Speech Anxiety and Eliminating the What Ifs

by Stephen Boyd | May 12, 2010

A perplexing challenge for any speaker is to arrest the anxiety of "What if ___ happens during my speech?" Psychologists tell us that the apprehension of the unknown is one of our greatest fears. If you can anticipate the "what ifs," then you will be more comfortable and confident as you speak. One "what if" is "What if I forget what I want to say next in my presentation?" Don't panic. Pause a moment, and often the thought will come to you. If it doesn't by this time, the audience will notice. So after a pause, admit to your audience, "I've forgotten my next point. Give me a moment to find my place in my notes [or on PowerPoint.]" Most audiences are very understanding; forgetting is a human trait, so they will identify with your quandary and be pulling for you. Whatever you do, do not try to "fake it." Be honest with your audience and then move on.

Another "what if" is "What if the public address system either quits or starts giving me feedback noises?" Again the key for any emergency situation while speaking is not to panic, because often the pause will be enough time for the emergency to go away. Take a step or simply tap the microphone; sometimes that will stop the feedback or reconnect to the system. If that does not work, ask for the person in charge to provide help (which often happens without your saying anything.) If it is a group under 50 in a room with low ceilings, you might simply turn the system off since everyone will be able to hear.

A difficult situation is when there is any kind of interruption, such as a small group having their own conversation. Often peer pressure will take care of the distraction if you will simply look at another part of the room. As a last resort you might gently suggest that they hold the conversation until after your speech.

Sometimes a person interrupts with a comment or question as you are speaking. Of course if you have told the audience you will take questions anytime, the interruption may be rude, but you can simply stop and answer the question. If you ignore the situation and the person persists, you might remind in a kind manner that if he or she will hold the question, you will answer questions at the end of your presentation. Seek to avoid this extreme measure because you will lose continuity of thought in your speech both for you and the audience.

Finally, if someone passes out or in some other way shows there is a medical emergency, simply say, "Let's stop until this emergency situation is taken care of." Pause, and give instructions that might help the medical personnel to get to the stricken person quickly. After the person is assisted, thank the medical people and continue your presentation.

These "what if" answers will guide you to making the unknown known. As Patrick Overton said, "When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take the step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly."

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at http://www.sboyd.com. To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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