6 Unconventional Ways to Tackle Public Speaking Nerves.
9 min read
What you’ll learn:
- Sure-fire ways to build your stress resilience.
- Strategies to lower anxiety and promote calm.
- Techniques to feel more self-confident.
It’s estimated 80% of adults feel public speaking nerves.
But for 10% of these people, it becomes a full-blown anxiety response causing extreme fear whenever they need to speak in public.
While a normal amount of nerves is managable, severe anxiety can impede your performance. Beause let’s face it, the last thing anyone needs is a full-blown fight/flight/freeze response when they’re asked to present to the board.
The most powerful and permanent way to reduce public speaking fears is through practice, training and voluntary exposure. Which is why attending a public speaking course can be so transformative for anxious speakers.
But besides “facing your fears” there are other – unconventional – ways to feel resilient when you’re in the spotlight.
Read on for my 6 ways to reduce public speaking nerves and become a master of staying cool under pressure.
I’ve tried each of these suggestions myself, and they’re all backed up with scientific study.
Calm your public speaking nerves with meditation.
There are many types of meditation with a variety of uses. Some focus on the breath, a mantra, the outside world, or the inner feelings of the body. But all forms of meditation circle around the same common objective:
Calming the mind, relaxing the body, and developing self-awareness.
In our modern world where stressors are everywhere, most of us need this more than ever.
Meditation has been shown to have a strong effect on mood, energy and focus. It can reduce levels stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. It’s also been shown to reduce the size of the Amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear.
For anxious speakers, building a meditation practice can offer a profound way to gradually reduce your baseline stress-response. Giving you more control over irrational fears, and a greater capacity to face high-pressure situations such as presenting.
As a long-term strategy for anxious speakers, meditation could be a truly transformative habit to begin learning.
You might be thinking, if meditation is so powerful, why isn’t everyone doing it?
The major roadblock most people face is consistency. It’s incredibly easy to “not” meditate. When we’re used to running around and being productive, sitting down and doing nothing for a few minutes can be difficult.
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Build mental-resilience with cold showers.
Looking for the ultimate ‘comfort-zone’ challenge’?
Look no further!
The idea of therapeutic cold exposure has built a huge following. Charismatic figures like Wim Hof have led the way, proving we’ve underestimated human endurance and the power of jumping into an icy bath.
Cold showers have also attracted the scientific spotlight, with exposure to the elements being proven to have therapeutic effects on body and mind.
It’s already been shown to boost metabolism, generate more healthy “brown fat”, improve our temperature regulation, and dramatically increase levels of dopamine. With the potential to treat depression and other mental health issues.
Perhaps not surprisingly, cold water therapy also has a powerful effect on stress-resilience.
I can tell you from personal experience, jumping into a freezing cold shower feels plenty stressful.
In fact, it’s a very similar experience to speaking in public while having anxiety. Your heart rate rises dramatically, your breathing quickens, and the fight/flight/freeze response of the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive.
Taking regular cold showers helps you to control these bodily reactions. It trains you to remain calm and composed even as your nervous system is screaming “get out, get out!”
Developing this controlled calm response through cold showers can also help us to deal with the stress of speaking in public.
Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the rush of adrenaline when faced with an audience, we can learn to more effectively regulate these feelings and stay in control.
If you want to handle stressful situations with more control, cold water therapy offers an immediate (and very real) way of practising this skill.
Even for nervous speakers, that big presentation will feel far less scary after you’ve already faced the monumental challenge of two minutes in a freezing cold shower.
Cold Shower Tips:
When I began experimenting with cold showers, I started by turning the shower down to 20 degrees for 1 minute. I then gradually built up my endurance (and courage) to reduce the temperature down to zero for 1-2 minutes. Eventually I built up to a 3 minute open-water dip in February!
A word of caution: It’s easy to over-do cold exposure and put your body into shock, so please be careful and always ease yourself into the process gradually.
Cold showers are something I come back to repeatedly when I want to feel more resilient. If you’re looking for a powerful alernative to combat public speaking nerves, it’s something I’d highly recommend.
Reduce your stress levels over breakfast.
You’ve heard the saying:
“Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper”.
