It’s baffling to me that something as fundamental as speaking can be so difficult at times. I’ve struggled with this for 16+ years after having a scarring experience in college where I legitimately lost my breathe while reading an essay. I had no idea my body could even reach that level of nervousness.
What it comes down to, at least for me, is feeling like I’m in a head-to-head battle with my autonomic system. Not being able to regulate a speeding heart, for example, gives the illusion of an internal brawl. It’s a fight between my brain trying to tell my autonomic system to chill out.
I also believe that everyone has an innate method of communicating naturally. For me, that’s writing. For you, it might be speaking, art, music, or other forms of expression. Because I prefer the methodical qualities of writing, it makes public speaking frustratingly uncontrollable and irreversible—there’s no undo shortcut on a recorded Zoom call.
With the summer of 2020 requiring an onslaught of video conferences, I have been determined to get better at speaking. I hope these tips can be useful to anyone else dealing with anxiety.
Expect and accept the fight-or-flight syndrome
Before my presentations, I go to war with a rapid heartbeat and constricting, scratchy throat. I’ve tried breathing techniques, cough drops, holding a keepsake coin, and even whiskey—none of those worked. Too often, I go into a meeting thinking, “I hope I don’t get nervous this time,” and feel defeated once the inevitable uneasiness takes over.
A major breakthrough was when I realized I can move through those feelings. I finally recognized that a racing heart can be a mandatory but momentary hurdle, something you get hit with and keep moving past. It’s like a football player slipping a tackle while staying on their feet, then spinning and dodging the rest of the way down the field.
Once I accepted that I would be nervous rather than trying to avoid it, the effects became far less severe.
Noise-cancelling headphones are worth every penny
If you’re like me, anxiety causes you to focus more on how you sound rather than what you’re actually saying. This is especially true on video calls when I have a bunch of faces staring back at me, seemingly judging every syllable and facial expression I make.
Noice-cancelling headphones help me get past that by muffling the sound of my own voice. I don’t know the science of why this helps or if it’s a placebo effect but it works. My best guess is by muting how I sound—like a scratchy voice—it helps me not pay as much attention to those nervous symptoms. As a side benefit, it forces me to speak a little louder and clearer.
Video calls add to the complexity
On video calls, participants yawn, look out windows, stare down at their phones, visibly type while you’re speaking, and conjure up any number of distractions. Add to that, most conference software includes a video of yourself—like having an awkward mirror to talk to.
First off, I immediately hide my own self view. Zoom, for example, allows me to still be visible to other members without having to stare at myself. For someone who overthinks every little action, hiding that self view lets me relax much easier.
Second, when it’s my turn to present on a call with many team members, I place another app window over all participant videos except one to “hide” them. This drastically reduces eliminations and the reason I leave one person visible is so I have a warning in case my microphone is muted. I’ve found that using a text editor to cover the videos works best because I can also store notes in that document for my presentation.
Reframing my perspective on public speaking
I’ve researched a lot of books and podcasts on improving my public speaking and discovered a couple gems that I remind myself with each time. Keep in mind, a piece of advice doesn’t always impact each person the same way so I recommend searching for your own motivation as well.
“Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.” —Viktor Fankl
This quote hit me like a ton of bricks and I give credit to Hugh Jackman for mentioning it on the Tim Ferris podcast. I read Man’s Search for Meaning right after that.
My biggest issue, and possibly something you can relate to, is ruminating on my past conversations. After every meaningful get together, important phone call, or video conference, I subconsciously replay those events in my head for days afterward. I’ll analyze how confident I felt, what I said, or kick myself over things I totally forgot to mention.
Viktor’s quote has become my pre-call mantra. It helps me remember to loosen up since my biggest post-call critique is wishing I had not been so tense.
The second reminder I keep telling myself is that whatever I’m nervous about now is just a stepping stone to something bigger. Whenever I worry about an upcoming social situation, it’s less scary if I view it as a means toward bigger goals later on.
Preparing for the moment
Before a high-stress call, I’ve learned to keep busy up to the very last minute. Without a mental distraction beforehand, it’s too easy to spend hours fretting how it will go. This only increases the pressure as that wasted time feels like an investment that must be paid off with a flawless call.
For any lengthy presentations with slides, I practice a day or two in advance and no more. Previously, I tried committing my entire speech to memory with dozens of dry runs but it made the final delivery very robotic.
Another simple pre-call tactic is to workout, get a haircut, and dress clean. The exercising has helped me burn off some of the nerves and the rest builds confidence.
The ultimate cure
Using any type of crutch to get through anxiety never worked for me. I tried Rescue Rememdy, L-Theanine, and American Ginseng, to name a few. Other times, I was desperate enough to go with old-fashioned “liquid courage”. Granted, being drunk will loosen anyone up but a cop-out like that completely erased any sense of victory.
I only saw improvements in my public speaking when I did more of it and started to become desensitized. Additionally, this is a skill that I have to intentionally work at or it fades quickly, similar to exercising muscles. No excuses, no blaming something else, no avoiding the situation; only practice has helped me so far.
When a presentation goes well, I write down as many details as I can to repeat that success later on. For times where my nerves get the best of me, I convince myself that I’m my own worst critic and the audience probably didn’t notice my mistakes.
Surrounding myself with positive motivation has also helped tremendously. Podcasts and audiobooks have been my go-to lately. Not to sound like a commercial for Tim Ferris but his guests have been profoundly inspirational. His interview with Susan Cain is directly related to this subject.
Other sources of motivation
Here are more creators I follow who regularly share good advice or have a speaking confidence that I try to learn from:
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This is one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read and I wish it was required reading in school. I personally enjoyed the audio version read by Andrew MacMillan because his voice matches the old-fashioned feel of this book. Lots of invaluable lessons on being empathetic and putting others before yourself. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living is another one to consider.
- Gary John Bishop wrote the book Unfu*k Yourself, which is also great in audio form. I hate the title—it takes away from the credibility—but don’t let that stop you from drawing from the solid advice this book offers.
- Smarter Every Day. Destin is not only a master at breaking down complex ideas but he has a charisma that is worth trying to mimic. When I watch one of his videos and see his sheer excitement, it’s hard not being happy with him. That’s a great skill to have.
- Evan Carmichael is another YouTube channel I get motivation from. A lot of his videos are curated collections of wisdom that has helped me focus on big-picture goals and less on anxiety.
- Last but not least, putting myself into more social situations that I would normally back out of has been key to building that social muscle. Stepping outside of my comfort zone is always difficult beforehand but rewarding afterward.