top of page
  • Writer's pictureEileen Smith

Unlock the secrets to speaking to anyone with ease - Article

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

  • 9-21-22


It’s not just a moment. If you have speaking anxiety, it can take up to 20 minutes for the parasympathetic system to intervene and return you to a state of calm. Here are some practical ways to tackle it before it gets the best of you.

[Photo: Getty Images]



Feeling some of the post-COVID-19 butterflies about meeting new people, attending networking events, or speaking before a group? You’re not alone. A client came in four weeks before a major public speaking event at her company’s first all-hands in-person conference since the pandemic began. Having never suffered from public speaking anxiety before, the sweaty palms, quavering voice, and blank mind that accompanied her back to the office was a new and frightening phenomenon. She was already hearing negative feedback from her boss and her coworkers about how she was showing up in front of colleagues and clients. Her performance at the upcoming conference would literally make or break her career. Somewhere in the midst of working from home for two years, her sympathetic nervous system began to see these in-person events as a threat. When the body perceives a threat, it triggers our sympathetic system. This accelerates our heart rate, causes rapid shallow breathing, tenses the muscles and creates a cascade of neurochemical events including adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. Psychologists call this process the “fight, flight, or freeze response,” referring to the body’s instinctual reaction to this event. Once this process is triggered, it can take up to 20 minutes for the parasympathetic system to intervene and return you to a state of calm.


The good news is there are many simple tools to help you manage these symptoms and get on with your life. Preparation is key. If you know you’re going to introduce yourself in a meeting, present to a client, or make a speech, the first step is to decide what you want to say and practice out loud a couple of times to build confidence. Have notes available to remind you of what you want to say, whether that means three words for an introduction or a few pages of bullet points for a full speech. Even if you don’t end up needing the notes, having them creates a safety net.

A lot of this is a mind game. Instead of giving in to being nervous, tell yourself you’re excited. The body goes through that same sympathetic process when you’re excited as when you’re stressed. It’s the interpretation of that event that makes the difference between anxiety and excitement. Reframing the experience as excitement can change the sympathetic response in your favor. Instead of letting your mind wander down the dark paths of all the things that can go wrong, do some positive visualization about how well it will go and how fabulous you’ll feel when you’re done. The brain doesn’t know the difference between mental rehearsal and reality, if you do it right.

In order to trick your brain, make your practice as real as possible by imagining yourself in the situation using all of your senses; see yourself wearing the outfit, smell your perfume or cologne, feel the microphone in your hand. The more you practice, the more you condition your brain to recreate a positive experience.

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work. Like a pro football player getting ready for a Sunday night game, create some rituals to build your confidence and energy. Whether it’s the fight song from your alma mater or an inspirational poem, find a positive way to focus your mind ahead of your event. Be sure to choose an outfit that is both comfortable and makes you feel confident. Perhaps one that you’ve worn before and is already associated with a successful public speaking moment. To further release the neurochemical process associated with confidence, try “power posing.” Think of power posing as a position that helps you take up space, such as standing with your feet apart and your fists on your hips, with your head held high. This is often referred to as the Wonder Woman or Superman stance. It creates a feedback loop between your body, your emotions, and your mind that creates feelings of confidence after only two to three minutes. In addition, you might try choosing a favorite scent to wear. Scent is powerful because it goes directly to the emotional centers of the brain.

Breathing is a powerful way to calm yourself both before and during an event. Deep breathing exercises can slow down your anxious reactions and reduce your heart rate. If you find your nervous reactions are spiraling out of control during your event, a couple of deep breaths from your abdomen can send oxygen to your brain and put you back on track. This might look like a meaningful pause or a thoughtful moment.

The gift of the pause is a wonderful thing for breathing and resetting your nervous system while also increasing the intrigue of the audience. Deep breathing is proven to signal your parasympathetic system to begin the calming process. It tells your body there isn’t a threat. If all this isn’t enough—and it wasn’t for our client who was battling COVID-19-induced public speaking anxiety—consider hypnosis. Many people are skeptical of hypnosis because their only exposure has been through the media or entertainment. However, it is a powerful clinically proven tool for rewiring the brain and helping to eliminate those sabotaging thoughts that live in the subconscious.

If you’ve ever said to yourself, “Why can’t I get this? I know what to do, but I just can’t get myself to do it?” you might be a candidate for hypnosis. It’s often a sign that the subconscious is sabotaging you; that there’s a hidden belief system undermining your efforts and your results. Most people experience hypnosis similarly to a guided meditation, but in a deeper state of relaxation. MAKE IT ROUTINE

When it comes to any of these strategies, consistency is key. You wouldn’t go to the gym, pick up some weights, do a set, and think you’re done. It’s the practice that builds the muscle. The same goes for mindfulness, breathing, and hypnosis. When we practice these activities, we build the muscle of the brain. We rewire pathways in our brain toward calmness, confidence, and empowering beliefs. Practicing deep breathing on a regular basis prior to your event is an important part of your preparation. It will help lower your baseline anxiety. By starting with a lower baseline, you’ll have further to go before reaching the tipping point into anxiety, or worse, panic. Repetition builds success.

It’s also difficult to try to teach yourself coping mechanisms while you’re in a crisis situation. If you wait to try these strategies until you’re already anxious, they’ll be unlikely to work. By then, the blood in your brain is already going toward survival, not to the parts of your brain where higher-level thinking, reasoning, and memory reside. When you practice, you can create an automatic response when you need it. Just like the gym, you practice working your muscles to get strong, so when you need to put them into action in everyday life or in a crisis, you know they’ll work.


Back to our client who was suffering from career-threatening public speaking anxiety. After two weeks of public speaking coaching, none of the usual tools were working for her. She couldn’t begin to prepare for her speaking events because she was focused on how awful she was going to feel. That’s when we turned to hypnosis—over Zoom and on a tight time frame—to help this client break out of her downward spiral. To her delight and transformation, it worked. After just one hypnosis session, she was finally able to get down to the business of concentrating on the content of her presentations, deciding what she was going to say at each event, and practicing to build confidence.

After four hypnosis sessions, she knocked it out of the park at her event—gaining praise from her colleagues, her boss, and the C-suite. If sweaty palms and butterflies are preventing you from embracing the in-person world, use the tools here to help you speak to your clients, your colleagues, and even your large audience, with ease.

Donna Marino is a psychologist and executive coach. Eileen Smith, former U.S. diplomat and founder of Spokesmith, coaches business executives and policy experts in public speaking, executive presence, and career achievement.

35 views0 comments


bottom of page