Speak For Yourself!
By Rob Sloan
When independent business owners are asked about their biggest challenge, bringing in new business tops the list. Yet, many business owners don’t actively seek out opportunities to generate leads by speaking at meetings and conferences.
Why not? Because they suffer from the most common phobia in the western world: stage fright.
The Neurochemistry of Stage Fright
Scientists have made tremendous advances toward understanding the neurochemistry of stage fright, and those insights can be valuable weapons for anyone battling fear of public speaking. We now know that those anxious feelings are caused by two related mechanisms:
The “short arm” of stress is called the limbic system. It is centered in two, tiny areas of your brain: the amygdala and the locus coeruleus. These important sentinels alert you that there may be a danger even before you have time to consciously weigh the incoming information. Even the hint of danger — in this case speaking in public — excites these areas of your brain, activating your “fight or flight” response.
The “long arm” of stress is called the sympathetic nervous system. The “short arm” activates your hypothalamus gland, which secretes a hormone that instructs your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline. That’s what makes your heart race, your breathing to become shallow, and your muscles to become tense.
If these symptoms are familiar to you, that makes you one of the more than 80 percent of people who experience stage fright. While the stage fright statistics are troubling, there is good news: you can do something about it.
The Three R’s
Here are three techniques that have been developed by clinical psychologists to help you gain control over the debilitating effects of stage fright — we’ll call them the Three R’s:
Relax. This is not simply taking a deep breath, but a series of slow and deliberate breaths. Pull your shoulders back as you breathe. Imagine seeing the air pass through your nose and deep into your lungs, and then back again and out through your mouth. Instruct your body to relax the muscles in your shoulders and anywhere else you accumulate tension. These relaxation techniques help slow your breathing and your heart rate, and begin to counteract the effects of adrenaline.
Reflect. This is not simply reciting daily affirmations of the “Stuart Smalley” variety, but conducting a deliberate conversation with that nagging little voice in your head. Write out the reasons you keep telling yourself that you should not make a speech or presentation. Address each comment in writing, challenging the negative roadblocks that your limbic sentinel keeps tossing in your path. You’ll find that the reasons for not speaking, when they’re set out on paper, are few and feeble.
Rehearse. This is not simply reading over your script a few times, but starting small and building to a full-blown dress rehearsal before you take center stage. Rehearse the speech aloud so you can work on your vocal inflections. Rehearse in front of a mirror so you can “try on” different gestures and body language. Rehearse on your feet, standing behind a table or mock lectern, so you can practice your movements and get comfortable with your stance. Rehearse in front of friends, family or colleagues you trust so you can get used to telling your story to other people.
Applying the Three R’s can help rewire the circuitry of your stress “short arm” and counteract the hormonal effects of the “long arm” of stress.
Pushing Past the Fear
Even the most polished presenters feel butterflies and a racing pulse before they take to the podium. It is perfectly normal to feel nervous — in fact it’s nearly a universal experience.
It is the people who push beyond the fear, though, who gain the respect — and the contracts — of prospective clients and customers. And why shouldn’t that be you? After all — you’ve earned the business. HBM
Rob Sloan is a freelance writer who works from his home office in Toronto, Canada. He is also currently working as Professor of Marketing at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario. Rob Sloan is developing a series of communications books. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.