Dry throat, breathlessness when speaking in front of people
January 11, 2012 8:01 PM   Subscribe

When I speak in front of an audiance I feel breathless and I take long pauses to catch my breath; my throat gets dry. While know it is due to mental anxity, I don't know how to fix it. I feel as if nothing is coming out of my throat, no matter how much I have practiced the speech before. I have tried chewing lozenges and breathing before the start of every sentence or clause. Thanks.
posted by musicgold to Education (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Just take a bottle of water up with you and drink from it as needed? I do!
posted by DarlingBri at 8:06 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

How often do you do it? It takes a lot of practice, especially to get comfortable with taking long, deep, silence-lengthening breaths.

I often simply tell my audience I'm nervous; I've been teaching college classes for five years now and I still get nervous on the first day of class. So sometimes when the nerves are getting the best of me, I'll just say, "Ugh, starting a new class is always so nerve-wracking when you're the teacher." Admitting you're nervous generally puts the audience in sympathy with you, and helps you be less nervous about being nervous. When you're nervous and trying to hide it, it can feed on itself, as the more you feel like it's showing, the more anxious you get, so the more it shows. Simply saying, "I'm sorry, I'm a bit nervous," when you notice you're talking too fast or your voice is cracking can help you calm down.

But yeah, dry throat may be perfectly normal -- I drink out of at LEAST a 20-oz. water bottle for an hour-long lecture and if I run dry with more than 10 minutes left, I tell everyone they have a stretch break while I refill my water. And the pauses may not be as long as you think; pauses feel ENDLESS when you're the one talking, but they aren't nearly as long as you think.

Also, as a general rule, I prefer to prepare speeches/lectures on the "make an outline and know your material inside out" rule ... trying to speak from a prepared text is really hard unless you're acting or doing forensics. Your question doesn't say which you're doing, but if you're trying to deliver a speech word-for-word, that's super-hard and you may be creating lines that are too long for you to deliver in one breath. When you create an outline to keep you on track and just talk about your topic, you can speak much more naturally. This takes practice too, though, and a certain willingness to run aground now and then. I create an outline to keep me moving in the right direction and I make sure to put in any particular sentences, turns of phrase, or examples I want to use. I have a whole system I am happy to expound upon at length if it will help you. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:18 PM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is it possible to keep notes with you while you speak? Try writing out sentences or words related to your topic on an index card, and glance at the card if you've totally blanked on what to address next. I've had 'freezes' like you describe that were very severe, and sometimes the only way to move forward was to just accept that there was an awkward pause, wait a few moments, and then try again.

Ultimately, my doctor prescribed me sedatives and _that_ cured my public speaking fears, but that may be considered cheating.
posted by gyges at 8:22 PM on January 11, 2012

Practice. Try joining Toastmasters.
posted by Pants! at 8:28 PM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was like this as an undergraduate; when I went to grad school and was given a course to teach, I had to get over it quick. Now I'm quite happy speaking in front of very large audiences. It's easier said than done, but it comes with time, practice, and comfort.
posted by synecdoche at 8:31 PM on January 11, 2012

This used to happen to me. This is what worked for me: Try to film yourself while speaking to an audience. Chances are that whatever you are feeling on the inside isn't showing on the outside. When I watched myself give the talk, that was my biggest realization: the audience can't read my mind!

Also helps to be well prepared with the actual words that you are going to speak. Have written speeches with you a couple of times, even for small presentations, and go in well-practiced. You'll only need to look at the sheet a couple of times during the speech. After a few such speeches, you'll just need some speaking notes, and then one day, you'll be able to just talk.

It takes a while, but you can do it.
posted by vidur at 9:05 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pretty much practice is the answer by simply keeping at it. It's not the one that you want to hear, but it's probably the right one. The reason being, your physical response is likely an anticipation of type of social danger/harm that doesn't end up happening (whatever fuels your nervousness), and it simply takes time and repeated exposure for your psyche to learn that this actually is not the case. One thing that helps, though, is to keep in mind that the nervousness that you feel is not always as obvious as you think that it looks. Also -- and this one was a big realization for me -- even if people do notice, they don't care if you look or feel a bit nervous as much as you think that they do. I found that worrying about looking nervous would make me feel more nervous, but the reality is that most people don't give a rip because they are understanding of your situation as a fellow human being, or are perhaps slightly bored and tuning out, or are even empathetic to your plight because they are nervous when speaking, as well. I've found that this one realization has helped me push through the automatic physical nervous response that crop sup while at the same time my mind has learned to not care that I'm displaying those symptoms. We tend to equate who we are with what we feel, but we can actually rise above those feelings and think about them more rationally (from a third person perspective) in ways that are helpful.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:15 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anxiety literally makes your digestive system stop working, and makes you stop producing saliva in your mouth, so your throat becomes dry. This is because your body is hyperaroused artificially by the anxiety, and it's getting ready to run away or fight. So the key here is that you need to target the reason for the dry throat--the anxiety itself--not just the throat, which is just a symptom.

