On the list of useful things I teach my students, these three strategies to fight communication apprehension top the list. While I hope they learn how to control their fear of public speaking, I’ve found that these three simple approaches can help them address other stressful situations they encounter.
Before we begin, I take a quick survey to see how tense everyone feels. Holding up ten fingers means they are incredibly tense, one means they’re as laid back as a recliner, and five is somewhere in between.
The first technique I teach is how to “breathe the square”. We stand in a large circle around the room and I ask them all to close their eyes and imagine they are drawing a square in the air before them.
Draw the first side, inhaling to a count of five. Draw the second, holding your breathe for another five count. Sketch the third side, exhaling to another count of five, and then complete the square, holding your breathe for another five beats.
I talk them through the exercise to make sure everyone understands and then ask them to draw a couple of squares on their own.
“Breathing the square” is an effective strategy, and I know from anecdotal evidence it works for situations other than public speaking. Several years ago, a student of mine had to have an organ transplant and his mother told me that one day after surgery, while he was in recovery, she noticed he was breathing oddly. Alarmed, she asked him what was wrong and he told her it was nothing. He was just breathing the square to deal with the pain.
Beginning with the square usually means students are more receptive to the other two strategies. The second process I teach is one drawn from brain research. I learned about it from a math teacher who had taken a workshop on using brain-based techniques to improve learning. The “brain pretzel” cultivates calm and focus.
While standing, cross one foot over the other. Bring your arms up in front of you, cross them at the wrists, and then invert your hands to clasp them. With hands together, bring your elbows out and then in until your hands are clasped beneath your chin. Breathe in and out deeply five times with eyes closed.
The crossing of arms and legs helps students ‘cross the midline’ and allows them to focus on the task at hand while the stillness and deep breaths help create calm.
The simplest technique is to ask students to think of a “happy place”, a place that makes them feel calm and safe. I describe my own happy place, a cliff above Santa Monica Beach, right at the end of Route 66, where I once had a lovely picnic lunch with my husband. I ask them to think of a place where they feel completely safe and happy. When they think of such a place, I ask them to close their eyes.
Imagine yourself in that happy place there for a few moments. When you open your eyes, you will feel more relaxed.
Once we’ve practiced all three strategies, I take another survey to see if anyone feels less tense than when we began. Usually, the 10s have dialed back several fingers and the 1s are puddles on the floor.
When faced with a speech to deliver in my class, students can apply what they’ve learned in the session. When faced with a situation out in the world, they can pull the techniques out of their mental backpack and use them there as well.
Jennifer Oakley Denslow is a career speech and theater educator and the author of the recent historical novel, An Ignorance of Means. Sign up for her newsletter, a compendium of interesting stuff related to books and pop culture here, and find the latest news about her writing at her website.