Nerves of Steel. Or, Maybe I Need Some Social Anxiety Help
Give Me the Fish (GMTF): In your journey to finding yourself and your independence, you can’t let anything hold you back. This includes the ability to confidently talk to others regardless of the environment you’re in. Lock in your public speaking skills, overcome your fear, and unlock doors you didn’t even know existed.
***TLDR, please skip to the clearly (obnoxiously so) marked “Tips and Tricks for Public Speaking, That’s How, Duh” header below***
I’m a little disgusted with myself as my stomach is literally quivering. As I waited, I was trying to decide if I was shaking more or if the tent was. All around me the canvas was whipping back and forth as the sandstorm blew across the desert.
I look at my watch and realize that it’s about time for me to start. I step in front of a group of 20 or so subject matter experts in the art of flying (also called pilots). I’m about to brief them on my plan to recover a downed helicopter and I’m literally terrified.
The funny thing is, this is far from my first-time public speaking and I know the material but does my body care?
Nope. It’s taken a few lessons from Forrest Gump and its ready to book it out of the tent and just keep running. Meanwhile, my heart is palpitating like a piston and I’m guessing my blood pressure is through the roof.
No one else seems to care either. I hear a voice from the back, “You can begin”.
I take a quiet but deep breath, flex my abs to still the shaking in my gut and begin.
That brief took place four years ago and I have felt the same way at every public speaking event since. I may be able to pull off looking cool and confident (solid Narcissus complex showing through here), but honestly, I’m anything but. It’s kind of like that industrial tech class that you had to take in middle school. You know, the one where you had to build a bridge out of tiny sticks to see how much weight it could hold. Then you put it onto a pressure plate and watch the bridge slowly crumble under the pressure. I remember how cool it was to watch.
Except, in this case, I’m the sketchy bridge. Not so cool.
But the question is the same, how much pressure can I load on before the cracking occurs.
Not exactly “Nerves of Steel”.
But, it’s not just me. All of us experience fear and nervousness, it’s only our outward appearance that determines if people believe you have “Nerves of Steel” or not. That whole concept is a load of B.S. In fact, if you head to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2016, 19.1% of Americans were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and that is just those diagnosed. According to Forbes, 75% of us have public speaking anxiety, and everyone else still experiences anxiety at some point in their life known as situational anxiety. Bottom line, we are all a bunch of scaredy cats.
But, it’s not really our fault. People naturally have a super overreactive adrenal system that has evolved based on a need for extreme survival. Which is pretty cool if you’re fighting lions and tigers and bears. But, in modern times not so much. We’ve taken this high-speed hardcore survival machine and then caged it in this soft and protected society.
Needless to say, it doesn’t always pick the best response. Dr. Walter B. Cannon in his book ” Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Functions of Emotional Excitement” essentially created our understanding of this phenomenon.
To drastically summarize, we have this built-in-system that feels the need to go into kill mode, freeze mode, or “get the hell outta here” mode every time you stand up and say “Hi, my name is…”, “and I’m into long walks on the beach”.
You know, the classic ice breaker. (On a side note, this is the worst ice breaker ever, don’t do it).
But why is this the case? And, why do some people in this scenario look chill and relaxed, while others have shaky voices, guzzle water as they look like they have to use the bathroom, or in general look like they are prepping for their last meal?
As Dr. Cannon talks about, our adrenal system only kicks in when it thinks there’s danger, and for thousands of years, one of the biggest dangers people had was the unknown (and still is). And the world is full of unknows. Especially in social situations where we have no idea what the other people in the room are thinking, a.k.a public speaking.
But, then why do some people look relaxed while others don’t? It’s really only one of two things. Either they found a way to remove the unknown, or they found a way to mask it. So, how do we do that?
Tips and Tricks for Public Speaking, That’s How, Duh
Well, unfortunately, there isn’t a definitive answer, but below are a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years to help manage nervous energy and get past the common fear of public speaking regardless of how my body felt. It’s not a complete list by far, but it’s a start and I encourage you to add what works for you in the comments.
Practice Until You Puke
If it’s an actual brief or class. Practice. I know this seems obvious, but when I say practice, I mean hardcore practice. I mean practice a hundred times, literally. Practice in front of your wife, your husband, your co-workers, your friends, your dog, and while staring into the depths of your soul in the mirror. Practice direct eye contact with people, and practice with your eyes closed and imagining the audience. And, if you can’t get in a hundred, do as many as you possibly can. Also, recording yourself and listening back helps quite a bit. The recorder in your phone will work just fine, or better yet grab a cheap microphone ( I use this one).
