Most speakers are not naturally at ease in front of an audience. In fact, many people are downright afraid of speaking in public. But when you ask these people why they feel nervous, you quickly learn that they are afraid of what might happen. The truth is, most of the preconceived notions that people have about public speaking stem from a fear of the unknown. What might their colleagues or friends think of them after they finish speaking?
The only way to deal with this fear is to step up. You must face any fear that you have, even the fear of being in the spotlight. Contrary to popular belief, public speaking is not really about being in the spotlight. Public speaking is about saying something that matters.
The next time you start to feel nervous, try using a technique called the “T Repeater.” Take a deep breath in and then exhale short “T” sounds very slowly until you are out of air. Go ahead. Try it. Breathe in slowly and then exhale, “Tuh-Tuh-Tuh-Tuh-Tuh-Tuh-Tuh-Tuh.” Focus on relaxing your mind and your shoulders as you are exhaling. Try to make sure that your short “T” sounds are evenly spaced. Feel yourself releasing your nervousness as you let out one short “T” sound after another.
Alternatively, find a quiet space and try the 4-7-8 Exercise. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. Remember to inhale quietly through your nose and exhale completely through your mouth. Ready? Try it. Notice how quickly the tension dissipates when you focus on your breathing. Repeat this exercise at least three times before you begin speaking.
Another helpful technique is turning your palms face up. You tend to be more nervous when your palms are face down next to your body. If you turn your palms up, you are less likely to have sweaty palms—a clear sign of public speaking anxiety. So before you speak, turn your palms up, breathe in slowly, and then breathe out slowly. Repeat this exercise a few times. Then walk to the front of the room and impress your listeners.
If you are especially nervous about speaking in front of an audience, you may want to try easing into eye contact. Many speakers believe that they have to look at their audience right away. In reality, speakers need only create the impression that they are looking at the audience when they begin their speech.
To create this effect, look at the space between an audience member’s eyes or the lower part of her forehead. If there is some space between you and your audience, you also can look at the top of an audience member’s head or the rims of his glasses. Shift your eye contact every few seconds just as you would if you were looking directly at individual audience members. You can use this technique until you are comfortable enough to make genuine eye contact with your audience.
Of course, these exercises only will help you overcome your last-minute jitters if you are prepared. Speakers often feel nervous because they’re not sure what they want to say or how their speech will turn out. This is why it’s so important that you know your material and know it well.