How Tension Can Ruin a Speech
Relaxing your mind helps to relax your body. The opposite is also true: Relaxing your body helps to relax the mind. It’s a circle of relaxation. Where you start is up to you.
Runners use every bit of energy available to them to propel themselves forward through the air and — they hope — to the podium. Then there are target shooters, whose outfits are a little less revealing (no need for aerodynamics). If you can watch them in high-definition, you should. They maintain such control over their muscles that they can remain perfectly still. Any movement of their body, even a slight sway or an adjustment from the wind, can ruin their shot. They’re trained to squeeze the trigger for maximum control rather than pull it with their arm.
Both kinds of athletes are at the top of their game, and both can control the muscles they need to an almost superhuman degree. But although both are perfect for their particular sport, if these athletes switched sports, they couldn’t function in the same capacity.
Then there’s a sport that combines both kinds of skills. The biathlon has you cross-country ski as hard as you can toward a target, then stop, release all your tension, and shoot. Biathletes have to slow down their heart rate and release muscle tension so it doesn’t affect their shot.
That’s how I want you to think of your presentation. No matter how much stress you have before the speech, I want you to be able to release it all once you’re up on stage.
Proper posture: Alignment isn’t just for cars
Proper posture is your first step to releasing unwanted tension. It’s essentially the same process your car goes through when you have your wheels aligned. It goes something like this: For whatever reason — maybe you hit a speed bump too hard — your wheels shift slightly out of alignment on the axles. Sometimes it’s hard to tell that this has happened until you begin to notice little things. Your steering wheel might not point the car straight anymore, for example, and may pull to one side. Alignment affects your entire vehicle.
Same thing with your body. If you brought your body into the mechanic and told him it’s not steering straight, the first thing he would check is your spine. Yes, your spine is the key to alignment in your body.
So what happens when your spine is misaligned? As with a car, your body will try to compensate for it. Muscles that weren’t built to carry the load will try to. It will be harder to keep you up straight, and your back may cave in a little bit. Your lungs won’t be able to take the full breaths that they would if the spine were aligned correctly. As a result, your vocal energy will be low. Meanwhile, your shoulders and neck may be tense, your knees may hyperextend, and that additional tension will carry through to your voice.
Good posture is what we’re looking for, although posture sometimes connotes a moral meaning. Like, say, a nun slapping your desktop with a ruler for slouching. And in that same way, whenever you say the word posture around people, they seem to straighten up. It certainly works in my workshops. Try it around your friends. They’ll all straighten up for the nun.
Most of us are aware of what good posture looks like — but for all the wrong reasons. “Straightening up” can actually do harm to your alignment if you force the movement. When you stand up straight — and I mean the military kind of straight — your knees lock and might even hyperextend, and the rest of your body compensates to keep you from falling.
Try balancing a book on your head: The first thing people do when they try that is stop breathing. Great, look at that, there’s a book on your head! But you’re not breathing, and you need to do that to speak.
In renowned voice teacher Patsy Rodenburg’s book The Right to Speak (Routledge, 1993), she says, “The natural way of standing is based on achieving balance, ease, and feeling centered.”
- Your head should sit balanced on top of the spine.
- Your shoulders should be released.
- Your arms should hang down by your sides.
- Your upper chest should be open and not tense.
- Your vertebrae should feel stacked one on top of the other. Your spine is neither slumped forward nor pushed out.
- Your lower abdominal muscles should be released without being pulled in or out.
- Your knees should be unlocked.
- Your feet should be firmly planted.
Identify the tension
You’re starting to get yourself aligned. Once good posture is established, it’s much easier to figure out where any remaining tension is coming from that may inhibit your speech performance. If you’re like most of my clients, you’re a reasonably healthy person. No serious back problems, able to walk around, pretty active. You may even be thinking, what tension?
The type of tension caused by public speaking doesn’t usually exist in your everyday life. But the mere thought of presenting makes it come out. You start to tense up muscles in areas of your body where you wouldn’t if you were doing literally anything else. With one of my clients, the mere mention of a speech or presentation has her gripping her abdominal muscles — something that would never happen to her in, say, the grocery store.
That is the tension we’re trying to break here, that tension we hold without even knowing we hold it. In many ways, it’s the hardest kind of tension to work on. First, you have to acknowledge that it exists.
There’s a difference between relaxing and releasing. Generally, when I speak about relaxation, I’m referring to the mental side of it, and then of course, the physical side follows. Think about coming home from work after a super busy day and sinking into the couch with a glass of wine. That’s pure relaxation. But maybe you carried a heavy box at work and one of your back muscles is tight. It’s possible to be in a state where your back muscles are tense and also be relaxed. If you’re giving a presentation and you’ve locked your knees, people can hear it in your voice. Your voice sounds tight and restricted, and that can inhibit your performance, even if you’re not mentally tense.
I generally teach my clients to release, not relax. You’re in a relaxed state just before going to bed. Or maybe with that glass of wine or cup of tea. When your muscles are released, you’re not holding any undo tension, and they’re ready to fire up at a moment’s notice. Sure, it’s good to feel relaxed after a long day at work. But that’s not what you’re going up on stage to do. You want your muscles released, but you also want to be on alert — a cat ready to pounce.
Release the tension through physical activity
You’ve expertly pinpointed where you hold tension (or you’ve got a pretty good idea about it). Now, it’s all you can feel when you tense that muscle, no matter whether it’s during a performance or leading up to it. You squeeze it, and maybe it doesn’t release like it should. And it’s begun to drive you crazy. Here are some tips and tricks to lose that tension.
“Exercise more.” I know. It’s almost become a cliché, a sort of panacea that drives people crazy and makes them long for the couch even more. Unfortunately, I’m going to join the ranks of those people right now: It really does help to be doing some physical activity. If you haven’t realized it by now, speech is physical. You’re not going to excel if you don’t have any other physicality in your life.
For one thing, regular exercise gives you a better understanding of your muscle groups. That exercise you did earlier, where you tensed and released all your muscles? That will get easier after you get to know what muscles do and how to use them. Another thing physical activity does for you is release endorphins, chemicals that make you feel exhilarated and happy and block feelings of pain.
You don’t have to run five miles a day to get to where you need to be. Going for a walk, doing some yoga poses, or even taking the stairs instead of the elevator can help.
Is your yoga mat nowhere in sight? Maybe you’re sitting at a conference table, waiting to present that PowerPoint you spent all night working on. It would probably be socially awkward (at the very least) to lay yourself across the floor, close your eyes, and begin tensing every muscle. Well, if you’ve become an expert on your body, you may have a good idea where your tension is coming from or will come from once you start your presentation. If you’re subtle, you can tense it and release it right there at the table. No one will know, and you won’t have to splay across any dirty floors!