A student at a public speaking workshop on campus admitted that when she speaks in class or gives a presentation, her mind goes blank even while her mouth continues forming words. Another said his hands shake uncontrollably. “Internally I’m freaking out,” yet another student confessed. “It literally feels like I’m having a heart attack.”
The students were participating in the recent training, “Hear Ye, Hear Ye!,” taught by Assistant Professor of Theater Abigail Killeen and organized by Assistant Director of First-Year Programs Michael Wood. Wood said he offered the session because public speaking is a core skill that isn’t directly part of the college offerings but nonetheless is an important skill.
Killeen reassured the nervous students that public speaking “freaks out everyone; it’s a hugely vulnerable act.” Some people’s response is so bad it is akin to going into a crisis. “Public speaking is a physical act, and when you go into crisis the first thing your body does is try to protect itself,” she said. Muscles tighten, shoulders hunch or chests are thrust out, the breath becomes shallow, the knees lock.
But Killeen said that by understanding your physical reactions to stress, you have a chance of being “in charge of your body.”
“Breathe and release,” she named as her number one strategy. “Try to notice what you do uniquely, because everyone has their own way of tensing up.” So if your neck gets tight, or your shoulders, release them. Any part of the body that’s tense is making it harder to breathe.
And breathing, she said, is key to effective speaking. “If you forget what you’re saying, it’s because you’ve forgotten to breathe,” she said. “You have to inhale and exhale, and these seconds feel like hours, but that’s the only way you’ll get back on target.” Plus, she says, inhaling and exhaling can provide a dramatic pause. “When someone pauses, you lean in to hear what’s next.”
Killeen’s second piece of advice was to say something important. “What you’re saying must be more important than you. Serve the idea rather than you. Suddenly, the act of speaking becomes an altruistic act, an act of service,” she explained.
Her third piece of advice was to rehearse, but to rehearse in a very specific way. “Effective rehearsal is when you give yourself permission to do it badly. Rehearse with ease,” she said. For when you practice with high expectations, you’re likely to put yourself into a panic early on, and your body will remember this feeling during the actual talk.
She also offered smaller, quirkier tips. “If you’re nervous talking in front of a group, look at their noses. Noses are not intimidating,” she said. She also advised students to “costume yourself…Dress in a way that makes you feel fabulous — whether that’s by wearing the scarf your mother made you or your boyfriend’s sweater.”
Killeen reminded students, too, that if they’re shy about public speaking, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them. “You don’t need to change who you are,” she said. “The person who is listening in the room is often the most powerful person in the room — and they know it. Introverts, I’ve got your number!”