Public Speaking?…Don’t Fear!

I’ve lost control!!!

“I have to give a presentation next month.  I’m terrified because whenever I speak in front of people, my voice ‘shakes’ and sounds nervous.  Why does this happen and what can I do about it?”

I know I have written about nerves and public speaking before, but this is an issue that I am asked about so often.  I have also discovered a handful of wonderful new resources since I last posted a blog about the subject.  So, I thought, “Why not write some more about what seems to be vexing my clients the most?”

In her recent TED X talk, researcher and clinician Jackie Gartner-Schmidt points out that our vocal folds serve a role in protecting us.  They close to protect our airway when we swallow so that we don’t choke.  Unfortunately, they also close and tighten in response to other types of perceived danger – like public speaking!!  

The muscles around and inside the larynx (aka the voice box) tighten.  The tightening leads to a sound that does not truly represent who you are.  It sounds weak, squeaky, or high pitched. It might crack or fail completely.  It betrays you and gives away how you feel in the moment, even if you are typically confident and self-assured.

For anyone who has to speak in front of other people for a living, you know that no matter how many times you do it, there remains an adrenaline rush.  It is the rare bird who just loves getting up there and speaking to a crowd!  For most, the stress of speaking in public is something that gets better with practice but never completely goes away.  The key to coping with the stress is to change your mindset.  You know that you will feel nervous.  But recognize that feeling for what it actually is:  your body’s reaction to a perceived threat.  It is a biological process.  Adrenaline starts coursing through your body, putting you into fight or flight mode.  What can you do?  You can counteract the response, or at least minimize it, by relaxing the body. 

Here are a few ideas for what you can do to physically counteract the fight or flight response to stress:

Breathe: Deep breathing into the belly engages the vagus nerve and helps with relaxing the body by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. For more information, check out this article in Psychology Today:

Negative practice: Tighten up the muscle groups of your body, one by one.  Hold them tight for 10 seconds and then release them. Repeat for each muscle group as you work your way up from the feet.

Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract Exercises:  Gartner-Schmidt introduces an exercise in the video that can be helpful for reducing the tension in your throat.  Hold your index finger just in front of your lips (almost like you are telling someone to “sh” without actually touching the finger to your lips).  Then blow a steady stream of air onto your finger while saying “ooooo.”  You want to slide up and down through your pitch range while you make the sound and wiggle the finger back and forth in the stream of air.  The effect is that you sound something like a Halloween ghost. 

Another great exercise is to blow air into a drinking straw, with and without your voice, as seen in this video by voice scientist Ingo Titze:

Although the video says that the exercise is for a tired voice, it is also a wonderful exercise to relax and reset the muscles of the larynx.

The main thing to remember about managing the stress of public speaking is that nerves are completely natural.  You are not alone!  The best thing you can do is to start to change the way you react to those feelings.  Language matters.  If you keep saying that you are nervous, you will amplify the feeling.  Try changing your language to something like, “I’m so excited about this presentation.”  It will feel silly at first, but the way you talk to yourself can have a profound impact on how you feel.

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