From Frozen to Fearless: Two Quick Confidence Boosters for Public Speaking

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By Christopher Willard

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two! Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy! –Jerry Seinfeld

Public speaking is always in demand, in personal or professional life. Whether it’s Powerpoint-backed business pitches, retirement parties, marriages or memorials, countless requests come to say a few words. But whether it is work or whimsy, even the most confident among us can shrink back when it comes to speaking in front of a crowd. As Mark Twain was alleged to have quipped, “There are two types of speakers: Those who get nervous and those who are liars.” This is where a little simple mind-body regulation through mindfulness can help.

So why does public speaking have the most confident among us quaking at the knees? Evolutionarily, we are probably wired to be more than a little freaked when surrounded by a crowd staring us down, with few exits in sight. Most situations that started that way for our ancestors, with a back to the wall of the cave, probably didn't have a happy ending that allowed for genetic material to be passed on. The ones who did, survived because their nervous systems kicked into into fight or flight mode and got them out of there.

Hence, even if our brain knows that it’s a friendly audience, it’s as if our body is reacting to a pack of hyenas ready to eat us, getting ready to fight or flee. This is when we need to get our minds and bodies communicating to each other more effectively. Research finds that top performers in high-stress jobs, from athletes to public speakers are rated high in “interoception,” the ability to read your body’s internal cues and respond and adjust in real time. Essentially, a mindfulness of your body’s experience.

So how do we get our body to understand that the crowd is not looking at us as lunch, but, at worst, is just a little bored and waiting for lunch? Let me offer two tips. The first is a breath regulation practice, the second a body awareness practice, because sometimes, as one teenage client of mine put it, “deep breathing is played out.” All the same, the idea that the breath is a remote control for our stress is a good one, and here’s how to adjust the intensity on your stress.

First, the breath. Mindful breathing is really being aware that you are breathing, by focusing on the senses and sensations of the breath, counting breaths, or using other practices to help us become aware of breathing. To really optimize the breath for a performance like speaking, a rate of 4-6 breaths in a minute is about where we want to be, according to stress experts like Kelly McGonigal (see Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Penguin Random House, 2011)). Try the 7/11 breath, used by folks like first responders to clear their head and quiet their limbic system in the face of actual danger- yes, something more threatening than bored colleagues or tipsy wedding guests. It is about as simple as it sounds. Think about it, everything in the first responder’s body is saying fight, flee, run away, but they have to keep calm and clearheaded as they face down a life or death situation.

 Practice: Stand up straight and breathe in through your nose counting to seven, breathe out through your mouth counting all the way out to eleven. Try four or five of these before, during and after your performance, it should quell the jitters and boost your confidence, as you begin your speech.

For myself, I never wanted a career in public speaking; in fact, I’m an introvert who much prefers staying home and writing, or one-on-one interactions. These days, my main work is public speaking, giving talks about mindfulness about sixty times a year, and I love it. The audience now feels to me like one person, not hundreds, although I still avoid cocktail parties and small talk after events.

 I’ll leave you with one more practice that can help you get out of your head, where anxiety lives and into your body. And what’s the farthest place from the head as my friend Jessica Morey reminds people? Your feet of course! Standing in front of the crowd as your heart pounds and thoughts race to the nonexistent future where you bomb the presentation, only to be fired and die alone under a bridge. So while your thoughts run from regretting the past joke that bombed to the future nightmare scenario, you can keep coming back to sensations in the body, which are always in the present.

Practice: Stand up tall and confident, taking a deep breath in. Follow the sensations of your breath inward, past your belly and bring your awareness down into your feet. What do feel at the soles of your feet? Is the floor soft or hard? Are your shoes loose or tight? Are your feet cool or warm, dry or damp? Are your socks soft or scratchy? Gently press them both a bit harder into the floor.  A few questions to yourself like this and the racing thoughts are likely to fade by the time you return to the sweat drenched notes you’re clutching in your hand.

 Sounds great! You might say, but how do I remember this when I’m up there at the podium? Simple, the same way you don't forget the speech. Write these tips directly into your notes. Grab a sharpie and jot down a few reminders in the margins like “breathe here” and “feel your feet right now,” along with your witty repartee, which unfortunately my dear reader, you are on your own to come up with. And then remember, the whole damn thing will be over in just a couple of minutes anyway.

But try to stay in the moment, and try to enjoy yourself. If you can have fun with it, the audience likely will too. If you aren’t having fun, they definitely won’t. And remember Maya Angelou’s wisdom, “People may forget what you say, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.” And what your feeling up on the podium is contagious to the audience.

And so, even if a joke lands with crickets, it will instantly be the past, and you can just come back to the moment and stay present for your next great line. And remember, while you’ll probably think about your performance for hours or days before and after, your audience probably won’t and that's okay. When you are done, give yourself a pat on the back. Take in the moment, allow yourself to accept the compliments, and take some time to celebrate yourself for getting through it, not just whoever you toasted or whatever idea you pitched.

Christopher Willard (PsyD) is a psychologist and consultant based in Boston. The author of Raising Resilience and multiple other books, he leads seminars on sharing mindfulness with youth worldwide. He teaches at Harvard Medical School. To learn more about Chris, please visit his website

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