by Steve Adubato, PhD

This column tries to help people become better, more engaging public speakers. We've addressed issues such as eye contact, use of examples and analogies, as well as being concise and to the point.

Yet, one overriding theme that readers continue to express concern about is the uncontrollable fear, anxiety and downright panic over the prospect of having to speak in public. This problem is so severe that if you enter the words "fear of public speaking" in an Internet search engine, you will find dozens of organizations that address this issue.

In reality most of the problem is on our mind, not in some tangible inability to effectively speak in public. With that said, consider some tips that will help you reduce, if not eliminate, your public speaking anxiety:

  • Resist the urge to load up on caffeine before you present. Sure, it might pump you up and give you some energy, but it is going to also trigger your nervous system and potentially get your heart racing, which produces a lot of bad stuff.
  • Accept that a slightly elevated heart rate is normal. The danger is when feeling our heart race, our mind tells us something bad is about to happen; "What if I pass out. Or worse, what if I have a heart attack?" Well, you are not having a heart attack and fainting is a remote possibility. As soon as your heart starts racing there are specific things you can do to get it back in check, such as telling yourself "I am in control."
  • B-R-E-A-T-H-E. When we get nervous or panicky, our breath becomes shallow and clipped. Instead, take several long breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. While doing this, have a phrase you repeat that puts you in a more positive frame of mind. Something like, "Hey, I really know this stuff…this is going to be great."
  • According to The Phobia Clinic in New York, your physiology (rapid heart beat, sweaty palms, etc.) is driven largely by a negative "focus." Simply put, what we put in our head ("Oh my God, this is going to be terrible") drives how our body reacts and in turn we react to our bodies ("Why is this happening to me?") in a downward spiral which causes the panic that we find so immobilizing.
  • You can change your focus and in turn your physiology by getting familiar with your surroundings. Enter the room 15-20 minutes before you are going to speak. Start talking to people in the audience, which will use up that nervous energy.
  • Anxiety also comes from being unsure or insecure, so when you do get to the podium, know EXACTLY how you want to begin and do it with a bang! Don't ease in. Ask a provocative question. Make a powerful statement. You want to get the presentation moving and get yourself on track. What you'll find is that much of the anxiety and nervousness will dissipate once you get into your presentation.

Look, speaking phobia (or the larger issue of panic or anxiety disorder) effects millions of Americans. It can't be eliminated overnight, but it can be reduced dramatically by taking control of yourself and your speaking situation.

Remember, the more you get up to do it, the more familiar it will become. The more positive feedback you get, the more you will look forward to your next presentation. Over time, you can turn anxiety and fear into enthusiasm and excitement. Write to me with how do you deal with the fear of speaking in public? Your insights could really help someone who is struggling.