Tackling Zoom Anxiety - Public Speaking in a Virtual Environment
5 Strategies For Feeling More Comfortable Speaking in an Online Environment
Public speaking has always terrified me. My heart feels like it's going to explode out of my chest, my hands get all shaky and often, I devolve into a bout of rambling that I'm sure throws my intelligence level into question. I admire people who can stand in front of huge crowds and express themselves perfectly without succumbing to major foot-in-mouth syndrome. I'm just not one of those people.
With the advent of online learning and working, I've found myself spending more and more time on Zoom calls. Threatened by a looming participation grade, I'm often compelled to speak in front of my classmates and left hoping that what I'm saying doesn't sound as crazy to them as it feels to me. Surprisingly, the fact that everything is now online has worsened and not improved my anxiety. At least when it was in-person, I could usually take comfort in the fact that I simply had to raise my hand and speak from the relative safety of my desk. I was just another face in a sea of students. Forgettable. Unremarkable.
Now that it's online, when I volunteer, it feels like there's a spotlight on me and every word, every mistake is in full view for everyone to see. Worse if it's recorded and I have to revisit it. I'm writing this while currently in a Zoom class to help alleviate a bit of my worry around the topic so I suppose my first bit of advice is to write a Vocal story during class. Kidding! Don't do that! Definitely don't do that.
1) Pin The Friendliest Face
It's really difficult to feel confident speaking when you're staring out into a crowd of people with RBF. Some people can't help it, that's just their face. In any event, it feels intimidating and if you're like me, you just can't help but feel unconvinced by your contribution. I find it helpful when participating to pin the video of the friendliest and most encouraging face in the conference call. That way, it feels like you're just having a casual conversation with that one person and not a whole crowd of people. Public speaking, even in person, is always a thousand times easier when you can pinpoint that one nodding, smiling face and periodically turn back to them when you're feeling unsure about yourself.
2) Take a Deep Breath and Slow Down
Before beginning to speak, take a long, deep breath. This seems like stupid, generic advice but it really does work. This is great to do before contributing but also in the middle of your speech. If you realize that your heart is racing and you're getting nervous, pause, take a deep breath and slow down. When I get nervous, words start flying out of my mouth a mile a minute and what I'm trying to say gets less and less intelligible. Whatever rate of speech you're speaking at, take a breath and slow it down.
3) Sit on the Edge of Your Seat and Plant Your Feet Firmly on the Floor
I haven't spent as much time at my desk on a computer at any point in life prior to the onset of this pandemic. The result: really poor posture and probably a lifetime's worth of back pain. You probably don't realize this but the way you sit while speaking has such an incredible impact on the quality of your speech. When I slouch, my speech comes out as lazy, uninterested and unsure. Sitting at the edge of your seat forces you to sit up straight and say it (whatever it is) with your whole chest. Plant your feet firmly on the floor and adjust your posture. Not only do you look more confident, your speech naturally comes out as more confident as well.
4) Place Your Hands on Your Lap
It's a bad habit but I talk with my hands. This isn't necessarily a bad thing and can often be used to drive home a point when speaking. I find, though, that when I get anxious, this little habit gets 1000 times worse and it's like I'm performing this weird, ancient dance with my hands. It's kind of part rapid gesturing, part shaking from terror. Instead, place your hands on your lap and keep them there. Maybe, clasp them. Lead with your words and use hand gestures only to enhance what you're saying. They're the side act, not the entire show.
5) Periodically Turn Your Webcam Off
When meetings took place in person, I was that person that got up periodically to "go to the bathroom." Really, it gave me an excuse to take breaks from conversation and settle myself when I was feeling particularly anxious. Via Zoom, you have the option of turning your cameras off and I suggest you use it if you feel yourself getting overwhelmed. In person, it sucked because I would miss a lot of what was being said. The goods news is you can turn your cameras off in the virtual world and still be aware of what's happening. If you're called on it, you can also just use the typical "my webcam's not working" excuse and no one can call your bluff unless they're in your house with you which I highly doubt is the case. Use these mini pauses as opportunities to stand up, stretch, get some water, brew some coffee, breathe and generally, take care of yourself.
This post might seem silly to people who don't suffer from acute anxiety but I know that public speaking can have pejorative effects on mental health. These are the strategies that have helped me recently and I hope that they help you as well.
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