In this workshop, you will learn some practical and useful methods and routines to improve your abilities as a public speaker, and to reduce your anxiety around the idea of public speaking. We will discuss and practice physical and mental methods for defeating anxiety and aiming at a positive outcome, and preparatory methods to help set the scene for success.
The session leader should read the text, and then the cohort will perform the exercise together, and discuss it if appropriate.
Physical Methods [20 minutes]
These methods are meant to be used immediately prior to your speaking event.
This is a simple breathing method used by performers, athletes and military commandos alike to reduce the heart rate and gain control over the physiological stress response. Box breathing, also called four-square breathing, is called this because it is composed of four parts.
- Inhale, slowly, for four seconds.
- Pause, with the breath held, for four seconds.
- Exhale all of your air, slowly, for four seconds.
- Pause, with your lungs empty, for four seconds.
Continue to breathe in this cycle of 16 seconds until your body has physically calmed. Resume or repeat this process whenever you feel your heart rate accelerating, or any other unwelcome signs of physical stress. It works very well, and furthermore, gives you a sense of control over your body's reactions. It can be very empowering to realize that you have the tools to slow your heart rate with a few moments of intention.
Exercise: Silently do 3 full cycles of box breathing, and discuss the physiological reaction you feel with your cohort.
Assume a posture that projects confidence and calm. Your mind will tend to follow signals from your body, and furthermore, people will react more positively to you if you seem calm and collected, even if your feelings are tumultuous.
Remember that "calm confidence" is the aim, not "silent menace," unless the event you're preparing for is a boxing match. Here are some images of celebrities, who are professionally trained to look convincingly relaxed, confident, and charismatic, for reference.
Exercise: Think of an actor, performer, politician, etc. who projects a sense of calm ease and confidence. Imagine how they typically stand, or find a picture of them. Keep this person in mind as an example to emulate next time you're in this situation. Share the name of the person with your cohort if you want.
Take the Fight out of your Face
Athletes are told to "keep the fight out of your face," meaning, avoiding manifesting discomfort and fear on your face. This is good advice in the realm of public speaking as well. We show far more emotion on our faces than we realize, and we in a sense "update" on what's happening on our face.
If your brow is knit into a frown, your jaw is clenched, and your mouth is pressed into a line, you are sending yourself a sort of feedback signal that you're stressed and unhappy. Furthermore, the people around you will read this off of you, and read into your talk that you're stressed and unhappy, even if you're very well prepared. Luckily, this is the easiest thing in the world to fix. Just relax your features, and try to appear relaxed and interested. No need to overdo it. Reference the pictures of celebrities trying to look approachable and relaxed, if needed.
Exercise: Practice your relaxed, interested face to your cohort.
Mental Methods [20 minutes]
These methods are meant to be used immediately prior to or during your speaking event.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are nearly indistinguishable from the physical symptoms of excitement. For example, if I tell you I am experiencing these sensations: accelerated heart rate, cold hands, roiling stomach, sweating, rapid breathing.
You can't know if I'm describing a delighted anticipation of going on an awesome roller coaster, or if I'm about to step on stage in front of a large audience. So the trick is to practice the mental habit of interpreting these sensations as excitement. Here is an example mental script, the sort of thing that you can say to yourself if you're feeling physical symptoms of anxiety:
I'm so eager for this challenge. I can't wait to be standing up there in front of everyone. I'm going to enjoy the thrill of excitement that comes with performing at the top of my game. My heart is beating fast because it's preparing me for action. My hands are cold because my body is diverting blood to where it's needed, helping the words come to me more easily. Every sensation I'm experiencing is a reminder that I'm alive, that I'm capable, and that I'm about to do something meaningful. I will harness this energy, not as a sign of fear, but as fuel for my performance. I'm not just ready to step into this challenge, I'm eager for it...
And so on. That may come off as corny, but it works, and the more you do it, the more it works, because after you use this technique and benefit from it once, it starts to actually be true!
Exercise: Come up with a physical symptom of stress or anxiety that you tend to feel prior to performance, and write down a mental reframing for this sensation to make it into a positive sign of your eagerness and excitement. Share with the cohort.
5-4-3-2-1 Sensory Awareness
If you find your thoughts spiraling out of control, you can remedy this by grounding yourself in the physical experience of the present moment. To accomplish this, simply identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
Exercise: Practice this technique now, silently. If you notice anything interesting or unexpected happening to your state of mind, share it with the cohort.
Find a single physical sensation to focus your attention upon. This might be the feeling of your feet on the floor. You could also squeeze your hand into a fist and concentrate on that sensation.
Exercise: Decide now on what kind of physical sensation you'll try to focus on in the future. Share it with your cohort.
Break [5 minutes]
Take a five-minute break.
Preparation Methods [20 minutes]
These methods are meant to be used during the week prior to your speaking event.
Read this section silently and discuss it when done.
This is a fancy name for a technique that I have gradually perfected and streamlined over the last fifteen years. It is very easy to implement, now that we all carry smartphones with microphones and headphones. This method primarily applies for situations where you won't be able to read from a script. For example, any sort of PowerPoint presentation, or a speech at a wedding with no visual aids at all.
