you're standing before an expec tant crowd and suddenly you're gripped with terror, heart palpitations and sweaty palms. Will you remember your carefully chosen words? Or will you stammer and choke? Speaking is, after all, a very emotional form of expression that can reveal deeply rooted turmoil and trigger some very disabling physical symptoms at the most inopportune times. Our first public addresses, after all, were made as infants before adults, and what we learned from these engagements is forever imprinted on our neurological and psychic systems. Our verbal fears are as old as we are, so it's important to do some inner digging when panic strikes at the podium. A serious case of stage fright can even chew away at our health and manifest itself as a cold or other immune system breakdown.
Experts advise that the best route to dealing with your fear is not resistance but acceptance. Use the energy created by that adrenaline rush - breathe into it, turn into it into excitement. Let it invigorate you and spur your vocal creativity. Avoid being pushed into fight-or-flight mode by your hormones. And don't cast your audience as the enemy. Remember that if you're genuinely friendly with them, they'll feel the same way toward you.
You can also help yourself by knowing your material stone cold. Try preparing by relaxing and then visualizing yourself delivering your speech while staying calm.
Stuttering can be an extra challenge for some, but surmounting it may not be impossible. While medical science focuses on the neurological and genetic differences that make a person vulnerable to stuttering, some experts believe that it's the fear of stammering itself that causes it. As with the rest of us, figuring out how to relax and let go of attempts to control your speech (and emotions) is the key to smooth speech.
what the experts say "Once expectations are super-high (around speaking) people get nervous, and the message gets miscommunicated either physiologically (sweaty palms, garbled speech) or through disordered thoughts. I try to get an understanding of where the expectations come from and find a way to work around them. It's a good idea to organize and rehearse in advance, with every possible contingency planned, with everything going wrong. People have to have permission to make mistakes. If they feel things can go wrong and they can still recoup, they'll be less afraid of making mistakes, and then they probably won't make them."
KIRBY TEPPER, MA, public speaking trainer and consultant, Los Angeles,
"It can stress women to speak in a range too low for their body's design. I think sometimes they do it to survive in a man's world. I help them feel confident to stand on both feet and open up and make sound. With men I generally need to encourage them to be playful and to have the courage to show vulnerability. Clenching the jaw, holding back and neck tension will have an adverse effect on the speaking voice. I think we do this because we're afraid that if we really express what we're thinking we're going to be destructive, or there are things we don't want the world to know. It's really helpful to do Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, yoga, tai chi. The yawn is a wonderful healthy stretch to release that tension. Yawn whenever you feel like it. In a good belly laugh the diaphragm and belly muscles are getting a good workout."
STELLA WALKER, singer, vocal coach
"Toastmasters is successful because we help people teach those butterflies in the stomach to fly in formation. We build people up. They are speaking for a group that wants them to succeed. Club members tell speakers what they're doing particularly well. They also suggest ways you can improve next time. People are asked to concentrate on certain skills in each speech, such as vocal variety, body language and speech construction (clear opening, etc). I saw a gentleman deliver his first speech. He stood up, said one word and apologized because he was so petrified. When I saw him deliver his sixth, he did it without notes."
GAVIN BLAKEY, world president of Toastmasters International, Brisbane, Australia "Great anxiety about speaking may indicate a deeper imbalance. For example, fear is associated with the kidney and timidity with the liver and gall bladder. Anxiety can have many causes. (Diagnosis is made) depending on other symptoms the person may have. Straining the voice can make the throat hoarse and dry and deplete the lung qi (energy)."
EMILY CHENG KOH, traditional Chinese medicine practitioner
"Everybody is non-fluent to a degree; we're not machines. Adults with vocal problems often breathe poorly and want to talk quickly; if we don't take deep breaths, the strain focuses in the throat area. Often we see people who have restricted mobility of the mouth and jaw. This could be a function of anxiety, a cultural thing, a dialect. Natives of southern Ontario will speak as a rule with rather restricted mobility of their jaw, teeth and tongue, as opposed to people in other areas. Smoking is not good for the voice. The muscles that control the vocal mechanism are tiny, microscopic almost, and there are hundreds of them. They have to be hydrated and people have to use them properly. It's amazing that most of us do these complex things automatically. But there's a segment among us who have to be re-educated."
BOB KROLL, director, the Stuttering Centre (part of the Speech Foundation of Ontario), professor of speech and language pathology, University of Toronto "The most prominent theories suggest a physical difference that makes stutterers' speech system more sensitive and therefore more likely to break down under stress. People who stutter assume that others are waiting for them to finish. We teach them to take pause times; they're learning to stop and resist that hurried feeling and to scan their bodies and release tension. People who stutter experience negative listener reactions and may anticipate difficulty based on their past experiences. We try to help them change their self-fulfilling prophecies. These things could be done by anyone."
BEVERLY ROSS-HAROLD, speech language pathologist, program coordinator, Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research, Edmonton, Alberta