Recently I hosted a seminar for 7th and 8th graders to answer their college-related questions. I barely mentioned the importance of participating in class, when a boy raised his hand.
"What if you get, um, really scared, about talking in front of people?"
The other kids murmured in agreement.
"I get bad grades in band because I'm too afraid to play my trumpet in front of the class," one girl chimed in.
"Have you talked with your teacher outside of class?" I asked them. "One thing you can do, right now, is tell your teacher you care about doing well but are afraid to be called on. Ask your teacher how she can help you participate more."
But that's a temporary solution. What can you do - whether you're a grade school student, a college freshmen, or a young professional - when speaking up freaks you out?
The University of Houston at Clear Lake has an excellent script that helps you prepare for public speaking.
However, you don't have to follow a guide. If you are worried about a particular presentation, start envisioning how you want the speech to go a few days ahead of time.
Picture your audience, the room you will be in, how you will gesture, breathing calmly and evenly throughout, and feel confident you can and will remember all of the key points you want to cover. Practice pausing after important points or for a laugh (if you're going for funny), and channel any anxiety you feel into excitement. You are excited to give this presentation, because you are going to nail it.
And if it's just the everyday, being put-on-the-spot speaking that makes you clam up in the classroom or at the office, devote a few minutes before class or your meeting to visualize yourself raising an important question, contributing a solid point, or simply maintaining your composure if your instructor or boss calls upon you to add something to the discussion.
2. Strategic Eye Contact
This can be a friend or colleague who you enlist ahead of time to give you a little smile or affirming nod when you need it. Or you can just rely on that person who always seems to be looking up and paying attention when you need to make eye contact and believe someone is listening.
Even if you don't know who will be in the audience, you can still count on eye contact as a way to relieve your public-speaking anxiety. Make marks on your notes (or memorize) when you want to look up. Scan the room, looking left, center, and right. Your audience will feel more engaged if you include them with eye contact, consequently bolstering your own confidence in your delivery.
It was my husband who finally identified my problem. I was practicing reading a presentation I was going to give at an international conference - my scholarly debut - and I was freaking right the hell out that I'd embarrass myself, my advisor, my fellow panelists, my university....
"Breathe OUT," my husband instructed me. "You breathe in, and in, and in, and keep forgetting to breathe out."
So simple. He was totally right. I became more conscious about my breathing, and stopped experiencing the red cheeks when I was able to get the air I needed while talking. And because I stopped being so worried about being able to breathe and getting red-faced, I stopped being so anxious about public speaking in general.
It wasn't an overnight process. But there was steady progress. Sometimes the best thing you can do is a little exposure therapy. Force yourself to join clubs where you have to talk (like a debate club) or volunteer to lead a presentation or deliver a report. Offer to go first if everyone has to speak that day. Put yourself in situations where speaking is non-negotiable and you have to just get over it and do it.
Visualization, Strategic Eye Contact, and Breathing can all go a long way to improve your anxiety related to public speaking. And, ultimately, the most effective thing you can do is just keep trying.