Yes, You Can Become a Natural at Public Speaking

Seeing Patty Chang Anker speak at the Conference for Women, you would never guess that she still occasionally gets performance anxiety. “There have been times when I was in the bathroom before going on stage and felt like I didn’t want to come out,” says Anker, laughing. “Woolly mouth? Pounding heart? Dizziness? I’ve had them all.”

Of course, it’s fitting that the author of Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave steps up to give keynote speeches, moderate panels and run workshops whenever she can. “It’s just very important to me to help people who feel, like I once did, that life has gotten small, and encourage them to be braver so they can live with more joy and less dread,” Anker explains. “Doing that is worth any discomfort and nerves.”

Reminding herself of her higher purpose gives her courage. So does the knowledge that the panic will pass. “Those feelings that you are under attack come from the primitive fear center of the brain and will lessen once signals from the evolved, problem-solving, rational part of the brain reach you,” says Anker, who researched the fear of public speaking for her book. “So the trick is to wait out your panic until then.”

She promises that no matter how strong the grip of your stage fright, you can become comfortable speaking in front of groups of people. Here, Anker, one of the Conference’s most popular speakers, shares three more top tips.

#1. Commit to your presentation and prepare for it. “Many people who are nervous about talking don’t practice because they want to avoid the discomfort for as long as possible. But winging it rarely ends well, so then the negative experience reinforces the fear. But if you put in the prep time so that your important points are at the ready, you will be free to relax and enjoy yourself—and the chances of having a positive experience are higher. Also, stop using ‘I’m bad at public speaking’ as an excuse. Commit to giving the best presentation you can and you may discover you’re an excellent speaker when you’ve gotten fear out of the way.”

#2. Take deep breaths. “This is key to de-escalating your feelings of panic until your rational brain takes over. We tend to hold our breath when we’re nervous, which makes us feel lightheaded. So much of what we think is fear or being bad at something is actually the lack of oxygen to the brain. So soften your belly, relax, tell yourself that you got this—and take nice deep breaths.”

#3. Connect with audience members. “If you find public speaking nerve-wracking, the impulse is often not to look at the people in front of you. But I have found it really helpful to scan the audience and pick people who look friendly and are smiling at me. I talk to them. If they look bored, I speed up. If they’re laughing, I pause and let my words ring for an extended moment. Doing this turns giving a speech into just talking to some people.”


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