Getting up in front of your class or fellow club members to give a presentation can be an anxiety-provoking situation, as we often feel we are being judged by those in the audience. This can lead to all sorts of harmful thoughts, such as “I’m stumbling on my words” or “I’m speaking too fast.” These thoughts then manifest in our bodies, often making us feel like we’re out of control. Our heart races, palms sweat and muscles tense. Even our voice may sound broken.
So how does your body know the difference between debilitating anxiety and the rush you may get on a rollercoaster or during an athletic match? Physiologically, they’re quite similar—heart rate and respiration increase, muscles become engorged with blood and body temperature rises. The difference occurs mentally, however, as your mind makes sense of information based on experience and expectations. Knowing that this anxiety begins in your head can be helpful as you learn to gain control over it.
Here are some tips: Keep your body loose and relaxed. Our muscles tend to tighten and tense when we are anxious. Try to consciously be aware of your neck, shoulders and facial muscles—are they tight and tense, or soft, smooth and gel-like? Your eyes—are they fixated like a deer caught in headlights, or are they blinking and relaxed? Your breathing—is it shallow and hurried, or is it deep, smooth and gently rhythmic like when you’re calm and content?
Familiarize yourself with your environment and make friends with your classmates in the audience by engaging in casual conversation before the presentation. Being in tune with your audience and their interests (e.g. music, hot spots on campus or the basketball team) will make them feel more connected, and they’ll be more attentive to what you say. Also, identify a friendly face in the audience before you begin—one that you can later seek out for a familiar source of comfort while presenting.
Keep in mind that a little anxiety is normal and everyone experiences it. The trick is to avoid being overly anxious. So make sure you know your stuff! And put in the rehearsal time. It will make you confident and you’ll be able to focus more on your talk while getting the distracting thoughts out of your head.
Finally, consider some public figures who you admire for their speaking abilities. What qualities make them appealing speakers? Perhaps they exude confidence by connecting with the audience, listening carefully to questions or having a strong grasp of the subject matter. How do they walk, talk, move and breathe? Emulate them. After all, if you wanted to learn how to shoot hoop, watching Michael Jordan wouldn’t be such a bad idea, right?