Wow, I have had many students who are extremely articulate and comfortable in interpersonal settings, but put them in front of a group? Their entire persona changes and nerves set in.
Let’s start by celebrating what’s awesome: This student (and so many other interpersonally comfortable students…) are eloquent, humorous and innately extroverted. This says that the skills, dynamism, and personality are there… we just need to comfortably transition these qualities to a larger crowd (and, preferably, while standing!)!
Here are my suggestions for the student, and questions that you can ask yourself:
-I completely empathize with that feeling of being physically unable to speak and having those physiological signs take over. So, to start, what anxiety-reducing strategies are you trying? We need to get your body working with you, rather than flying away from you in panic. The best method I know of is called “cognitive reciting.” So, when you start to feel symptomatic before the speech, go off to a quiet space (outside of the room, etc.) and begin to say (even whisper) everything you see in front of you out loud i.e., “There’s the door. It’s painted peach and has a silver handle. The room number is on the outside, number 14…”
The actual act of talking takes a lot of effort from our minds and bodies. Therefore, if you can try this technique, the physical symptoms may very well abate. I did a guest post on this subject for a public speaking coach’s blog called Speak Schmeak.
-When you approach your speaking area, what do you typically do? Do you put your notes down and just begin? Where are your eyes? On your notes? Or on the audience? Believe it or not, setting down your notes, taking a step back, dropping your shoulders, and looking at your audience for a second or two (and smiling, of course) can decrease nervousness. Nervousness is typically far worse when a speaker looks at notes and then suddenly decides to look up: Whoa! A flood of eyes, which would freak anyone out!
-Speaking of notes, tell me about them… Are you using note cards? Full text notes? The notes you use can be the single biggest stressor for you as a speaker, and can definitely create more apprehension and physical symptoms. Think about it: If you’re looking down and grappling for what to say next, or if your font is too small, your heart will start racing, you may have trouble breathing, and you’ll find it difficult to actually squeak words out.
I always recommend that speakers use key word, large font notes and only practice from those notes. This way, you are more conversational with the audience, less scripted, and you don’t feel the stress of having to remember every single word. The key word notes free you up to ad-lib and embrace natural conversational (extemporaneous) flow. I have a Camtasia presentation on how to use this technique in this post.
-You mentioned that your mind goes blank immediately. I will reference the key word notes here, once again. It’s totally fine to look down and get your first word to trigger you… the audience won’t have a problem with this as long as your eye contact returns to them… quickly! If you would feel more comfortable saying something like, “Welcome, everyone!” or “I hope everyone is well today!” or even “I’m so glad to be here” to break the ice a little bit, that’s also just fine. It may feel more comfortable than launching right into your speech content.
Let’s also talk about a quick reality check because mind blanking is one of the largest fears a speaker has: Remember, the audience has absolutely no idea what you were going to say. So, whatever you say, in the audience’s mind, will sound like it was supposed to be there.
-How much are you moving around during your speech? It sounds like you have a lot of physical anxiety happening and more movement i.e., deliberate steps–maybe two or three–and hand gestures can help your body work out some of that nervous energy. It will also give you a feeling of talking “with” your audience, rather than “at” your audience.
-I hear you saying that you are very comfortable in interpersonal situations, even with as many as five people. How can we turn the perception of public speaking (or even class discussion) into one big conversation for you? Is there a way to reframe the energy you’re giving it? Because, really, depending on your delivery style (conversational is ideal…), you are having one huge conversation with your audience. Sure, they may not be talking back, but they are giving you those nonverbal signals… smiling, nodding, upper torso leaning forward to indicate interest, etc.
-I think your upcoming persuasive speech angle sounds fascinating and like a lot of fun (I omitted this in the question for anonymity). Be a little selfish about your speech content: Add some of the wit that you mentioned; phrases that you will enjoy sharing and feel excited about. Getting a positive reaction from your audience can help your confidence in the moment!
Really, it sounds like there isn’t as far to go as you might think. If you had severe communication anxiety in all settings, then I would say we need to determine other strategies. However, there are many strong communication attributes in place to draw upon for speaking.
Believe it or not, if you could find a way to feel even 1% better about your upcoming presentation and own that excellence, it will create further confidence for you and you may find that you actually enjoy presenting to more people.
I’m going to think good thoughts for your next presentation!
Students, how are your presentations going this term? I’d love to hear about this… or any other class-related challenges! Other public speaking aficionados out there? What advice do you have for students who are interpersonally comfortable, but publicly hesitant?