By Alyson Connolly

Whether or not you have a good idea of what your specific problem with public speaking may be, many issues can arise while preparing for and during your speech. It’s important to have a good sense of them. You may be afraid, your body language may be making you feel less than confident, you could have a vocal problem, you could be running out of breath and not getting to the ends of your sentences. There are many possible reasons for these things.

Here are a few things to remember:

  • Performing requires effort — but you don’t want the audience to see that effort.
  • A powerful speaker is relaxed and comfortable.
  • Your public speaking voice should be the same one you use when talking to your family, friends, and colleagues. (I have a client who is a politician, who told a friend that he was working with me. “Whatever you do,” his friend said, “don’t turn into one of those fake-sounding politicians.” You need to have your own style and sound like yourself.)

You may just need little tweaks — or you may need more work.

Fight the fight, flight, or freeze response

You’ve probably heard the statistics. People rate public speaking up there with dying on the all-time fears list. It should be no surprise then that during public speaking, the automatic response that we usually see when facing a life-threatening situation kicks in: It’s sometimes called the fight, flight, or freeze response. This was first described by physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon in his book The Wisdom of the Body in 1932. It’s a physiological response to fear that traces back to prehistoric days. A Cro-Magnon was always on guard, looking out for danger — because danger was real back then, and it came from everywhere. We aren’t cavepersons anymore, despite how you may feel some days behind the lectern, but we still feel the fear. It’s built in to us.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: It’s okay to be nervous, because that shows that you care. When you’re presenting, adrenaline (often triggered by fear) courses through your body. That’s a good thing. That adrenaline is doing you good — it’s giving you an extra boost during an extraordinary time. When your body is stressed for a long time, as when a prehistoric ancestor was fighting off a herd of saber-toothed cats, the stress hormone cortisol is also secreted. And that’s when we have problems. When you’re scared, your voice reflects it. You may sound shaky, or you speed up, or you speak so quietly that you can’t be heard, or you blank and can’t think of what to say next.

The best solution to conquering fear and anxiety is proper breathing technique. Breathing slowly — as opposed to the short little breaths you take when anxious — stimulates your brain to activate the calming rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system. Basically, proper slow breathing shuts off the tap that’s supplying you with stress. By adopting a positive attitude, changing your body language, and saying yes instead of no, you can actually change the way you feel about yourself. And that translates into better public speaking.

Affirm your worth with affirmations

Do you say no before you say yes? People are hard-wired to say no first, thanks to our ancestors the aforementioned cave dwellers. Is your own mind getting in the way of success? You can get positive about presenting by adopting a better attitude.

That all starts with affirmations. Affirmations help to kick-start belief in yourself. “I am a great speaker,” “My message rocks!” and “I am the expert!” Say these things to yourself and before you know it you’ll start believing them — and believing in yourself.

One of Stephen Covey’s Habits for Highly Effective People is to begin with the end in mind. What do you want to happen after the speech? What do you want the audience to do? Put your focus on the audience and the message you want to impart on them.

Create reality with visualization

Most people are very good at imagining themselves doing something negative. Why not turn that around and visualize a great presentation? Picture the audience nodding in approval. Your mind plays tricks on you all the time through negative thinking. Well, two can play at that game. The brain is plastic. You can consciously change it to think more positively.

I talk about two kinds of visualization: External visualization is where you’re looking at yourself as if you’re in a movie, and internal visualization is where you see yourself actually performing the task from your point of view. Elite athletes use both kinds and find them very beneficial.

If you’re using external imagery, you can watch yourself sitting in the audience, rising when the host calls your name, calmly striding up to the lectern, taking three breaths, and beginning your speech — which will be great. The audience is giving you appreciative nonverbal reactions. Your visual aids are all in place. You end your speech to genuine applause.

With internal imagery, you simulate giving the speech in your own body. When you go through your speech, how are you feeling? What are you seeing and hearing?

Get rid of tension

We all need some amount tension in our bodies. If we didn’t have tension, we wouldn’t be able to sit or stand. So, it’s not tension in general that we need to think about and get rid of, but rather, misplaced tension.

Proper alignment is the first step in relieving unnecessary tension. The spine, as you know, is crucial to alignment. It’s the mast of your ship. If you have unnecessary tension, it starts with your spine. And that makes it harder on your muscles to just keep you standing. Then everything else gets out of whack. Your breath will be impeded, your shoulders and neck may be tight, and your vocal energy may be low. The audience mirrors you, so if you’re feeling tense, they will too.

So what can you do about it? You have to get physical. Working out relieves tension. Go for a walk or run, dust off your bike, hit the pool, or practice some yoga.

Progressive relaxation is a tension and release exercise that was developed by American physician Edmond Jacobson in 1908 to help patients overcome their anxiety. This is an exercise where you tense all body parts individually and then release to feel the difference. You start by lying on the floor in a quiet place. You learn to tense and release all parts of your body. Then if you feel tense before or during a presentation, you can tense a part of your body, like your toes, and release.