The idea of public speaking can bring an almost immediate feeling of anxiety to even the most confident individuals. It doesn’t matter if you are the president of the United States giving the State of the Union address on international television, or a high school freshman presenting his end-of-term English project in front of the class of 2014 — no one is safe from the crippling effects of stage fright. This is because the feeling of stage fright is part of a hardwired defense mechanism that helped keep our ancestors safe in pre-historic jungles.
Today, although the jungles may be concrete, and instead of a pack of wolves to fend off, you have an audience of judging eyes. Our bodies still react in the same way to threatening outside forces. In the case of public speaking, the threat is the speech. Not to worry too much, though; we are highly complex and intelligent creatures able to conquer any obstacle that stands in our way, even our own instincts. Stage fright is not exempt from this, and scientists have compiled some pretty useful tips to help us ensure the smooth delivery of our speeches.
Why Does Public Speaking Make Us Nervous?
It is in our DNA to worry about our reputation. In fact, some linguists believe that language was developed because of the advantages gained from being able to cooperate through indirect reciprocity and build our reputation, as explained on the American Scientist. Considering the importance of language and being able to communicate with others, it’s understandable that public speaking makes us nervous. “It’s the flight-or-fight response, a self-protective process seen in a range of species,” Mikael Cho, an educator who delivered the TED Ed lesson on the science of stage fright.
Stage fright is not an emotion but a physiological response. Before we give a speech, the hypothalamus sends a message for the body to release adrenaline and triggers our bodies' flight or fight defense. As our bodies go into defense mode we experience many of the characteristics associated with stage fright. Our muscles tense up to prepare for a fight, which causes our legs and hands to shake. You sweat as your blood pressure suddenly drops. Your digestive system shuts down to maximize the delivery of nutrients to vital muscles and organs, and this will cause the sensation of having butterflies in your stomach. Your pupils will dilate making it hard to see things that are up close, such as your notes or slides, but your long-range vision is perfect, allowing you to make out the judging faces of everyone in the audience.
How Do You Become a Better Public Speaker?
According to Cho, genetics have a huge part to play in the way that you handle pre-speech anxiety. Some people are wired to react more to stage fright. However, stage fright is natural and inevitable for all of us, so instead of trying to get rid of the problem, you instead should follow Charles Darwin's advice and adapt to the situation. LJL seminars, a company dedicated to providing public speaking seminars and customer service programs, believes that preparation and practice can improve public speaking skills by 75 percent, proper breathing techniques can improve it by 15 percent, and having a calm and positive mental state can improve your public speaking skills by 10 percent.
MIT advises that the best way to ensure that your public speech goes as planned is to practice — a lot. Practice your material, too. It is best to practice in the room you will be giving the speech, or a similar room in order to get familiar with your surroundings. The Anxiety and Depression Association of American also suggests doing relaxation exercises, which may significantly improve public speaking by tricking your mind into a relaxing response, instead of a defensive one. Julie Paramenter from Indiana State University also suggests in her essay, "Tips for Dealing with Nervousness," deep long breaths to both increase the amount of oxygen in your blood stream and keep your voice nice and steady.
Next time you have to speak publicly, remember to try not to worry about stage fright too much. Remember it’s a natural reaction and, instead, try to calm your nerves with these helpful tips. Although being nervous at public speaking is a part of our instincts, being the elegant and creative creature we are, the ability to overcome this fear is easily within our power.