People, it's said, fear public speaking more than they fear death. But if that adage applied to Michelle Obama when she took the podium last night, before a crowd of about 20,000 and a TV viewing audience of millions, it was hardly noticeable. To me, she seemed a little stiff when she first started speaking to the Democratic National Convention but then quickly got into her groove, embracing the crowd. I got the sense that she was actually in her element, happy to be there.
How did this woman, who's not a politician and is relatively new to the campaign scene, do that? I must admit I was a little envious. On those few occasions when I've given speeches, I've tended to get distracted worrying about boring those who are listening to me. I even get a little tense before speaking in a conference room filled with friendly colleagues. And for some people, public speaking generates so much anxiety that doctors consider it a mental health disorder. What exactly does it take to get over one's fears and master the art of public speaking? I did a little digging, and gleaned these five tips.
1. Practice, practice, practice. Go through your presentation again and again in front of whoever's willing to listen. Also, visualize yourself going through the whole process, striding up to the lectern, reading your notes, looking out at the audience and smiling.
2. Schedule a workout on the day of your speech. Some speaking coaches recommend about 15 to 20 minutes of brisk exercise an hour or two before the speech; the extra oxygen you take in can help boost your ability to focus. You'll also feel the stress-relieving effects of a workout.
3. Tell yourself you're good enough, smart enough, and, doggone it, people like you. Self affirmations may seem silly, but research suggests they work. A UCLA study found that people who reflected on their personal strengths right before speaking had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol afterward.
4. Get a little nervous beforehand. While some folks are more scared than others before that big presentation, everyone gets a little worried beforehand—and they should, according to this article on WebMD. Getting slightly stressed may trigger the release of the hormone adrenalin, which quickens your heart rate and heightens your mental focus. I wrote about this in a piece on the benefits of stress.
5. Once you've made one speech, make another. You can actually dampen the activity in an area of the brain responsible for generating the stress response by doing something you fear repeatedly. If you speak in front of others repeatedly without any major consequences, like fainting at the podium, then your brain gradually banishes the fear through a process called extinction. Toastmasters International, a free organization, can give you the opportunity to practice in front of others. Some doctors also prescribe beta blockers—high blood pressure medications—for short-term relief.