in knots. This will kick back in later, returning your body's function to normal.
Unable to respond properly to your body's fight or flight signaling, you end up standing in front of a crowd, feeling like you're about to pass out.
Biology may have gotten you into this predicament, but there are ways to overcome this fear.
Just because we're wired to want to run out of the room when we get nervous doesn't make it a viable option. Many adults will have to give speeches throughout their lifetimes, so it is comforting to know that there are steps that can be taken to reduce the anxiety that surrounds public speaking.
This one seems obvious, but it's imperative. Run through your speech several times in the days leading up to your speech. Go through your slides again and again, until you're completely confident in what comes next.
If you don't, and end up fumbling with your slides in front of an audience, you risk killing any bit of confidence you may have had otherwise.
2. Record yourself.
This one is combines the two tortures of giving speech and listening to yourself on a recording; neither of which are very fun. However, it's the best way to make sure that you're speaking slowly and clearly. You'll also be able to recognize and eliminate confusing sentences, so there won't be any confusion by the time you actually need to give your speech.
3. Think of questions, and come up with answers.
If there will be a Q&A following your presentation, take the time to think about questions that someone might ask you. If possible, try to incorporate them into your presentation from the get-go. Otherwise, make sure that you have examined any possible shortcomings in your presentation or objections that people may have, and make sure to have some solid answers to come back with.
4. Sip some water.
It never fails that the second you get nervous about a speech, your mouth turns to cotton and your words get progressively harder to understand. Bring a bottle of water with you and make sure to take a sip when you need one. Taking a drink will also give you the added benefit of slowing you down, allowing the audience some extra moments to soak in your message.
5. Get criticism.
Criticism, no matter how constructive, never feels great. Unfortunately, if you don't know what you're doing wrong, you can't address the problems and improve in the future. If public speaking is a regular part of your life, seek out that feedback and put it to good use. Besides, you don't want to be doing something wrong over and over again, right?
6. Pause when you need a break.
If you find yourself getting nervous and rushing, just take a small break. Ideally, this would come at the end of an idea before transitioning to a new thought, but pausing for a moment at the end of a sentence is just fine too. Just take a breath, relax, mentally prepare yourself for what's coming next, and get back to it.
PROTIP: Ideally, this only takes a couple seconds. Don't make your break too long, or you'll have a different set of problems.
7. Don't worry about being perfect.
While you can try to avoid it, there's a good chance you'll accidentally pepper your speech with "like" and "um" as a nervous means of continuing to speak. Of course this isn't ideal, but your audience will never know if you let a few slip. They're also not going to know if you forget to tell a joke, or any other minor mishaps that happen along the way. Do the best you can, but don't fret over tiny errors.
8. Make eye contact with several people.
This is another seemingly horrible one, as it combines the discomfort of public speaking with the horror of making eye contact with strangers. However, it is important to make the speech feel less like a speech, and more like a conversation with someone. Also, it will keep the audience engaged and make you appear much more confident. Just be sure to go around the room and connect with a number of people, rather than focus on one person.
9. Check yourself out in the mirror before you begin.
This isn't vain, it's imperative. No matter how dazzling your slides and charts are, people will be looking at you. If you have something weird stuck in your hair, spinach in your teeth, or sweat stains the size of dinner plates under your armpits, it's better to know about/fix them before you speak, rather than after.
10. Get in the mood by listening to other great speakers.
[Header image credit: iStockphoto/kasto80]