Monday, 11 April 2016

Why stress makes public speaking impossible - and what you can do about it

A fear of public speaking is reputed to be the most common phobia in the Western World, it's certainly one that many of us can identify with. You stand up in front of a group and suddenly your mind goes blank, your voice becomes nothing more than a squeak and you have a sudden conviction that it's all going horribly wrong. So why does it happen?

Why is public speaking a problem?

There are many reasons, of course, that public speaking might not be your favourite thing to do. Perhaps you worry about making a fool of yourself, or feel you have actually done so in the past. Perhaps you don’t feel confident that you know your material, or that people will want to hear what you have to say. Perhaps you don’t like everyone staring at you or to be the centre of attention. These are all good reasons, but the result of all of them is that as the time comes nearer for you to get up there at the front of the room, your stress and anxiety levels rise. And this in itself causes problems with your ability to perform well as a speaker.

Most of us have heard of the fight or flight syndrome, more properly called the stress response, and have a rough idea of what it entails. We notice the pounding heart, shaking hands, fast breathing and so on, but what we don’t always realise is that there are other, more subtle effects going on deeper in the body. 

The purpose of the stress response is that our minds and bodies are trying to maximise our chances of survival in an emergency situation. The problem is that they don’t recognise the difference between a physical threat and being put on the spot at work, so they react as if our audience was made up of man- (or woman-) eating tigers.

Blood, oxygen and sugars are rushed to the peripheral parts of our body (the bits on the edge - our arms and legs). This gives us the burst of energy that we would need if we were running away from or fighting off a physical attack. Unfortunately this rush leaves parts of the body that would be less useful in that situation with reduced levels of energy, including the parts of our brain where we carry out logical, analytical, language and memory tasks.

As someone once said to me, you can think and you can feel, but not both at the same time. When the stress response really kicks in you are just feeling. As a public speaker you need to think, so very often the two just don’t mix. (This is also why you so often think of the perfect cutting remark long after an argument has finished!)

What can you do about it?

Just remember, to SPEAK.

  • Start well and go slowly. Learn your first few lines really well, so you know them as well as you know your name. Once you’re off, things will get easier. People who are nervous often speak fast, which can make it difficult for others to understand them. Speaking more slowly not only sounds better, it gives you more thinking time.
  • Plan and prepare. 'Good preparation and rehearsal will reduce your nerves by 75%, increase the likelihood of avoiding errors to 95%. '(Source: Fred Pryor Organisation.) Make sure you have practiced your presentation, tried out your props and printed off your notes and handouts.
  • Expect the best from your audience. Think about how you behave when you are in the audience and someone else is giving the speech. Generally you are there because you want to be and you are interested in what they have to say. Even if the speaker is not what you’d hoped, how often have you booed, fallen asleep or thrown fruit? Hopefully never, and it's not likely  your audience will do these things either.
  • Take Action and don’t allow your worries to become overwhelming. Both relaxation and exercise will help, use them regularly in the run up to your presentation. Exercise great for using up the energy provided by the stress hormones, and relaxation will leave you feeling focussed and calm.
  • Keep reminding yourself that you can do it. Focus on positive thinking and act confident even if you don’t quite feel it.

And remember that if this doesn't quite do the trick, I can help. Give me a call.


Author: is a professional stress management coach, specialising in working with individuals and smaller employers to minimise stress and maximise feeling in control.Debbie is has also written about helping people with IBS in the Hypnotherapy Handbook which is available from
Find out more about Debbie's services on  or phone 01977 678593

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