How 6 top coaches deal with speaking anxiety

beastwithinYEAR AFTER YEAR, THE BOOK OF LISTS RANKS FEAR of public speaking as the No. 1 bogeyman in people’s minds ahead of such surefire nail-biters as death, disease and presmagznuclear war. Just last year a Gallop News Service poll found that in America where people are free to be afraid of anything, public speaking was second only to a fear of snakes.

Indeed, there’s something about stepping in front of an audience that is almost pathologically frightening to many people, even professionals who do it every day. About the only people for whom this is good news are presentation coaches and consultants who make a living among other things, teaching people how to overcome fear of the podium.

Presentations recently talked to six of the nations top presentation consultants to find out how they reach their clients to overcome speaking anxiety and take control of their nerves. In the process we found that there are as many ways to tame the nervous beast within as there are speaking coaches to teach you how. All use different techniques to help people keep their inner coward at bay. And, in any case you’re wondering, none of their methods have anything to do with envisioning an audience in its underwear.

Luanne White Owner and President of Theatre Techniques for Business People, Inc. ®, Atlanta  lu-pic

Luanne White is a speaker and trainer on the subject of incorporating theatrical techniques within the corporate world. The president of Theatre Techniques for Executives. in Atlanta, her client list includes Coca-Cola Co., BellSouth Corp.’s cellular division, Johnson & Johnson, Hallmark corp. and Brystol Myers-Squibb Co. She can be reached at 770-913-0400 or her Web site: www.energyspeak.com

The techniques Luanne White teaches originally developed from the performing arts world. White, who has appeared in numerous stage performances and television shows, believes people are fearful when it comes to presenting because they don’t know how their physical mechanism — their body — works. “People can only get over their fear by first going on tour of this mechanism, taking command of their ‘control room,’” she explains, “and then understanding what performance energy is and how to get to that level, which is where their best self will emerge.”

Anxiousness, then, can be a powerful ally when presenting if it involves flowing adrenaline. If you want to engage someone in conversation, for example, you have to do more than look and speak; you have to direct your energy toward them. “When you connect correctly, you get rid of your fears and become engaged,” White says. Transfer this idea to speaking at a podium.

You still need a level of engagement, but you must direct an equal amount of energy toward the audience. “Like an electrical current, think of any performance you’ve seen where there’s someone onstage who has the high energy that fixates you,” White suggests. “They aren’t the loudest people; they just have the performance energy that captures you.” When presenters realize their potential and exercise their control-room switches, they will have less fear, she says.

Fear starts when we’re children, when we’re humiliated,” White explains. “We’re usually in [a state of high] energy and having fun until something happens,” causing us to be laughed at or get in trouble. After that, she says, “your cellular memory is developing negatively and conditioning [you] that when in high energy with other people, [you’ll] end up embarrassed.”

Fear of judgement, humiliation and embarrassment are the big issues for presenters. To fix this cellular programming, White teaches people how to reprogram themselves to think the experience will be good — of benefit to the audience and themselves.

To accustom clients to the energy level needed to be an effective speaker, White uses trigger exercises to teach people how to get their energy up in a snap–exercises that will allow them to walk into a room and be in command.

“One exercise I use is to get a speaker to marry their physical energy with an icon to create an association which will create relaxation onstage,” White says. She has clients raise their heart rates until they are almost out of breath (using activities such as running in place), then stop and close their eyes. “When this cardiovascular energy is roaring through their body, I coach them to be aware of it and to associate it with something — a firecracker going off, a gong sound or a volcano erupting — coupling the high energy level with the image,” she explains. “I have them do it at least once a day for two to six weeks, so when they walk on stage, if the nerves are there, they can click into their energy by associating it with the trigger icon.” The beauty of this technique, says White, is that it’s available for the rest of their lives, in any situation.

We’ve all heard the maxim, “Just picture the audience in their underwear.” But does anyone ever actually do this, and has anyone ever been helped by it? Probably not, yet the common wisdom about how to vanquish one’s fear of speaking tends to boil down to this and a few other tired bromides, such as “take a deep breath” or “get your butterflies to fly in formation.” In addition, here are a few other misguided ideas our experts think you should disregard.

Luanne White
BAD ADVISE: Listen to speech coaching tapes.
WHY: Without a trainer, you’re only watching and mimicking and won’t get anywhere near where you need to be.
Mark Merritt is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis who isn’t afraid to say so.