Tips for new speakers: Part 3

This post is the third part of a series of posts for new and aspiring speakers.

Panic Stations!

A barrier for many new and aspiring speakers is dealing with the anxiety (some would say panic) of speaking.  For many, the mere thought of standing in front of a group of your peers and presenting a talk that you have prepared on a topic that some people in the audience may be experts in, is truly frightening and enough to make them feel ill.

I’ve yet to meet a speaker who hasn’t at some point felt anxiety before giving a talk; some, even experienced speakers, still get nervous before giving a talk. So you are not alone in thinking that you will get nervous before or during a talk. The range and severity of these feelings differs from speaker to speaker.

Let me explain how it feels: You might start feeling nauseous, a sudden urge to run to the bathroom or just to run, your mouth gets dry, your heart starts to racing, you can’t think straight, you start to breath heavily, you start to shake, your voice becomes a squeaky shadow of its former self, you start to feel lightheaded and worry you might faint.  And then, you have to walk on stage and talk – seriously?

I know these feelings from first-hand experience. It happened to me at my first talk – It was CAST 2011 and I was speaking on the Emerging Topics track facilitated by Pete Walen. As I arrived at the room, I noticed it was small and there were about 15 people seated, I was fairly relieved, then I noticed one of my testing heroes (Fiona Charles) was in the room I started to feel a little nervous – she left the room before my talk so I felt a little more relaxed (I’m no longer phased by the presence of such people at my talks).

Just as I was getting ready I was feeling OK but then there was some excitement in the room as it was announced that there were over 300 people watching the live stream of the Emerging Topics track..and I was just about to start my talk.

The apparent enormity of this started to affect me. I started to hyper-ventilate, felt shaky and woozy, my heart rate shot up and I could feel every beat. I remember thinking what the heck was I doing in a room in Seattle, what was I going to say, what’s my name again? OMG how am I going to get out of this alive. I found myself looking at the exit door and wondering if I could just leave the room, conference, Seattle, the USA, the entire Testing Community and never come back…surely that was going to be better than embarrassing myself or worse fainting in front of over 300 people.

Of course, I did the talk, it was OK, no one laughed at me, no one mocked me, I didn’t faint or vomit on stage and Pete Walen kindly gave me some useful feedback. It was all in my head, but it didn’t make the feelings of panic any less real. Back then, I just didn’t know what was going on, so the jump from mildly anxious to panic was sudden and a little worrying…which only added to the feeling of panic!

Now I could just tell you not to panic, everything will be OK, you’ll get through it but to be honest I don’t think that sort of advice will do any good.

These sensations and physical responses experienced are part of the body’s natural Fight or Flight response – basically a primitive part of your brain recognises a situation that represents some kind of danger (real or imagined) and the process is kicked into action to give you the extra energy and adrenaline to either fight your way out of danger or to run away from danger. It’s a natural response to a perceived threat such as encountering a snake or tiger.

It’s a powerful mechanism and to be honest soothing words are not going to help. So what can we do when this sort of panic hits us? Well quite a lot actually.

For me, part of this has been realising and accepting that what I’m feeling is a normal biological response, that it will pass and I’m not going to pass out. Another is using muscle tension. Another is learning to breathe. Lastly, there are things we can do to control our environment to reduce the feeling of anxiety.

These days I rarely feel panic or anxiety before or during a talk, I don’t think it’s because I am more experienced at speaking but because I have tools to help me deal with panic and anxiety if it arises. Just knowing there are things I can do helps reduce any anxiety I might feel.

Hopefully, by sharing these tools, it will encourage others to speak at conferences with confidence.

In times of panic – tension is your friend

A large challenge with dealing with this Fight or Flight mechanism is that it suddenly makes lots of extra energy and adrenaline available to you (which is why you might start to shake) so we need to use that energy up and fool our brain into thinking the crisis has passed.

So if, when we get those feelings associated with Fight or Flight, we tense some of those large muscles we have (buttocks/glutes, thighs/quads and/or core/abdominal) we start to dissipate some of that energy. This might sound odd but the part of our brain that controls the Fight or Flight mechanism isn’t too bright so it is usually fooled into thinking it is dealing with the crisis and control slowly returns to your thinking brain.

