For many, the thought of participating in class or making a presentation in front of employers is terrifying. However, public speaking does not need to be a painful experience. In our latest segment of the “Tips for Public Speaking” series, you will learn some tips and tricks to ease the all-too-common symptoms of stage fright.

As we have previously discussed, speaking well can help a student or professional open new doors of recognition and achievement. Stage fright is the bane of many people, but if you think of stage fright as part of the electrical circuit board that is your brain, you can learn to short-circuit your nervous system before it affects your presentation.

I spent years in the classroom lecturing my students and many more hours speaking to government panels and conducting interviews as a journalist. Early in this process, I recognized two glaring realities about public speaking: 1) I was calm in front of my daily academic audiences, but in front of an unfamiliar audience, I was not immune to stage fright. 2) Even professional performers cope with stage fright.

I often interviewed headliners in the ready room before they ventured onto the stage when I covered the entertainment beat. I saw their jitters first-hand. Before going on stage, they had bouts of panic, nausea, cold sweats, and headaches.

Accept the Symptoms

The symptoms of stage fright are very common. It does not matter how much or how little experience you have as a speaker, because everyone experiences stage fright at some point. In fact, some public speakers never get over it. Others just learn how to ignore it.

Stage fright is fed by a basic animal instinct that psychologists refer to as Fight or Flight Syndrome. This occurs when our brain recognizes our involvement in a challenge. In the animal world, a pending attack from a predator causes the brain to pump extra doses of adrenalin into the body to provide enough energy to stand in fight or seek safety in flight. In our human experience, giving a speech actually triggers the same fight or flight response. As adrenalin surges through our veins, the stockpiled energy is manifested in excessive nervousness.

That adrenalin surge can cause mild stomach distress, severe anxiety attacks, sleeplessness, and panic. Often, the anticipation leading up to an upcoming public speaking event triggers this nervous reaction days ahead.

Accept these symptoms, then ignore them. These stage fright villains may never go away, especially if you are an occasional speaker, but that’s not all bad. Use the stage fright as a driving force to complete your speech. Once you start giving your speech, the symptoms will become less severe.

Coping with the Fear of Speaking

Breathing helps ease the fear response by stimulating the calming process. Find a comfortable position, either sitting or standing, then center your posture. Move your body side to side as you center yourself. Shrug your shoulders, then turn your head and neck from left to right.

Take slow, deep breaths through the nostrils, and be sure to fill your lungs to their capacity. Take in more air than you normally do when you breath. Fill your lungs, then hold still and slowly count to three.

Do this several times. The change in body posture helps ease tenseness, and the burst of additional oxygen helps your brain and nervous system regain control.

You can not stop your speech in the middle of a presentation to redo this breathing exercise when you feel nervous again, but you can center your body. You can also do a few subtle exercises that your audience will never notice.

For example, curl your toes in your shoes several times. Place your hands on the top or sides of the podium. Now squeeze and release several times. Like deep-breathing, these isometric cycles help your body to change its focus from tension to relaxation.

You can also apply variations to this process. For example, when you are not standing at a podium but instead have a table in front of you, place your hands flat on the table and press your fingers into the table’s surface. If you are standing freestyle with no furniture around you, put your hands at your side, squeeze your fists into a tight ball and then release them. Do this several times to keep releasing the nerves.

Inventory Your Fear

Here is a list of various physical reactions people experience when faced with risk-taking situations.

Check the feelings that you experience when speaking in front of a group of people. How many of them can you really control? Which symptoms really will prevent you from reaching your goal? How many of them are mind over matter?

  • Hands get cold.
  • Feet get cold.
  • Tension develops in muscles.
  • Get warm all over.
  • Hands get hot.
  • Face gets hot.
  • Hair stands on end. (goosebumps)
  • Spine tingles.
  • Voice gets squeaky.
  • Voice gets hoarse.
  • Trembling hands.
  • Mouth gets dry.
  • Mouth gets wet.
  • Increased perspiration.
  • Face blushes.
  • Difficulty in breathing.
  • Increased rate of breathing.
  • Wrong words come out.
  • Feeling of butterflies in the stomach.
  • Cramps in stomach/legs.
  • Sinking feeling in the stomach.
  • Knees wobble.
  • Stomach makes noises.
  • Wanting to return to your seat.