The Physiology of Fear
It is okay to be quite anxious before you speak in public. Almost everyone is much of the time. But it is also largely unnecessary, so before you hit the panic button when you are asked to speak, learn about how to manage the symptoms of fear including:
Heart beating rapidly
Clammy hands and feet
Legs and hands trembling
Rapid breathing and dizziness
Knotted or queasy stomach
Thin or squeaky voice
Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
These are the result of the sympathetic nervous system pouring adrenaline into the body, preparing it for what is known as the “flight or fight response.” When you think you are in danger, the body pumps you up to react. Of course, in the case of giving a speech, you would not be under the threat of dying, you would just be afraid of making an embarrassing mistake in public.
Try to recall a time when you received bad news or were really upset. If someone was trying to talk to you at the same time about another matter, it would be hard to concentrate on his words. You could not think clearly. That is a similar mind-body reaction to worrying about speaking in public. The body gears up for a threat the mind perceives and the ability to think is overwhelmed.
What most people do not realize is that this state of panic will subside naturally in a short time. When fear injects adrenaline, the parasympathetic nervous system compensates and calms the body down. The time it takes to return to normal depends on the severity of the reaction and, fortunately, you have the ability to regulate that. Once you get into the speech and take your mind off your fears, the symptoms will subside gradually anyway.
It is clear that fears about public speaking are simply the result of thinking distorted by biochemistry. Truly, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said about a much more serious situation than going up to a podium, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The temptation for some people who face a speaking engagement is to relax by having a drink of alcohol. Others resort to taking beta-blocker drugs, which are designed to block adrenaline for patients with heart problems. Either way, you are likely to become too relaxed to do a good job of delivering your speech (not to mention the other risks).
Some people are also physiologically wired for shyness. Others may have grown up in a family where speaking up was not encouraged, and they have not had jobs that required verbal facility. Either way, while these add to the challenge of learning to give speeches, any psychological, social, or biological influences can be offset by applying the right techniques.
Before you get into specific exercises to offset the symptoms of stage fright, first consider how you can make your body more speech-ready. It may seem like a tangent if you think successful speechmaking is a color-by-numbers process, just a matter of learning some tricks. You can discover for yourself why starting with physical and psychological preparedness makes more sense.