Since 90% of how well you perform as a speaker is determined before you reach your speaking space, it’s good idea to learn how to prepare.
For speakers, this means prepare yourself, your message and your speaking environment.
It’s equally important that nerves don’t get in the way of an excellent public appearance.
The American writer, Mark Twain, used to say “There are two kinds of people in the world – those that are nervous at public speaking and those that are liars.”
Most people are nervous at speaking in public.
Nervousness is actually a good thing. It’s that spurt of adrenalin that makes your talk truly exhilarating.
If you’re not nervous, if your heart isn’t beating a little faster, your presentation or speech will be flat.
The secret, however, lies in learning to control your nerves. Don’t let nervousness control you – learn to control it, or as I prefer to say, manage it. I also prefer to call it nervous energy.
The key to managing nervous energy is using the right breathing technique – breathing from the diaphragm. This is the single most important thing you can do to control nervousness, wherever you are speaking in public.
Sadly, breathing is something we never consider when we stand to speak, except when it’s gone. Breathlessness can be a huge problem at the lectern.
When we sleep, we breathe from the diaphragm. When we are busy and stressed the breath rises higher, the heart rate faster and your neck can get tight and quite painful. It can get to the stage where we can’t think straight or even completely blank out!
Do you ever wonder when to take a breath in normal conversation? So why is it such a concern in public speaking?
Because we don’t allow ourselves to take a breath before we run out of air: we wait until we are totally spent and then we gasp for the next breath, increasing our tension.
When I give a presentation, I am nervous, but my audience does not see or hear it because I am breathing– I’m using my diaphragm to control that nervousness. And I’m telling myself – breathe down towards the floor and breathe down – not up towards the shoulders and ears!
Diaphragmatic breathing exercise
Learn to practise diaphragmatic breathing with this exercise.
Sit straight on a chair. Your back to the back of the chair. Your shoulders should be squared but relaxed.
1. Place your right hand on your lower chest and left hand on your abdomen.
2. Slowly inhale through your nose.
3. As you breathe in, your left hand should rise slightly. As you breathe out, it will fall in. There should be little or no movement in your right hand.
4. Keep your inhalations and exhalations of equal duration. Your breathing should be long, slow, and regular. It may take a little practice for breathing to become regular. Allow some unevenness in the beginning.
5. Practise this four to five times. Rest and repeat. The breathing should be deep, slow and smooth. Try not to force all of the air out of the lungs – let it be natural and gentle. Keep the inhalation and exhalation of the same duration. Practice it for some time and allow the breathing process to fall into a rhythmic cycle.
You can find more public speaking advice in Sofia’s Speaking Tips ebook.
About the author
Sofia Majewski is a Canberra-based consultant who specialises in contemporary public speaking, and has coached at TEDxCanberra since 2013. For more than 13 years she has helped speakers to find the right tone, breathing technique and style to successfully address conferences, committees, public hearings or boardrooms.