There’s nothing worse than talking in front of a bunch of people and your mind goes blank. This happened to me in front of a group of 80 or so while giving a class on the Middle East. The only reason I didn’t completely embarrass myself, was because right when I started to falter on stage, a friend in the audience who I had convinced to tag along (and happened to be a history wiz) gave me a hand signal to invite him up. I did, and he saved the day. Which leads me to the next point.
Always bring a friend, or at least try to make a friend in the crowd before you start. Preferably someone with a sense of humor. They might not always step up and intervene, but sometimes it helps to be able to look at a friendly face or better yet, a friend making inappropriate and wordless jokes to you across the room. If you’re talking one-on-one with a boss, making some jokes with them and do some small talk before, especially before more serious matters come up. This banter puts you in control, which if you remember from before, means you have removed some of that uncertainty. And, unless something or someone is dying, it can wait for you to make sure you have control of the situation (hopefully he hasn’t read GMTF, or he might tell you to cut to the chase).
Morgan Freeman or Porky Pig? You Choose
Don’t memorize, it might help to start with something read off, but try to get your speech down to bullet points. Your brain is a pattern-seeking organ, and when it has a pattern and something to follow, it does really well. The problem is if you miss a step. If that happens, your brain loses the pattern and then it’s like trying to find your place again when counting penny’s and you got interrupted somewhere in the ’80s. When that happens, you turn from smooth talking Morgan Freeman into stuttering like Porky the Pig.
Don’t Be That Guy
If you put something in your hand, don’t let it be something that makes noise, like a clicker pen. To start, it’s super obnoxious, and your goal is probably not to inspire hatred in the crowd by making them listen to 4,982 pen clicks.
Also, don’t have something that moves, shakes, or waves, like a piece of paper. Nothing is worse than a) having a soggy piece of paper in your hand from sweating, or b) having everyone in the room see how nervous you are from that paper waving around like it was caught in a tornado whisking across Kansas. If you do need notes, grab a notecard (they don’t wave as much), and if you have shaky hands, for the love of god please don’t use a laser pointer.
Water is Life
Stay hydrated. Simple enough, dry vocal cords and a parched mouth don’t help anything. I know you’re probably concerned about needing to use the bathroom partway through, but if anything, it will give you something else to think about rather than the 32 people staring at you.
Voice of Thunder…ish
This is my last trick. It’s how to keep your voice from shaking. It’s going to sound a little crazy, but it’s been a game-changer in my ability to manage nervous energy and ensure I at least sound like I have Nerves of Steel even if I don’t feel like it. I want you to do these next steps with me, we are going to learn how to project our voices. First, I want you to talk aloud like you’re in front of an audience (bonus points if you’re not alone), and listen to how you sound.
Next, sit-up straight if you’re sitting, or stand up straight if you’re a weirdo with a standing desk (like me, this one is bomb), or if you’re like the rest of us on your smartphone, do the best you can. Next, I want you to flex your abs and keep them tight. If you’re into weightlifting, think about bracing your core. Then with your abs flexed, puff your chest out with your shoulders back. Now, breathe into your stomach and let the air push against your abs. Then try to talk again.
Notice how your voice changed, how it sounded deeper and more clear. This is because your body now has a foundation to push off of, hence you can project your voice. Now, don’t squeeze so hard where you make yourself shake, or you look constipated, or you pass out on stage (please don’t pass out on stage, it’s really hard to live that down). It’s just enough to keep your abs rigid.
Try it at your next meeting, or next time you have a small speaking engagement and work your way up. And don’t be afraid to experiment a little. What you will quickly learn, is that as you start talking and get into your topic, you will soon forget about the flexed superhero abs, and they will naturally relax along with the rest of you as you get into your groove and you will have managed to avoid that 90-year-old vocal tremor.
Public Speaking Is A Skill That You Can Master
Give these suggestions a try, after years of trial and error, I finally have what works for me, but there is no need for you to repeat the same mistakes. I still feel nervous when I speak, but it’s manageable.
The world runs off communication, and if you don’t have those skills you’re drastically limiting what you can do in this life. Don’t let your fear of speaking in public hold you back. You have the ability to be great at public speaking if you want to be. It’s a skill like everything esle. It really is just a question of how much effort you’re willing to put in to get there.