Practice public speaking! I can attest to the fact that eight years ago, I was quite literally choking back tears as I presented my senior research project in college, but got a lot of practice through a job where I worked with big groups of kids, and nowadays I'm fairly comfortable speaking to groups. Practice is very likely going to be your window into relief.
posted by so_gracefully at 9:36 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

My best advice is to practice in front of people that you can trust and to be prepared for your presentations. Forgive yourself if you stumble and if you cannot verbally get any words out because your throat is so dry. Presenting in front of other people is a very common anxiety, but it gets better with time and practice. Also, don't be hard on yourself while presenting because that will increase your anxiety.
posted by livinglearning at 10:55 PM on January 11, 2012

Seconding Toastmasters. I know several people who have been *tremendously* helped by it.
posted by jasper411 at 10:59 PM on January 11, 2012

I have been having this experience for the past year as well, oddly after several years of uneventful, fun public speaking. I'm chalking it up to tackling more complex topics and working with a speech coach. Basic advice that I'm hearing from everyone I talk to boils down to preparedness, and the particular advice I'm hearing from my speech coach is to know your Big Idea for any given part of a talk, so that you can *say it* and use the natural pause afterwards to breathe and stay calm.

I still get the crazy breathless tunnel vision thing, though. The first time that happened I had to simply stop. The second and third time I was able to power through by leaping to a more familiar portion of the talk.
posted by migurski at 11:51 PM on January 11, 2012

Video yourself talking, and watch the video. The answer to your question may be obvious when you look. Maybe you're tensing up and hunching. Maybe you're talking really fast without pausing for breath. Pausing is fine! You can and should pause regularly, just for your audience to take things in, and you can always pause for much longer than you think.

I wonder whether you might invent a small symbol that means "relax! breathe!" and put it in the bottom corner of some of your slides. When you see it, use it as a reminder to consciously relax all your muscles, correct your posture if necessary and take time to breathe.

I second (third or fourth?) going to Toastmasters, where you can get regular gentle and constructive feedback from people who couldn't be more sympathetic, because they are (or have been) going through the same things themselves.
posted by emilyw at 2:15 AM on January 12, 2012

I used to get breathless when I spoke in public, and that would make me even more nervous and lead to dry throat. Some very specific advice helped me handle it: breathe _out_ when you stand up to start talking. (Or if you are already standing, blow all the air out of your lungs then breathe in before starting). When we stand up, we breathe in for reasons I am not quite clear on (watch yourself and see), but then our breathing is all wrong to start talking, and you get that nervous feeling of your breath being 'caught' or being too high in your chest.

So before you start talking: blow all the air out of your lungs, then take a deep breath in. No more breathlessness. This is the most important thing I have ever learned about public speaking, and it quite literally changed the course of my career.
posted by StephenF at 3:53 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also worth noting that the things you do to calm yourself down (pausing to breathe deeply or for a drink of water, or purposefully slowing your speech or pacing down) look to your audience like signs of measured confidence and control. So calming nerves is actually a power move, not a sign of 'weakness'.
posted by cogat at 5:28 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try speaking more loudly and backing off the microphone if you are using one. I find that hearing my voice over my own talking, especially if there is any kind of delay. Doubly so if I can hear myself breathing over the speakers. If your breathing is getting amplified, the microphone is too close.

The bonus of speaking more loudly is that it forces breath control on you. You need more air to speak loudly, so you have to force yourself to slow the pace a little more to account for the air you need.

(To speak more loudly, practice moving the "source" of your voice down into your chest. Start when you are alone and just speak or read out loud and practice what it feels like to play around with moving that source around. Start with your normal voice, move it up into your nose, and then back down as far as you can. Then try taking a video of yourself doing this and see if you don't notice that speaking from your core improves the tone and loudness.)

Similarly, if you aren't using a microphone, make sure you are speaking to the back of the room. As if you were having a conversation with the people back there.
posted by gjc at 6:29 AM on January 12, 2012

Also, here is one of the most helpful anecdotes I ever heard. It comes from a Communications Prof.

Most people are nervous speaking in front of crowds, especially for the first time. The speaker feels nervous and then they often start to worry the audience sees them as nervous and then the speaker gets even more nervous. This feedback loop keeps going making the speaker even more miserable.

However, a study of speakers showed that most of the time when the speaker reported being nervous the audience instead interpreted it as excitement. And excitement in a speaker is a good thing! So my advice is to solve the fundamental issue of a dry throat with some water and then when you do speak just try to act excited and be confident that any involuntary jitters you have will be seen by the audience as further evidence of your excitement in the material.
posted by Tallguy at 7:11 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Can you ask a friend to come and be in the audience? Having someone you know and trust be there can help. Talk to the friend (or friends if you can wrangle a few) before hand and explain to them you need them to be there for support. When you begin to get nervous, look at them and pretend you're just talking to that person. As time goes on hopefully you'll be able to just imagine that supportive person or you'll learn to spot supportive/responsive listeners in the crowd and play to them.
posted by miss-lapin at 7:59 AM on January 12, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks a lot folks. Appreciate it.
posted by musicgold at 7:55 PM on January 22, 2012

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