I typically experience intense performance anxiety, but I didn't want that to hold me back from an incredible opportunity to speak in front of 100 business and thought leaders. I knew I had value to share and that my speech content would be extremely useful. I just needed to figure out how to not simultaneously vomit and poop while on stage or even worse, make myself so sick with anxiety that I couldn’t go on stage at all.
This speaking opportunity was a big deal for me. I was flying to Miami, would be on a stage with a lavalier, and was being presented as the keynote. I couldn’t mess this up. So I pulled out every tool that I could think of from my years of working with clients with anxiety and applied every single one. No exaggeration. I did every single thing that I’m going to share and I'm proud to announce that they helped! Not only was I able to give the presentation with minimal anxiety, I actually found myself having fun. I was even able to enjoy the panel discussion prior to my keynote and not spend that time getting sick in the bathroom like I had anticipated!
Performance anxiety (aka stage fright) is when we have a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweaty and cold holds, feel flushed, trembling voice and knees, dry mouth, and an upset stomach. We experience performance anxiety on a spectrum, meaning there might be times we feel hot and a bit shaky, times where we feel like we’re panting while speaking and like our faces are on fire, and times in between.
Prepare ahead of time. I spent a lot of time going through the material, memorizing it, and thinking of questions people might have so that I'd feel as prepared as possible.
Do the presentation while exercising. Sweating, shortness of breath, feeling flushed... These are things that happen while exercising and when we're super anxious. I practiced giving my presentation while on a treadmill, walking at a fast enough pace where I was panting and sweating. This allowed my brain to understand that even if I was in a state of panic, I could still give the presentation.
Visualize. I spent just a couple of minutes each day visualizing myself standing on a stage, wearing a microphone, and looking out into an audience. I didn't visualize the entire presentation but rather, focused on the feelings. I allowed my heart rate to elevate as I looked around the crowd and gave myself to feel anxious. After just a minute or so, my heart rate decreased as I imagined walking around and speaking, allowing my brain to understand that the anxiety dissipates.
Build self-confidence ahead of time. I bought new clothes that I felt confident in plus I had my first manicure in over 5 years! These little details helped me feel better going into the event.
Focus on becoming rather than being. Telling myself "I'm becoming a better public speaker" rather than "I'm a good public speaker" made me less susceptible to perceived negative feedback and more likely to go outside my comfort zone. It also took the pressure off.
Focus on your purpose. I knew my content was valuable and that the audience participants were going to really benefit from my presentation. I reminded myself of this constantly so it took the focus off of my internal experience and put it on how it would help others.
If possible, get in front of the crowd ahead of time. I asked the conference organizers if there was any other chance for me to speak prior to my presentation, resulting in me leading the group in a short visualization the night before I took the stage. It gave me a chance to get comfortable and showed that I could do it.
Doublet breathing. This type of breath is where we inhale through our nose as much as we can and then take one final sniff in at the end. We then do a long, slow exhale through our mouth. Taking a few doublet breaths while waiting to take the stage immediately calmed my nervous system.
Find a grounding object. I chose a stone that fits perfectly in my hand and has rough edges. For the days leading up to the presentation, I used it as a prompt to slow down my breathing. It sat on my desk and whenever I picked it up, I did a couple of slow, deep breaths. I kept the stone in my pocket during the actual presentation and whenever I touched it, I was reminded to slow down my breathing.
Embrace the anxiety. Hiding symptoms of anxiety takes a ton of mental (and physical) energy. Instead of acting like I do this all the time, I just admitted how outside my comfort zone this was for me and how anxious I was feeling. I literally started my presentation with "I'm feeling really anxious up here right now."
Practice gratitude. Our brains cannot feel anxiety and gratitude at the same time. I reminded myself how lucky I was to have this opportunity and expressed my gratitude at the start of the presentation. After saying, "I'm feeling really anxious up here right now," I followed up with, "and since our brains can't feel anxiety and gratitude simultaneously, I want to take a moment and express gratitude to all of you." I then went on to list why and for what I was grateful.
This list might look like a lot of work, but I promise you, it's so worth it. The confidence you'll feel while speaking in front of others will make you feel like you can do anything. I'm now ready to take the stage again, something I never thought I’d say! If I can reduce performance anxiety, so can you.
To learn more about mental health and building a fulfilling life for yourself, check out Dr. Melanie McNally's Therapy Bootcamp.
Created by industry experts