“The only thing we have to fear is… fear itself.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt

You stand up to a podium. Your palms sweat, your pupils dilate, your heart rate increases. You start taking deeper breaths, faster.

Whether you play professional sports or acted in your fifth grade play, you’ll recognize these signs. In any instance, physiologically and biologically, they are identical.

Take the engine from between your ears out of the equation, and everything else is the same, whether you’re excited for the basketball game or fearful because you’re going to speak. Your stomach stops; internal organs stop. Digestion stops. The blood rushes from your extremities, and your vision narrows because your body is preparing you to focus on what’s at hand. Pupils dilate so that you can do that.

Most individuals associate these responses with anxiety or nerves in a negative way. In reality, they are part of your body’s mechanism to help you achieve peak performance.

And that is a good thing.

That’s right—it is a good thing.

Contrary to popular thought, nervous energy and the physiological responses that follow, properly channeled, will make for a more impactful presenter and presentation.

One of the keys to channeling this nervous energy successfully is to understand what is actually happening when our acute stress response, or “fight or flight” response, kicks in.

Dr. Jeremy Jamieson, an expert on social stress and Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester, has studied extensively how stress impacts individuals in relation to risk, decision-making, and performance.

“The problem is that we think all stress is bad. Before speaking in public, people often interpret stress sensations, like butterflies in the stomach, as a warning that something bad is about to happen.

But those feelings just mean that our body is preparing to address a demanding situation. The body is marshaling resources, pumping more blood to our major muscle groups, and delivering more oxygen to our brains. Our body’s reaction to social stress is the same flight or fight response we produce when confronting physical danger. These physiological responses help us perform, whether we’re facing a bear in the forest or a critical audience.”

Professor Jamieson conducted a study in conjunction with Harvard University that showed the effects of understanding and channeling our nervous energy on public speaking. He prepped one group on the science of our body’s physiological response before delivering a speech to a panel of judges, while the other group acted as a control, receiving no training. The prepped group was able to channel their physiological response, pumping more blood through the body per minute, and scoring significantly higher on their speeches than the other participants. Even those who self-reported as experiencing significant social anxiety still outperformed their non-anxious, unprepped counterparts.

Simply understanding the body’s natural response when stress is initiated has a positive effect on how individuals view and address anxiety prior to presenting. Individuals tend to no longer look to eliminate their anxiety, and instead look to manage and plateau it to keep it from becoming all consuming.

Jamieson’s study proved what I’ve seen in clients for decades: understanding how and why your body is responding to fear allows you to channel nervous energy and perform at a higher level. This is reframing our body’s physiological response, turning the response from inducing anxiety into improving performance.

Reframing itself is not a new concept, but reframing the stress response through psychological and biological response as it relates to public speaking is new, exciting, and extremely powerful.


Musicians, professional athletes, and actors use the power of visualization to help them succeed. Violinists imagine placing each of their fingers in the right position of their fingerboard for an upcoming performance. Soccer players do the same thing before approaching the ball on a free-kick. They imagine where and how they’ll hit the ball, visualize it curling around the ‘wall’ of defenders, and picture the ball sail into the net. Broadway actors visualize themselves recalling their precise lines, in the precise position, to the delight of their audience.

Athletes, musicians, and actors have been running through upcoming important events in their minds, visualizing every detail and a successful outcome for centuries. They credit visualization with reducing apprehension and higher achievement.

Professor Joe Ayres from Washington University found that the power of visualization increases public speaking success as well.[1] He found that just one 15-minute visualization session significantly improved audience-rated performance and decreased speaker-reported anxiety. Interestingly, the more detailed a speaker visualizes their speech—some went as far as picturing their shoes—the more effective visualization was.

You can use visualization to rehearse your speech in your mind. Don’t only imagine yourself delivering the speech, but visualize the audience reacting with excitement and interest.

Let’s try an exercise now. Think of an upcoming speaking engagement as you read the section below:

As I begin warming up for the speech, I notice the weather conditions around me. I am feeling anxious and know that when I perform well I am usually feeling like this. I feel the heat building, I feel my adrenaline pumping, and I know it’s a great thing. This is how I feel right before I am at my best. This is how every NBA or EPL star feels before taking the field. How every performer feels before taking the stage.

I am PUMPED. I start to think about my goal for the speech. I think about the open. I tell myself I am going to nail this, in a big way. I have the open down. I have worked toward this goal and am ready to go. As I walk toward the room, I start to feel increasingly aware of my surroundings, as my heartbeat quickens and breath deepens. And then I start to feel excitement build, because I know this is a good thing. I do a few neck rolls and some isometric exercises. I feel my muscles tense and loosen.

I am here, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I feel like a champion. I have earned this. I feel the air in my lungs and I look out at the audience…. I see a few faces back.  I see smiles.  I see people who aren’t yet aware how good this is going to be.  I see some folks looking at their phones.  I am excited.  There is only one face that matters, and it is mine. I’ve worked hard for this moment. My eyes narrow as I look at the folks in the front row.  I have practiced and prepared and I am in a good place. I feel anxious, but I feel good. I feel right. 

I feel like I feel before I win.  I feel like I feel before I am incredibly excited!  I feel like I feel when it is a great day!  It smells like it smells when I have a great day!  The air feels like it feels when its a great day!  My mouth is dry, just like it is before anything great I have ever done.  Today is my Day.  My Day! 

[1] Ayres, Joe, and Tim Hopf. “Visualization: Reducing speech anxiety and enhancing performance.” Communication Reports 5.1 (1992): 1-10



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