There’s often truth in these old sayings – and when it comes to reducing your public speaking nerves, this one could actually help.
There are many symptoms we associate with public speaking anxiety. You might experience a range of things from:
- A dry mouth.
- Fast heartbeat.
- Shaky hands.
- Racing thoughts.
It makes sense that if these hormones are already high before we engage in a stressful situation, it’s likely to be even worse.
Vice-versa, if we can keep our stress levels lower beforehand, we have a greater ability to face such stressful situations without being overwhelmed.
So where does breakfast come in, and what’s on the menu?
It turns out eating a large meal at the start of the day helps to keep stress hormones low. Having a large breakfast increases our metabolism and stimulates the ‘rest and digest’ system which keeps our stress hormones in check.
So eating a large breakfast with plenty of carbohydrates, fats and proteins could be an effective way to decrease your overall stress levels through the day.
Furthermore, increased stress generally means increased calorie requirements. So when we’re faced with something particularly challenging (such as delivering an important presentation) we need even more calories than usual.
I’ll leave the question of “what” to eat, up to you.
But experience is the mother of wisdom, so try experimenting with different breakfast meals and see what has the best effect on your mood.
But whatever you do, never deliver a speech on an empty stomach!
Count chimneys to prompt your confidence.
Here’s an interesting story of a man visiting a psychologist.
The man is suffering with general anxiety and low confidence. He visits the psychologist and describes his problems: “I’m always lacking self-confidence and never feel safe”.
Rather than prescribing medication or delving into his childhood, the psychologist asks the man to follow a simple direction:
“For the next week, whenever you’re walking outside – I want you to count as a many chimneys as you can see”
It sounds like an excerpt from a Charles Dickens story, but stay with me…
For the next week the man counts all the chimneys he can see as he’s walking to and from various places. When he returns to the psychologist he tells him, “It’s strange, but I do feel more confident in myself, more self-assured”.
Is there something we’re missing about chimneys?!
Not exactly – the man began to feel more confident not because he was counting chimneys, but because doing so forced him to stand up straighter. He was looking up and ahead, rather than down at the floor.
In other words, correct posture leads to increased confidence.
Standing up tall, keeping your shoulders back, looking people in the eye. These things may sound cliche, but are massively overlooked when it comes to dealing with anxiety.
Making a habit of carrying yourself confidently will absolutely lead you to feeling more self-assured.
That’s because our body language is a two-way street. Not only does it influence how other people perceive us, but also how we perceive ourselves.
So stand up straight, walk with your head held high, and if need be start your own chimney counting habit.
When you carry yourself with confidence in day-to-day life, a portion of that confidence is carried over into situations when you need it most.
Chimney Confidence Tips:
If you live in the city, chimneys can be hard to spot. Another similar trick is to associate all doorways with standing up tall. Every time you walk through a door, let it be a reminder to correct your posture and hold yourself more confidently. You’ll typically end up doing this 10-20 times a day, and quickly build the habit.
Sleep away the anxiety by avoiding the 'cortisol spike'.
If you’re anxious about delivering a speech, the chances are you’ll spend the whole night before wide awake worrying about it.
There’s not always much we can do about that, but getting good sleep in general can help to reduce your stress and anxiety.
Sleep is governed by our circadian rhythm, the body’s in-built system to make us sleep at night and wake in the morning.
An interesting aspect of our circadian rhythm is the so-called “cortisol spike” or CAR (cortisol awakening response). This timed spike of cortisol is released just as we wake up, to help us feel alert in the morning.
But with modern life, many of us have fallen out with our natural sleep and wake cycle. We stay up later and later, kept alert by bright screens and artificial light.
The later we stay up at night, the later we tend to rise in the morning. Over time, this can lead to our morning cortisol spike occurring later in the day.
If it gets pushed back late enough, it can mean that during our typical working hours we’re experiencing a heavy spike of cortisol (meant to wake us up first thing!).
If you’re someone who’s already nervous when speaking communicating with others, this extra spike of cortisol could be adding fuel to the fire.
In fact, it’s been shown that poor sleep habits leading to a delayed cortisol spike can result in increased levels of anxiety and depression. As well as the opposite effect happening when people sleep and wake earlier in the day.
