Public speaking stress, sweat and adrenaline


This is a compilation post that brings together my views on closely related topics, collating articles that I published earlier on this blog. It doesn’t contain new content, although part of it may have been slightly reworked. Knowing that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, I hope this update provides you with a bigger picture, a more complete list of good practices, or a better grounded opinion.


Take your parachute and jump, you can’t stay here forever
When everyone else is gone, being all alone won’t seem that clever
Take your parachute and go, there’s gonna have to be some danger
Take your parachute and jump, you’re gonna have to take flight

― from “Parachute” by Something Happens, EMI Records

Let me tell you about my first parachute (tandem) jump and what I learned from it. No need to say that it was a unique experience. Jumping out of a very small plane from an altitude of over 3000 meter. Half a minute (that seemed like only a few seconds) of free fall at 200 km/h. A stunning view from somewhere between heaven and earth. And, finally, the feeling to be safely back with both feet back on the ground.

Here are eight lessons I took from this breathtaking experience…

  1. Always make sure your parachute is properly folded before the plane takes off.
  2. Timing is key: when to jump and when to open the parachute.
  3. Motivation is also important. I can assure you that it takes some guts to step out the door of a plane into open space.
  4. Keep in mind that the laws of gravity are equal for each one of us, and will never be greater than 9.81 m/s2 – regardless of your size, shape or mass.
  5. Don’t forget to take a deep breath just before you dive and let the adrenaline flow.
  6. The free fall starts a bit scary but once you get through the first seconds, it feels really great.
  7. Once the canopy has unfolded, there’s not much left to worry about (except for point 8) – and you have ample time for savoring the scenery below.
  8. Start preparing in time for a soft landing.

I have to admit that the dive took me some guts, and produced a lot of stress, sweat and adrenaline.  But it felt… WOW! Almost as thrilling and exciting as speaking publicly in front of a large audience.

No more fear of speaking

Don’t think that stress only comes to you. According to the People’s Almanac, “speaking in front of a group” tops the list of worst fears in the US – beating heights, insects and bugs, financial problems and fear of flying (and probably jumping to).

keep_calm_jump

You may blame it on your reptile brain, the oldest one of your three brains, that is responsible for all the ‘automatic’ functions of your body, like controlling your heartbeat, your breathing, and your body temperature. It’s full of fear, and it will put you in “survival mode” under life-threatening conditions. But, unfortunately, this part of your brain can’t make the difference between a real physical threat and an imaginary threat, like fear of public speaking. This is why some presenters get jittery or freeze up when they get in front of an audience.

Here are a few tips that may help you deal with stage fright, prepare for a public performance and survive the first minutes of your speech  ―  once you have made a good start, you stress level will go down and your will feel more comfortable.

  • Arrive at the venue well in time. Get familiar with the room and check the A/V equipment before you start. This will keep Murphy out, save you from unpleasant surprises and give you less things to worry about.
  • Think of the audience as your friend. The people in the room have come to listen to the interesting talk you prepared for them. As most of them are scared of public speaking, just like you, they want you to succeed. Look for a few allies in the audience and make eye contact with them during your talk. After your presentation, try to get some feedback from individuals – they will certainly tell you that you did a good job!
  • Believe in yourself. Think positive. You can do it! Transform your stress into energy. Enthusiasm is contagious; if you show passion for the topic you present, your listeners will get excited too.
  • Control your breath. Nervous people have a tendency to take shorter breaths, which means less oxygen is getting to their brain. Breathing a few times deeply and thinking about something pleasant before you start will help you to control your nervous system’s response to stress.
  • Don’t present with an empty stomach. Have some food before you start, maybe even accompanied by a glass of wine – ONE, not more ;-)
  • Prepare for a strong start and a good story. Plan and memorize what you will be saying during the first minutes of your presentation. Make sure you will grab your audience’s attention from the first second onward.
  • Rehearse your presentation a few days in advance with a friendly audience, such as colleagues, friends or family members. Make sure you feel comfortable with your story, your visuals and with the words you want to use. Prepare a cheat sheet with a few keywords or bulleted speaker notes. You don’t have to use it, take it ‘ just for in case of …’
  • And finally, remember Dale Carnegie’s words (but don’t worry, the audience doesn’t know…): “There are always three speeches for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”

Now, re-read the 8 lessons from my parachute jump I listed above, and think of the skydive as your next public speech, and of the parachute as the story of your presentation. You would never consider jumping without one, would you?

(this compilation post has been published earlier on Business2Community and LinkedIn)

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