Again, it was my friend Melanie who introduced me to the idea of using tension to control these feelings. She talked about exercises such as repeatedly tensing your core muscles (abdominals and back) for 10 seconds and then relax. I personally find I need to tense my thighs and glutes and my core to get the benefits. So if you start to feel that panic before the talk then this is a great exercise to try.

What about when you are on stage and panic begins to build? I’d still use tension (and breathing – see next tip) to control and dissipate the effects of the Fight or Flight mechanism and so I’m likely to stop moving around and tense my thighs and buttocks…trust me unless you pull some bodybuilder pose on stage no one will notice.

Other speakers I’ve seen seem to use up this extra energy in their talk – you can see this when during the first 5-10 minutes they are very animated and almost run around stage, before setting down into a more measured presentation. This might work for you also but I find it doesn’t really help me.

Learn to breathe

In the previous tip I mentioned breathing as another way to combat the Fight or Flight mechanism; we all know how to breathe but when we are in stressful situations we tend to breathe from our upper chest area which can lead to shorter and sharper breathes which can lead to hyper-ventilation and the on-set of another round of Fight or Flight.

This can be difficult when you are about to present and a simple breathing exercise to try is known as Box Breathing; essentially breathe in over a count of 4-7 seconds (depending upon your lung capacity), hold it for the same count, release your breath slowly over the same count and then finally hold for the same count again before breathing back in again. When doing this exercise you should be breathing from your diaphragm (Diaphragmatic or Belly Breathing) – your upper chest should hardly inflate at all but your belly area should expand.

It’s a simple exercise but it takes a level of mental toughness to do this exercise when you are in the midst of panic. So rather than wait for the panic to start I schedule some private time prior to my talk (usually 30 mins) and part of that time I quietly spend about 10 minutes box breathing while focusing on some object. I do this whether I feel anxious or not about the talk.

I also try to keep belly/ diaphragmatic breathing going throughout my talk; not to the Box Breathing rhythm just to whatever feels natural to me. It helps with the tone and pitch of my voice as well as reducing my anxiety levels.

During a presentation, if I start to feel anxious (rare these days), I will pause and take a slower breath (again belly/ diaphragmatic rather than a shallow upper chest breath) and then continue – your audience will not notice the slight pause…unless you stop mid-sentence.

Again, it was my friend Melanie who introduced me to the idea of learning to breath well during talks.

Know how you will start

A constant source of stress and worry for speakers (experienced and inexperienced alike) is stepping out in front of the audience and starting to speak. We worry that we will forget our words, we might be feeling anxious and so with the joys of Fight or Flight we might have slight impairment of our memory function.

The start of a talk is important as it is your opportunity to capture and engage the audience. However, it is likely to be precisely the point when you will feel most anxious.

I’ve found that repeated practice of your opening 5 minutes of the talk is helpful in overcoming this. I generally practice the opening more frequently than any part of the talk. In part because I want to engage the audience but mostly because I want it to be automatic so that when I open my mouth, the words just flow. Knowing exactly how I will start a talk helps me feel less anxious about presenting.

The 5 minutes is fairly arbitrary but it’s enough time for me to get comfortable being on stage and talking in front of this audience.

Know how you will stand (or sit)

Most of the time we are not conscious of how we stand or what we do with our arms and hands during conversations and meetings but as soon as you stand in front of a gathering of people to give a talk, it’s as if you’ve lost all control of your appendages and they have grown to clown size proportions and we don’t know what to do with them.

It can become a source of worry, so it’s best to deal with that up front so that you don’t suddenly become self-conscious while on stage. So think about how you are going to stand or sit – at least for the start of your talk.

If you are really not sure how to stand or what to do with your hands, consider a fairly neutral stance feet shoulder width apart, weight even over both feet with your hands interlaced in front of you. This is a good open stance (positive body language for your audience) and is helpful should you need to tense various muscles to get rid of excess energy.

If possible have a look at where you will be presenting and get a feel for it. I like to know what the presentation space is going to be like before I talk – that usually means strutting around the presentation area to get a feel for the space.

This may seem like a small thing, but being familiar with the environment will help reduce your level of anxiety about presenting.

Wrapping Up

I hope you find these tips useful and they encourage you to give conference speaking a try.

At the moment I don’t have plans to write any more tips around speaking but if you have specific areas of being a conference speaker that you’d like me to cover then do get in touch and I’ll see if I can make it happen.