The basic take-away is that staying up late and over-sleeping can contribute to increased levels of anxiety.
Therefor, developing a healthy sleep routine which includes rising early in the morning, could be an effective long-term approach to reducing public speaking nerves – and anxiety more generally.
I’ve always been a night owl and believe this likely contributed to my own anxiety earlier in life. One aspect of the circadian rhythm I didnt mention is light. Specifically, it’s vital to get sunlight in your eyes prior to 10am, which “sets” your internal bodyclock to get sleepy roughly 12 hours later. For further reading I recommend this article.
Swap caffeine for chamomile to stay calm under pressure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a three-coffees a day guy.
Give me a latte in the morning, and it’s already a good day.
But if I’m facing a particularly stressful situation, I’ll limit my caffeine use beforehand. One with breakfast is usually fine, but over-do it and you risk getting the ‘jitters’ when you least want them.
If you’re sensitive to caffeine you might want to be even more careful. But rather than going without your favourite hot drink, a better option is to swap it out for something a little different.
Chamomile has long been known for its calming effects. Now studies have backed this up and shown it has a small but significant effect on lowering anxiety.
It’s thought this is caused by chamomile’s ability to increase GABA, a neurotransmitter which reduces excitability and makes us feel more relaxed.
While the effects of chamomile are moderate, it can be a tool to use alongside other stress-reducing techniques.
So opting for a cup of chamomile before speaking in public could help to curb your stress, and keep you focused. It’ll also keep you hydrated too!
I’ve grown fond of an occasional chamomile tea. As well as using it to reduce stress throughout the day, I like having it as a bedtime drink – helping you to have a restful night’s sleep (and improve point 6).
Build up to your speech with a simple "hello."
Picture the scene:
You have a big presentation to deliver that you’ve been dreading all week.
As you make your commute to work, your feelings of anxiety begin to creep up. You feel self-conscious. Worrying about how you look, and looking down at your feet (or your phone) so as not to make eye-contact with the outside world.
It feels easier to close yourself off, but it’s building up your nervousness even more. You arrive feeling agitated, stressed and “stuck in your head” – with the thought of delivering a presentation now scarier than ever!
If that sounds relatable, perhaps this final unconventional approach to public speaking nerves could help.
Let’s re-play the scene:
This time you leave the house for work, pausing to take a slow deep breath and calm yourself. As you walk along the street, you make a conscious effort to look up at other people. When someone makes eye-contact, you smile and say “hello!”.
Not everyone responds, but when they do, you realise “people aren’t that scary!”. With each small hello you begin to smile and relax, breathe more deeply, and walk with more confidence.
As you arrive at work, you make another conscious effort to say “good morning” to any colleagues you pass. With every interaction, you gain positive energy that seems to compound.
By the time your speech comes, you’re feeling far less self-conscious. More externally focused, and more attentive to other people than to your own internal dialogue.
This simple strategy of being more outwardly focused can be incredibly powerful.
By purposefully coming “out of your shell” in many small ways throughout the day, it becomes much easier to do so in a “big way” such as speaking in public.
It’s all too easy to distance ourselves from others when we’re feeling worried, stressed or anxious. But by consciously doing the opposite, we can alleviate some of those negative feelings.
Try this habit of saying hello to people as you commute to work, and notice how it shifts your attention into a more friendly, open and self-confident state.
Tips on chatting:
I’m not aware of any specific studies behind this idea, but on a personal level you can tell it works almost immediately. If you’re naturally shy, it’s a great daily practise. As a bonus, you’ll make other people feel more happy and noticed too.
Try these unconventional ways to overcome your public speaking nerves
As I mentioned at the start, there’s no substitute for real-life experience and training.
The most powerful thing I ever did to develop my confidence when public speaking, was go and speak in public. So if you haven’t already, find an opportunity to begin facing your fears in a controlled way.
But while you’re on the journey, remember that each of these unconventional methods can make life easier, and perhaps speed up the process.
Which unconventional methods to reduce public speaking nerves have you found helpful?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Feel free to email, or message me on LinkedIn.
Here’s to a calmer, more confident you.
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