Becoming more comfortable with the emotional aspects of public speaking is a well-covered topic. Many popular techniques are available online. I write here about a number of techniques that may help with nerves that are not covered in the mainstream literature, but that I have found in unrelated fields.
An important reason why public speaking can be very stressful is a skewed world view regarding the degree to which the world is competitive. Viewing every interaction with people under the lens of competition can make you believe that others view you as a competitor as well. This makes it very stressful to stand in front of a large number of people whom you believe are all judging you.
In Elaine Aron’s book, The Undervalued Self, she outlines the difference between “ranking” and “linking.” Many people, especially men, “rank” (compete), too much and don’t spend enough time “linking” (loving one another). Thinking of the world too much in terms of competition can cause one to be very wound up.
How one views the world on a daily basis affects how one views the world during specific tasks. I try to spend far more hours outside of the speech viewing the world as “linking” and far fewer as “ranking.” This, in turn, becomes how I view the audience during the speech. If one “links” enough with those around them on a daily basis, the audience appears more like a group of friends. Why would one be nervous in front of friends?
How you think passively is significant, but it is also possible to use powerful cognitive techniques to calm yourself in the moment of the speech. Our brains are hardwired to release oxytocin, a relaxation hormone, when we think of the face of a loved one in an intimate or loving moment. So, to relax before an important speech, I think of my girlfriend smiling lovingly at me. A subtle but important note on this technique is that you must be imagining the face, not the person at large. Our brains release oxytocin specifically when seeing or imaginging the face of a tender loved one.
Developing a broad perspective of history by reading widely can decrease the apparent significance of a speech. While reading history, it becomes evident that many historically great people encountered bumps and bruises along the way. Abraham Lincoln was uneducated, lost many loved ones, failed repeatedly in politics, and had a difficult marriage. But, these things fall away in the face of his final accomplishment.
Reading has allowed me to step far outside of myself and look through time and space. It helped me see how small my troubles were. I learned that if I stumbled in a speech, nobody would remember it in the really long run. But, if I said something valuable to others, there would be a chance that it would be remembered. Reading widely is an effective tool to gain perspective and to appreciate the insignificance of most speeches.
Practice is the Norm
Practicing obsessively can significantly increase confidence before a speech, and is not to be looked down upon. I used to believe that doing so would somehow be against the spirit of public speaking. But, most good orators practice repeatedly. For example, in an interview, Jerry Seinfeld said that he practiced his first speech for David Letterman’s show 100 times. When he finally performed the routine, he did not sound bored of the routine or robotic. He was energetic and natural. Practicing obsessively only serves to increase confidence and decrease the cognitive load while performing live. There are no real drawbacks to doing it.
In Greek Lives, Plutarch discusses how Demosthenes, the ancient Greek orator, had a natural speech impediment. In order to rid himself of it, Demosthenes would run up mountains to be out of breath, stuff his mouth with rocks, and deliver the speech with rocks in his mouth. This forced him to annunciate far more than he would ever have to without rocks in his mouth. He subjected himself to a stressor far higher than what he would be subjected to during a speech and this led to his superlative oration.
I modified this training for my own purposes. Many people fear the fear that they may experience as they get up on stage. I have found that it is very effective to convince yourself before the speech that you can feel pronounced fear and still effectively deliver the speech. To this end, in preparation for my last speech, I subjected myself to a higher stressor than I would experience on stage. As I generally feel uncomfortable with heights, I stood up in a high, scary place while rehearsing the talk. Witnessing myself deliver the speech perfectly while feeling afraid convinced me that I would be able to do likewise when up on stage. This quelched the biggest fear that I had in anticipation of the performance.
The Practical Value of the Humanities
Most of these techniques are, in my opinion, outside of the mainstream. They have all come to me unexpectedly by studying the humanities: the performing arts, literature, psychology, and history. I have found that studying the humanities is a tremendous source of creativite insight in all areas of life.