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It's quite normal to feel terrified at the prospect of getting up to speak in front of a group. Your legs seem to turn to jelly, your breathing seems to get short and fast, and your head seems to empty of anything that you might want to say.
That's what happened to me the first time I got up to speak extempore and I'm ashamed to confess that I hadn't anticipated it. But I was determined not to let it happen again.
As with anything, the more you do, the more confident, and skilled, you get
Remember that the audience is with you. You may not know these people, but they are your friends. They want you to do well. They want to hear what you've got to say. So your attitude to your audience can be a great help to you.
Breathing properly is the foundation of all successful speaking. If someone tells you to take in a deep breath, what do you probably do? You raise your shoulders and your rib-cage and gulp in some air. If that is what you do, you will have less breath to speak than if you had made no effort to breathe in deeply at all. As a result, it's quite likely that you will become even more nervous.
Instead of tensing up, you need to let your muscles relax, especially around the abdomen. Commonly described by singers as lowering the diaphragm, a sheet of muscle that separates the lung cavity from the stomach and intestines, you simply breathe in, allowing your abdominal muscles and the muscles around your rib cage in your lower back to expand. I find it helps to focus on the abdominal muscles. By allowing them to expand outwards, breath naturally fills the space.
You can work on breathing in deeply and slowly to tone up these muscles. Try blowing up a balloon to identify which muscles you are using and how they are working.
Good breath support is essential not only for delivering the voice, but also for relaxing you to speak. Controlling the rate at which you release the breath enables you not only to sustain your voice over long sentences and phrase but also to control the volume of the voice. In addition to deep breathing, you can help to strengthen the muscles of the front wall of the abdomen by panting.
Posture is important. Practitioners of Yoga and Alexander Technique will affirm that relaxation techniques enable you to hold yourself upright without tension, opening up the chest and abdomen, and making it easier for you to take in deep breaths.
When you're about to speak, imagine that you're raising your arms above your head, which will stretch the muscles in your trunk, and that a thread is coming out of the top of your head. This will help you extend the spine, mentally if not actually.
Keep your feet about a hips' width apart, with feet firmly balanced on the floor. Knees should be gently flexed but not actually bent.
Avoid sagging, or standing on one leg or crossing your legs. Similarly keep your arms relaxed and flexed, but not crossed across your chest. My problem areas are my neck, shoulders and hands. I sometimes have to consciously release my hands because they are gripping and causing tension.
Loosen the neck and shoulders by rotating the shoulders backwards and forwards. Turn your head gently from side to side, and up and down. Roll your head gently in alternate directions.
Open up and stretch your throat and mouth muscles by yawning. Yes yawning.
Finally, hum. Aim to feel a tingle on your lips and in your sinuses. Humming helps bring your voice 'forward' so that it projects to your audience.
And if you're anxious that you might forget what to say, write out notes on cards and rehearse your presentation. Remember to vary the pace and pitch to keep your audience interested in your voice.
Finally, avoid drinking alcohol just before speaking. You may feel that a drink will quell anxiety, but the alcohol can dry up your vocal chords and make it difficult to speak. Instead, drink a glass of water and make sure that you have a glass of water to hand while you're speaking. In general, smoking isn't really good for the voice although some people like the gravelly texture.
Above all, relax and enjoy!
Written for Good Housekeeping, November 2005