05February 2024

Public Speaking Tips for overcoming Panic

Fears are usually irrational.
There is the famous acronym: ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’
which is supposed to imply that the root of our fear is somehow illogical.
And for most modern situations that is probably true.
However, I still prefer the more practical acronym of ‘Forget Everything And Run!’

If you imagined yourself being chased by a bear, then most of the manifestations of fear are probably quite useful, whereas Public Speaking is unlikely to be a literal ‘life and death’ situation and yet we are still inclined to respond as if it were.
Panic is one degree further. 
While Fear will probably inspire you to take action to save yourself,

Panic is characterised by a complete freeze and a loss of reason and control. The phrase ‘rabbit in the headlights’ comes to mind.

And for many of us, the mere idea of standing up in front of people will bring this on.

I am not a psychologist and so I claim no right to suggest who does or does not need professional counselling to help them overcome their feelings.
However, I would suggest that the vast majority of us do not. 
There are many things we can do to prevent the manifestations of panic before they happen and many things we can do to counter them should they appear.
So let’s look at the practical and the simple before we start to look at the psychological.

10 tips to overcome feelings of panic at the thought of Public Speaking

The first few tips are all to do with preparation.

  1. Understand and Accept

The main cause of feelings of panic relates to a sense of overwhelm and the loss of control.  Add to that the pressure of the moment and the number of eyes on you and the most apparently simple task can feel overwhelming.
Many business and peak performance coaches will draw analogies with the game of golf because so much of what happens on a golf course happens in the player’s head.
The shortest, simplest putt that under normal circumstances would require no second thought can take on mammoth proportions when the pressure is on.
Therefore professional sportsmen will rely heavily on drills and the routine of repetitive practice when they are under pressure.
Probably the biggest mistake that a speaker can make is to think that standing on stage should not be that different from other forms of speaking.  That does not necessarily mean the speaker is overconfident, but it does mean that they have underestimated the enormity of the task.
Coming from the shelter of backstage one minute to suddenly standing in front of a group of people with the full glare of their attention on you the next minute can be traumatic!
If we characterise being nervous as being stimulated and feelings of panic as being overstimulated, then we can start to appreciate we are not dealing with a situation of ‘black v ‘white’, instead it is all a matter of degree. 
So rather than imagining that there is a battle between feeling nervous (switch set to ON) and not feeling nervous (switch set to OFF), we would do better to imagine that we are looking at a continuum of ‘not nervous at all’ at one end of the scale (which is not good for any form of presentation, because you will come across as flat and uninspired) through to ‘blind panic’ at the other end (which is also not good for a presentation for probably more obvious reasons), while understanding there is an area in the middle where being nervous still accesses all the benefits of the instinctive ‘fight or flight’ response, without being overwhelming:  giving us energy, helping us focus, manifesting itself as excitement and passion.
Therefore rather than looking for an elusive ON or OFF switch, we need to work out what we need to do to place us and keep us in the middle zone.
And that will be different for each of us.

  1. Know your opening line

Not just know your opening line, but practise your opening line, repeat your opening line, and say it until, like a six-inch putt, you feel as confident as you can be of getting it right.
Still not happy?
Then simplify your opening line until it becomes more manageable.
That might mean changing and simplifying the vocabulary, practising the keywords that need emphasis, repeating it slowly, and recording it until you feel comfortable. 

