Most of us fear speaking before an audience. We’re afraid that our nerves will get the better of us and we’ll lose our confidence in the spotlight. True, it’s not easy to overcome jitters and a racing heart rate when suddenly all eyes are on us.
How can we learn to show confidence in situations when we must speak before a group and talk on camera? How can we calm our breathing, slow our racing heart rate and focus our thoughts to confidently share the ideas we want to convey?
This fear is human. Nerves are normal. Even the most confident and seasoned speakers among us can recount memories of embarrassment, fear and vulnerability as speakers.
But though these moments connect us all, so does the capacity to use them to help us to learn to step up and stand out as speakers. Confidence is learned, not innate. There’s no such thing as a “born speaker.” It’s what we do to prepare that will allow us to feel calm, controlled and confident in the spotlight.
When we handle these moments well, doors open. People listen and are more likely to take our ideas seriously. Word gets around. Critical connections are made and we realize that we can make a difference.
Gaining awareness and appreciation of the physiology involved when we speak helps us to better control our voice in those spotlight moments. The voice operates similarly to how a guitar makes a sound: a guitar has strings; strumming the strings makes them vibrate, and the body of the guitar resonates the sound. The instrument of our voice also has strings — our vocal folds. The air that comes from our lungs strums them. Our bodies act as a resonator. In other words, our voice is created by air hitting the vocal folds, which vibrate, and the body’s speech muscles shape and resonates the sound.
When we understand the instrument of our voice, we can use it as a way to calm our nervous system through a clever back door.
We must exert action over our breath in order to speak. At the same time, slowing and deepening the breath is one of the few ways to consciously control our nervous system. This means that as we develop control of the voice, we are also developing control over the nervous system. When we know how to connect breath and speech to speak with control, it can actually calm us down.
Why the voice shakes
Voice is the canary in the mine of the nervous system. The shakes, squeaks and tremors are a sign to the outside world of the nerves inside us. All of these reactions are entirely unhelpful for our conference speech or our big meeting presentation. These responses are there not because we’re bad speakers. They’re happening because our fight-or-flight system is activated. We have to help it reappraise the situation and convince it that our life isn’t under threat. We need to convince it that the audience members are friends, not foes.
To do this, we must learn to recognize the difference between how we pause for breath when we chat with friends and how we rush and gasp for breath in a foe situation. With friends, we breathe in a relaxed way — low and wide from the diaphragm. We breathe in our own time without rushing or running out of breath. If we master this breathing under pressure, the voice will fall into place.
Practice the exercise below regularly to master your breathing and allow yourself to speak with confidence.
Stop to smell the roses.
Think of walking around a summer garden and breathing in the scent of roses. Notice the breathe when taking in that lovely smell — wide, expansive and easy. That ease and expansiveness is what you’re after here. Close your mouth and imagine smelling the roses. Feel the air arriving in its own time. There’s no short intake of breath or gasp when breathing in the scent.
Connect this relaxed breath with the voice.
Imagine giving someone you care about a compliment. As you think of the compliment, imagine taking in the relaxed smelling-a-rose breath. It can come in through just the nose, or the nose and mouth. Voice the compliment on the out-breath. Your voice will have a relaxed quality. Tap into this ease when you want to ooze confidence.
How you breathe is how you speak. Just as a tense breath leads to tense a voice, a relaxed breath leads to a relaxed voice and draws people in.
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