So you have to give a speech? What to do before you panic…

In last week’s post, How do you let go of fear? Give it what it wants, you learned about the mechanism responsible for the fear reaction. You learned that, once your body goes into reaction-mode, it’s a downward spiral.

So, how can you prepare to speak so that your first response isn’t panic?

In groups like toastmasters, speakers can tackle their stage fright, head-on, with repeated practice. As one toastmaster enthusiast wrote: “Smack your fear in the face!” This direct approach can and does work. 

But each person’s experience of fear around public speaking is different. This approach might not work for you. Sometimes repetition, and telling yourself that you can do it, even when you feel like you’re debilitated by it, increases the power fear holds over you even more. Sometimes by trying to pretend, repress or numb yourself to fear, it’s power actually increases. And it comes out in surprising way, at times that is least desirable. Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience.

“The defenses we erect to protect us create the very condition we are trying to avoid.” Alexander Lowen

Plus, once you numb yourself to fear, you also numb yourself to inspiration, joy and sadness (see what Brene Brown has to say about selectively numbing emotion). You cut yourself off from your own vulnerability; and vulnerability is the secret to make an authentic and lasting connection with your audience. 

So, how do you let fear be a valuable source of energy, but don’t let it run the show? 

Give your body what it wants …

Fear will override your body’s natural intelligence and make you go into Fight Flight or Freeze reaction (FFF), especially when you are taken off guard and/or entering into unknown territory. Imagine, for a moment, the difference between a surprise ambush in unknown territory and a carefully plotted offense on your home turf. So, to prepare your body for battle, give it as much information, beforehand, as you can.

If there is one thing I learned in actor training, it is this: if there is a void, your body will fill it with fear.

There are a few things that your body needs in order to feel safe, secure, at home and in control. If you give it these things, you are letting it know that it doesn’t have to go into panic or freeze, that you are OK in this moment and you don’t need to leave.

What does your body want? 

1. A familiar environment. Walk into the space where you will be presenting when it’s empty, let your body feel familiar with how you will get up out of your chair and walk to the podium. Practice looking out at the empty chairs, breathing, and allowing the fear (you will already feel) flow through you.

2. Friends to talk to: Practice your presentation out loud and in front family or friends. Practice, again, by yourself, imagining you’re speaking to that friend. Do it again, but this time, imagine you’re delivering it to someone who might intimidate you. Notice that, even with this extra sensory input, you can do it.

3. Relaxation: Sleep, eat well, drink plenty of water for the days leading up to the presentation. Rehearse for a few minutes everyday, to form a muscle memory of your talk. Take a moment of silence or meditation on the morning of your big day, reminding yourself of your purpose in speaking. Give yourself a neck massage. This stimulates glands in you neck that actually calm your body’s alarm system. 

4. And finally, a good warm up: A soccer player wouldn’t enter the field without first elevating his heart rate and warming up his body. That would be too much of a shock to his system. Similarly, an actor would never walk on stage without first doing a warmup. So, stretch your body, the parts that feels stiff. Stretch your face, your lips and your tongue. Take a few deep breaths with your arms lifted above your head and then curl over slowly, allowing yourself to hang from your waist. On your next exhale, let out a big sigh.

Next up, How stop panic before it starts? Give your mind the information it wants.What do you tell yourself before you stand up in front of an audience to present? How can you change the story that you walk in with? Maybe it’s time to have some answers for your inner critic BEFORE you step up to the mic. 

Need more information on how to fight fear before it starts? Here’s a link to useful body language to use before and during your presentation. More of me!

How do you let go of fear? Give it what it wants.

In my work as a public speaking coach, fear comes across my desk in many different forms: fear of speaking in front of an audience, of voicing your opinion in a meeting, of making small talk in groups or social situations, of stating your needs in a relationship, of being your own advocate and standing up to a boss or co-worker.

It seems that if we could just erase fear from our realm of possible reactions, we would get so much more done. We could do what we’re passionate about, live the life we dream of, find the partner that we want, request what we need to succeed in our career. Everything we want is on the other side of fear.

We know that it’s purpose is to protect us, to keep us alive. So, how can we allow fear to do it’s positive thing without blocking us from doing our positive thing? 

Face it: Start by getting to know Fear.

Fear is a chemical reaction. Dan Goleman (youtube link here) walks us through the structure in the brain responsible for our fear reaction: the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain’s sentinel. A small part of everything we see in every moment goes directly to our amygdala. It scans the information to see if it is a threat: “Do I eat it or does it eat me?”

