Let’s be honest, few people enjoy standing up in front of large groups of people and speaking. Whether it’s a short seminar presentation, a lecture, or delivering a conference paper, public speaking can feel like a daunting undertaking. Many studies have shown that people fear the prospect of public speaking even more than they fear death.
Over the years, I’ve come across many students who have a crippling fear of public speaking, and their resistance to delivering presentations in class is quite strong. They would do anything to avoid it, so much so that they may even neglect to show up for class on the days they are scheduled to present.
I do feel for these students and I wish I could tell them that public speaking isn’t an important skill to develop, but the truth is that it is an incredibly valuable skill for whatever field they go into. The good news is that the anxiety surrounding public speaking is something that can be overcome.
When working on this with students, the first place I often start is by asking them to recall the sensations they experience when they are presenting. Almost all of them have reported feeling their heart racing, palms sweating, shortness of breath, dry mouth and even shaking. All of this is very natural and is an indication that their fight or flight response system has been activated. From a mind-body medicine perspective, this makes perfect sense. The activation of the fight or flight response is how our body responds to perceived danger, and as public speaking demonstrates, the danger need not actually be life-threatening. This goes to show that the sensations of anxiety that some people experience during a presentation are a consequence of the stress that has built up in the mind.
We don’t often acknowledge how our fears affect the body, and in the case of public speaking, our capacity to communicate effectively. However, working through this piece of the puzzle is the single most important factor in overcoming presentation anxiety. The key to building up a more positive experience during presentations is to do the opposite of what would appear to come naturally in moments of high stress – and that is to consciously slow down. It may seem counterintuitive in the midst of a presentation to slow down, but once we appreciate how fear manifests in the body, the power of this approach becomes clearer.
This simple action of slowing down helps activate one of the quickest stress-busters that we have access to in any given moment, and that is our breathing. By consciously controlling our breathing through taking steady, consistent and slow breaths, we can instantly de-activate the fight or flight response system and in turn, minimize the uncomfortable symptoms that may arise during a presentation.
Presentation anxiety is not something people should have to live with. It can be overcome and I’ve seen countless people do just that. It starts with acknowledging the intricate connection between the mind and the body, and paying attention to how our thoughts may be impacting on us more generally.