Going Public

Q. I am not an actor but have recently been asked to do some public speaking. I find that I get physically ill at the thought of it. Are there tips that you as an acting coach can give me?

Thanks so much for your question. Most of us remember the terror of having to give an oral report in school. I recall tossing and turning the night before, feeling waves of nausea and shortness of breath. Those memories remain with us, no matter how much we accomplish. While not all of you reading this blog will pursue careers as professional actors, almost everyone has to give a public presentation at some point, so this is an important topic.

First, let me address the issue of nerves. We have been conditioned from early childhood to think of nerves as a bad thing. Because of this, we tend to become ashamed of our nerves. I love when someone says to me, “Don’t be nervous,” as if it is sage advice that will have an effect. When we are in a state of anxiety, chances are we are not breathing deeply, our hearts are racing, we are sweating and we feel as if we will pass out.

The antidotes that we try to provide include trying to push the nerves away, or trying to hide or deny the nerves, which invariably leads to a worsening of the situation. Some of you may even have been told to “think of the audience as being naked.” This is ghastly advice that sets up an adversarial relationship between you and the folks you are addressing.

In order to effectively overcome the fear of speaking in public, we have to change our thinking. We don’t want to approach this as if we are going to war. STOP LABELING YOUR NERVES AS A BAD THING! If you were to go on any great adventure, wouldn’t you be excited? Don’t you get excited when planning a trip or trying something new? Can we decide to start saying that we are excited rather than nervous?

This is not just semantics; it has to do with mindset. Once we wrap our minds around the fact that nerves are natural, nerves are a sign that we care, and that nerves are not going to go away, we can take steps to work with them. I am here to tell you: make friends with your nerves. Love them, embrace them, enjoy them. Turn them into excitement and let the tingle you feel be a signal to you that you feel more alive.

After you get your head right, there are some concrete steps you can take to be sure your nerves do not overpower you during your presentation. The key is to correctly place your attention. We remain trapped in our heads (in a negative way) when we place our attention on ourselves. We hold our breath and tense our muscles. All of our thinking relates to how the audience is going to perceive us.

Instead, begin by thinking of the audience as a good friend who is on your side and happy to hear what you have to say. You might even imagine someone specific who makes you feel confident. Speak to the entire audience as if they are this particular individual.

Check out the space that you will be speaking in ahead of time. Often, a great deal of our fear is really fear of the unknown. Recently, I spoke to a group dedicated to the study and practice of nonviolence in Providence, Rhode Island. I asked to see the room that I would be speaking in. It was set up in a formal way with chairs facing the speaker. I asked if I could arrange the seats in a circle. This took away the air of rigidity and helped me put myself and the audience at ease. Orienting your body will really help you in these situations.

Once, I was speaking about the Oscars on one of the morning shows. The hosts were standing, and at some point, I wandered on camera and joined them. Then, because no one gave me an exact cue as to when to leave, at a certain point, I wandered off camera. My body felt space-less, and consequently, I was self-conscious. I learned an important lesson.

Now, whenever I am interviewed, I offer input as to how I will be positioned. Speaking at a podium may help ground you. Even holding a microphone might give you something to do with your hands. Is it possible for you to sit? These are simple things that will help you get your bearings.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to smile. Not only do you exude warmth when you do it, but you will also find that your own mood lifts and tension is dissipated. Keep your attention correctly placed on your desire to communicate. Focus on sharing your knowledge and enjoy doing so. Breathe deeply and stay loose. Welcome your nerves as excitement and you will be good to go.