Write out the script for what you would want to say if you could read from a script. In other words, this would be the ideal version of your speech, with complete sentences, good structural flow, and a careful sequencing of ideas.
Read through your script once, out loud, at a moderate pace, with a timer. Adjust your script if it's currently falling much too long or much too short of your allotted time. Don't worry too much if it's reasonably close.
Read through your script once more, this time "performing" it, as you would wish to deliver the speech under ideal circumstances. This time, record the speech with your phone or computer. This is meant to capture the best version of you delivering the best version of this speech.
Listen to the speech over and over. I've found that if I start doing this about three days in advance of the speech, and listen to it two or three times each day, it will soak in. Be sure to actually pay attention to it, don't just play it in the background. The aim is NOT to memorize the speech. Memorization would be much harder. The aim is to make these ideal phrasings and compelling intonations of delivery a bit closer to the surface of your mind. To get used to the idea of hearing yourself talking this way, and saying these things. Finally, doing this will also cement the ordering of concepts in your mind very firmly.
I have been using this technique for many years, and I personally attribute about 50% of my success as a speaker to using this technique. The other 50% is a combination of experience and preparation, plus the application of all the other anxiety-controlling techniques given above. My colleagues tell me I never seem nervous before a speech, and there is a sense in which I very rarely am nervous, but the reason I am rarely nervous is that I'm using these techniques!
Indicate to the chat that you've finished reading.
Exercise: Discuss the specific importance of step 3, "performing" the script with the desired tone, delivery, and energy. Why does this matter? What do you think would happen if you repetitively listened to yourself reading the script in a bored, mumbling voice?
You can actually get away with not rehearsing if you've done enough of the previous exercise, but rehearsing never hurts. Try to rehearse a few days before your speech, to give yourself time to smooth over any rough spots. If you rehearse the morning of the speech, there's a risk that you'll just make yourself more nervous.
Exercise: Share with your cohort your current rehearsal habits for public speaking events. Could they be better?
The First Ten Seconds
If you've done any amount of public speaking at all, you may have noticed that the first few seconds are often the hardest. Once you get through the start of the talk, people tend to fall into a natural rhythm and, if they've been anxious, regain some confidence. You can take advantage of this phenomenon by memorizing the first 10 or 20 seconds of your talk, which will usually be the "overview" of what you're going to be talking about. (A talk should usually be structured like this: "Tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them")
I've personally found the best trick for a good overview is to imagine that you're explaining briefly to a friend what your talk is going to be about. (Or actually try briefly explaining it to a friend.) Humans are natural storytellers, but we tend to get in our own way when we are preparing to give an "official talk" of any kind. A good speech, technical talk, wedding toast or even political stump speech is a kind of story. The opening overview is the shortest possible version of the story.
Exercise: Pick a prompt from this list of possible topics for a short talk.
- Your most unusual or interesting talent.
- The best gift you ever received
- The importance of specific objects you always carry
- An encounter with a celebrity
- Your favorite recipe and why it's special to you
- A favorite family tradition
- Your ideal superpower
Take a few minutes to silently write out the "opening lines" of the talk that you would give on this topic. You will be sharing this with the group, though not yet. Alert your cohort when you're done.
Close your eyes and imagine how the event is going to go. Visit the venue in advance to see what the room looks like, so that you can accurately imagine where you'll be sitting before you take the stage, how you'll walk up to the stage, where you'll stand, and so forth. Imagine yourself being calm, confident, and compelling. Imagine the audience hanging on your every word. Feel the microphone in your hand, see the stage lights nearly blinding you, and yourself calm and capable in the midst of it all. Everything goes perfectly.
Do this exercise whenever you detect yourself going into any kind of anxious spiral in the days prior to the event. It is useful for redirecting your mind into a positive and anticipatory state in the long term. In the short term, use the more immediate mental techniques above.
Exercise: Do you currently use visualization for any aspect of your life? If so, share it with your cohort.
2 Minute Lightning Talks [30 minutes]
We're going to take turns giving 2 minute micro-talks. The talks are going to begin with the opening that you wrote in the The First 10 Seconds exercise. You may read it out directly or attempt to go off-the-cuff, it's up to you. Then you'll proceed to talk improvisationally to finish out 2 minutes. If you run out of time, simply stop, no need to wrap up. The point of this exercise is not the talk itself, but rather the application of the specific techniques we covered today. Apply these techniques during the wait for your turn, not just during your talk.
- Assume a relaxed and confident posture (even if sitting).
- Use box-breathing to control your nervous system.
- Take the fight out of your face. Make your face open, pleasant, and curious.
- Reframe sensations as indications of readiness and excitement.
- Ground yourself in physical sensations or observations.
- Visualize yourself succeeding.
When everyone has finished their talk, discuss which techniques you used, and how you felt they impacted your performance. Do not critique each other's performances; you didn't have enough time to properly prepare, so a critique is of little value here.
Wrap-up [5 minutes]
Share your own public speaking methods, tricks, and practices with your discussion group.