The biological reactions are as follows: cortisol is poured into the bloodstream as a result of the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal) Axis activation. This is Fight, Freeze or Flight (FFF), the classic stress response. We’ve all experienced this one: shallow breathing, racing heartbeat, dialated pupils… sweat. This activation also suppresses the immune system, digestive system and reproductive system. If this activation is sustained, over time we develop chronic fatigue, adrenal burnout…. blah blah blah….hormones.

But, this is the part I found fascinating: Look at what happens in your mind…

The triggered HPA axis changes the way that your brain prioritizes information. For example, if the snake on the trail in front of you is causing an overwhelming reaction of fear, then everything that is relevant to that snake is what preoccupies all of your attention.

Therefore, if you are giving a speech and you walk on stage, fearful that your audience will not like you,  then you have already manifested your worst nightmare! 

Biologically, you are programmed to notice and fixate on every detail in the room that substantiates your reason for being scared stiff and lifeless:

Your boss checking her watch, your colleague smirking, the man in the back on his cell phone, the angry face in the front row. You’re not just imagining that people are sending you these signals, they are, but from your perspective, in the grip of an amygdala heist, they are heightened and these small, negative details are the only ones you see. 

It’s a downward spiral…

This “amygdala hijack,” this hormonal activation, creates hypersensitivity to all the scary stuff and also changes the hierarchy of your memories. The memories that your brain chooses to bring to the surface, at this moment, are those that substantiate your fear.  

Your brain is very kindly reminding you, again, why putting yourself in this situation has been (in the past), is currently, and will forever be hazardous to the survival of your species.

Thank you, brain.

As Golemen says, “fear response is suboptimal to life,” to put it mildly. So, really, facing your fear is about knowing yourself well enough to know when you’ll be stepping into a situation where your system will be activated. Once you have the knowledge, you can prepare in advance, to send signals to your body that there is no threat and you are calm and at ease. 

“So, what do I do about this?” 

Answer: Manage your fear before it has the chance to start its vicious cycle by preparing your body and mind to be relaxed and present before you do that thing which scares you most.

How do you do that? Stay tuned for next week’s blog or click here to get immediate, fear preparation strategy. 

What is your Work?

There are moments in life where we experience realization. Byron Katy calls it waking up to reality. It is the moment you realize that you play a vital and unique role in the universe. I had my realization this summer when an eight foot, water-logged pole hit me on the back of the head when I least expected it.

That pole may as well have been dropped by God. It stopped me in my tracks and took me down to earth: pole to head, forehead to dirt, palms and heart to earth. In that moment, I was helpless. I could not lift my own weight. I dared not move my neck. All I had was my inner awareness and stillness. In that stillness, these were my thoughts:

  • I am not in control.
  • Life is precious and can be short.
  • Do your work now, not later.

As I gave the full weight of my body to the earth, and allowed my family to come and care for me, I also had a realization that these moments of complete and utter giving up, are not such a bad thing. Let others lift your weight into safety, let them hold the burden for a moment. My family brought me into our living room, one member at my head, the other at my feet, the last holding my hands. I was held completely. 

Waking up to reality.

Have you ever had a moment when you were no longer able to move forward in your current way of doing things? You may have become inexplicably sick, or physically hurt. A combination of your conscious and subconscious body would not let you continue on your current trajectory, probably for good reason. Your body was simply asking you to be still, become aware and realign your action. 


That pole made me commit.

The coaching work I’ve done this year comes from the tools of acting I learned while training at The National Theater Conservatory, the commitment work that shifted my life forever through The Max with Paula Shaw at Esalen Institute, and from the coaching training that I completed this year where I was able to synthesize my knowledge into simple and applicable tools that I can teach to anyone. 

But truthfully, it all came from from the moment when a pole hit my head. Because, in that moment, I committed to not thinking about it anymore, but actually doing it, now. 

What work are you still waiting to do?

In one-on-one sessions we break down your relationship to performance or, what happens to you when you stand up in front of other people and talk. We also break down the commitments you have made in your life by looking at your actions. The work takes you from how you show up now, to how you want to show up in a larger, more empowered, visionary way. 

As we come into a brand new year, I have a few wishes for you:

  • Stop.
  • Listening to your inner voice.
  • Clear clutter so your vision can arise.
  • Act on what you know to be true.

Most importantly: Start now.