I spoke not long ago with a group of caseworkers from a government social services agency. These are the people who do the hard and often thankless job of seeing that children in difficult circumstances get the financial support they need.
But some of them told me they were most stressed out when they had to get up in front of an audience. One said she broke out in hives every time. She asked what could be done about that.
I told her I’d never been schooled on how to treat stress rashes (though I’m told that moisturizer and hydration help), but I know some ways to reduce the stress that leads to them. It begins with realizing what’s going on in your body.
There are those who believe stage fright stems from our evolutionary heritage. When we get up to speak, we face a sea of eyes looking back at us. We humans all have pretty strong threat detection radar, and those eyes seem threatening.
Why is that? The audience is just sitting there.
Well, some anthropologists have a theory about that. They believe that down through human history, everyone looking at you at the same time has pretty much meant bad news. It could mean you’re about to be hunted. Or attacked. Or accused. So your body prepares you to fight or outrun those you’re facing. It gives you a nice shot of adrenaline to help ensure your survival. That’s why, just when you want to be calm and in control, your body makes your hands shake, your palms sweat, and your voice break.
There are a couple of ways to handle this. One is to work off the adrenaline.
Before you speak, go someplace you can’t be seen and do something strenuous. Do pushups against the sink in the restroom. Shadowbox. Run in place. If you can’t get off alone, grip the arms of your chair or the rim of the podium or the chalk holder behind you. You’ll find your jitters are reduced, placing you in better physical control of yourself. That alone will calm you down a little.
A second technique is to focus on just one person in the audience at a time.
If you go from face to face when you get up to speak, you’ll get another shot of adrenaline each time you assess those faces for signs of a threat. This isn’t the rational part of your brain talking, of course. But we’re human beings, and when we’re nervous all we can see are more reasons to stay nervous.
When you focus on a single face you have to perform only one threat assessment. Once that’s behind you, you can just talk with that person as though you were the only two in the room. When you’ve made your point, move on to the next person and talk to her for a while. Do this again and again, covering all parts of the room as you move along. People will feel engaged even when you’re not looking at them, and they will relax. Once you see that, you’ll probably relax, too.
The best and longest-lasting technique takes a while to perfect. That’s to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking what your audience needs from you. After all, that’s the reason you’re up there, or should be. If you think, “What can I do for them?” you’ve made them into a group you will act upon, not a group ready to act upon you. You begin thinking more about your message. You begin looking for feedback, for signs of understanding. You put yourself in the right frame of mind to speak.
Now, none of this is likely to keep you from getting at least a little nervous before speaking. I’ve been speaking for more than 40 years and I still get nervous before each talk. But I’ve found that nerves aren’t really my enemy. They keep me alert and on my toes. I speak best when I’m a little on edge.
When you can think, “This isn’t hurting me; it’s making me better,” you’ll have mastered the art of handling platform fear.