By Matt Abrahams, above, lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business

Anxiety when speaking in front of others is a common fear. Yet, we can learn to manage our anxiety so that we are more comfortable and confident. Certain strategies stand out for their effectiveness and practicality. Among these, the focus on managing physical symptoms, systematic desensitization and visualization, and developing speaking skills prove particularly beneficial. By honing in on these areas, individuals can significantly reduce their anxiety and enhance their overall speaking performance.

Managing Physical Symptoms

Managing the physical manifestations of anxiety is a critical step in overcoming public speaking fear. Deep, slow breathing, especially “belly breathing,” is a potent tool. This technique involves inhaling slowly through the nose to fill the lower abdomen, rather than shallow chest breathing. This method not only slows down the rapid heart rate but also helps in focusing the mind, reducing the mental clutter that anxiety produces. The act of belly breathing also facilitates speaking from a full diaphragm, resulting in a deeper, more authoritative voice, which is often perceived as more trustworthy and credible.

Example:

Imagine a speaker preparing backstage. They feel their heart racing and their hands trembling. By consciously shifting to belly breathing, they can calm their nervous system, reduce the trembling, and prepare their voice to sound more confident and composed as they step onto the stage.

Systematic Desensitization and Visualization

Systematic desensitization involves gradually exposing oneself to the feared stimulus—in this case, public speaking. This technique can start with imagining giving a speech, then progress to speaking in front of a small, supportive group, and eventually to larger and more formal settings. Visualization complements this by allowing the speaker to mentally rehearse successful outcomes, thereby reducing the novelty and fear associated with the actual speaking event.

Example:

A speaker could start by practising their speech alone, then move on to presenting in front of close friends or family. As they become more comfortable, they could join a local speaking club like Toastmasters, where they can practise in a supportive yet more formal environment. Each step reduces anxiety and builds confidence.

Developing Speaking Skills

Developing public speaking skills is akin to training for a sport. Regular practice, seeking feedback, and continuous learning are crucial. This could involve reading books on public speaking, attending workshops, or joining speaking groups. As one’s skills improve, so does their confidence, which in turn reduces anxiety. This process also provides a supportive community of individuals with similar goals, offering encouragement and constructive feedback.

Example:

A person might start by reading a book on public speaking, then take an online course to learn more about effective communication. Eventually, they could join a speaking organization where they can practice regularly, receive feedback, and observe others, thus continuously refining their skills and building their confidence.

By focusing on these key strategies, individuals can tackle public speaking anxiety from multiple angles. Managing physical symptoms provides immediate relief and enhances presence, systematic desensitization and visualization gradually reduce fear, and developing speaking skills builds a strong foundation of confidence. Together, these approaches form a holistic method for not only managing anxiety but also for becoming a more effective and confident speaker.

Matt Abrahams is a lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot and Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, and the host of Think Fast, Talk Sma

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