how to stop public speaking-induced voice freeze?
May 7, 2011 6:34 PM   Subscribe

How can I prevent sudden attacks of muteness during public presentations?

I have enjoyed public speaking since grade school, and I think I'm reasonably good at giving presentations. However, once in a while, I'll be in front of an audience and -- I don't know how to describe this other than to say that I suddenly become physically unable to speak. This first happened when I was presenting in a college class, and it happens maybe one out of ten times I have to speak in front of a large group. It's almost like I don't have the oxygen to continue; I can force a couple words out and then. they. just.    stop. I have to stop and collect myself for what seems like an eternity; sometimes looking behind me at my slides instead of at the audience helps. I'm generally not conscious of being nervous before this happens; these are often talks that I had extensively prepared for and looked forward to giving.

Are there any ways to prevent this from happening again? Does it have a name? (Some form of mild panic attack, maybe?)

(I read this question about panicking on a conference call, which is sort of similar, except I'm not having "brain freeze"; it's more like voice freeze.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This happened to me shortly after graduating from university at my first job (many years ago). I had to do a technical presentation, thought i had all the details down pat. But then when i got up to speak, my mind went into a tight loop and I had to hand things over to someone else. Very embarrassing.

Anyhow one way to avoid this problem is to practice your speech aloud beforehand, several times. The mistake people make is to assume that because they "know" what they're going to talk about, that they can speak about it with ease. If you think about this, this doesn't make sense. Sure, you're drawing on your analytical and knowledge centers in your mind, but the actual function of speech is controlled by a different part of your brain. If you're doing a complex presentation without rehearsing out loud, you're basically doing something cold before a live audience.

It's the same reason why you won't see athletes, actors or any other performance professional going out in front of an audience cold.

The second way to avoid the problem is continual public speaking practice in a supportive environment and here I'm going to put in my usual plug for Toastmasters. :) By attending their meetings you practice impromptu speaking, an incredibly valuable skill which can also be used to recover from those mortifying moments of voicelessness.
posted by storybored at 7:01 PM on May 7, 2011

Beta blockers.
posted by matlock expressway at 7:06 PM on May 7, 2011

Also, would this describe it?
posted by matlock expressway at 7:10 PM on May 7, 2011

seconding beta blockers-- they take away all the physical symptoms of anxiety without giving you any of the mental fuzziness of valium and the like.
posted by paddingtonb at 7:55 PM on May 7, 2011

Practical solution (not that anxiety reduction isn't great...)

You'll need three 3x5 cards and a bottle of water.

Create three 3x5 cards, each with one concept at the top, plus three general discussion points. Use them as a digression. Put them in your pocket.

They should be questions that someone in the audience can answer relevant to your topic....for more than two or three sentences - preferably a paragrah.. As they respond, you can use your bottle of water to take a sip, collect yourself and listen to them.

While they're talking, really listen and get yourself out of your own head. Respond as if they were having a discussion with you personally (cause they are.) You should be fine after that and should be able to go back to your planned talk.
posted by filmgeek at 8:35 PM on May 7, 2011

Sounds like a panic attack - and now matter how much you prepare, as you said you have extensively, and that you are not nervous, it will happen regardless. If you've seen an increase in the frequency of the muteness since it started happening, then it's definitely that panic loop (you know you might seize up so that increases the likelihood of it happening).

I am not your doctor, but given that it doesn't happen every time, just now and then, you might look into talking to someone about beta blockers and whether they could work for you.
posted by mleigh at 12:40 AM on May 8, 2011

Also beta blockers. I have to make a good number of presentations and I was horrified of standing in front of people; these things make you forget that you are nervous.

At first I took them every time I made a presentation, then not so often, now I do not need them at all.
posted by ibakecake at 1:43 PM on May 15, 2011

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