  1. Simulate

At one stage the England football team had developed a reputation of always being eliminated from competitions by losing the penalty shoot-out after playing to a stalemate over 90 or 120 minutes.
It was hard to practise for penalties as it was impossible to simulate that level of pressure on a training ground.
Nevertheless what they could do was practise the drill until it was part of muscle memory; they could simulate the physical conditions a little by practising penalties at the end of an exhausting training session so that their bodies approximated how tired they would feel after a full match and some clubs might even take the opportunity at the end of a pre-season friendly to take penalties in front of the crowd at the end of the game.  All done to simulate reality as closely as possible!
So what can we do as speakers?
If we are on our own, take a moment when you have been concentrating on something else to stand up in front of the mirror, think through or act through whatever routine you have before you intend to start your speech, look yourself in the mirror, and say your opening words.  If you seem to stumble or skip somewhere, make a note of it, work out a strategy to counteract it and store that for use for next time.
If you are with a trusted other, prepare them earlier in the day that at any moment you might stand up and deliver your opening words. 
Do not ask: ‘Do you have a moment now?’ or tell them what you are about to do because that will take away and soften the impact of standing up and starting.
What I am suggesting to you may sound like ‘overkill’, but if that is what it takes to get your opening words out properly, that is what you need to do.
Over the years I am less likely to find myself ‘over-heating’ through the green zone of nerves into the red zone of panic and so I require less preparation for those opening moments, but knowing how critical and disorientating those first words can be, I will always make sure I feel in control of the opening of a speech.

  1. Slow down

Panic can be characterised by images of excessive speed and loss of control.  Therefore you can counteract this by making sure – again particularly when practising the opening words – that each word is spoken slowly and clearly.  I have just been listening to a BBC reporter on an outside broadcast and I was struck by how slowly, clearly, and separately each word was being spoken.  When speakers are speaking with command and control they are probably speaking a lot slower than you might imagine.

  1. Simplify

Another characterisation of panic might be the feeling of ‘too much’!  If the task feels overwhelming, part of your preparation might be to simplify in your mind what your keep message is.  Part of the pressure we put ourselves under stems from having ‘a lot’ to say without clarifying in our mind exactly ‘what’ we want to say. 

  1. Visualise

You may not always be able to simulate, but you can always visualise, and if you can put the two together so much the better.
If part of the reason for feeling panic is a sense of loss of control, then the more you can familiarise yourself with the process, the more control you will have.
This might mean going to the room beforehand, walking the steps you will be taking, practising the thoughts you want to be thinking, getting in position, and saying your fist words.  If you cannot be in the room, you can always imagine it and visualise each step.
Neil Armstrong on being asked about how it felt to walk on the moon replied that it was just like all the drills they had done.

  1. Breathe

If panic is manifested as ‘speed’, ‘rushing’, or ‘out of control’, as well as taking steps to consciously control the thoughts and the actual steps you will be taking, take control of your physiology.  Breathe deeply and slowly; concentrate on breathing out for longer than you breathe in.  You will notice that kickers in a rugby match not only go through a precise physical routine, they go through a visualisation routine and take steps to control their breathing.  Rather than succumbing to the pressure of the moment they endeavour to take back control by making the moment feel more like the routine that they have practised thousands of times.

  1. Prepare your notes

This is where the continuum of not being nervous through to panic comes back into play.  We want to exist in the green zone in the middle where nerves mean heightened awareness and positive energy.  For nervous speakers, their notes are a good way of controlling where they are.  I will always be encouraging less use of notes and slides, but if that is going to push you into the red zone, you need to decide how much you need to keep you in the green zone.  If you are deeply troubled at the thought of speaking, then you will probably want to have extensive notes.  However, you still need to practise and simulate.
Where are your notes going to be placed in front of you?
Can you lay them down?
Are they clear enough to read?
If you cannot shrink them down to one page (and still be legible), when do you need to turn the page?

  1. Don’t try to be perfect

No one is!  If panic means overwhelming, why are we overwhelmed?
- Usually, because the stakes have become too high.
Therefore one resolution is to lower the pressure of expectation we have on ourselves.
For some of us this is not easy, therefore aim to shift your focus from your performance to your message.
If the presentation is all about you, then a few stumbles can be interpreted as disastrous.
If the presentation is about the message, then a few stumbles are not so important.

  1. Fear is normal

Susan Jeffers wrote ‘Feel the Fear and do it anyway’, where she offers much advice on facing our fears.
Often it comes down to taking small steps, practice and affirmation.
When fear becomes panic, it means that the engine is overheating.
We need to take however many and whatever steps necessary to lower the temperature.

And they will always revolve around:
- Slow down
- Simplify
- Visualise
- Repeat
and as is often the way
- Forgive yourself for not being perfect!

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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.