There’s skinned-your-knee crying. We’ve all been there. And there’s the-guy-finally-got-the-girl crying. Been there too. Naturally there’s grief-when-you’ve-lost-a-loved one crying, of course. And then there’s the inconvenient moment, often during a joyous occasion, when emotion clutches your throat, and your eyes suddenly begin to well. There’s an expectant hush over your audience that seems to last for hours, all eyes are trained on you, and the words you want to say, the words everyone is waiting to hear, simply will not come out of your mouth.
Maybe that’s happened to you. Or maybe that scenario is your worst fear, the waking nightmare that prevents you from taking advantage of opportunities to express yourself on important occasions.
Get over it. You can do it. There are tactics to help you conquer those annoying physical manifestations of what thoughts might be hopping around in your subconscious mind.
Some psychologists claim that there is no such thing as happy tears; that people who cry at weddings, for example, may be worried about what the future holds for the bride and groom, or how the marriage might affect their relationship with the newly married pair. Or that those who cry at a movie’s happy endings are releasing the fear and anxiety they were feeling when they thought there might not be a happily-ever-after for the protagonists.
I don’t think I can buy that theory. I do believe, though, that when we step out of our daily routines and our minds—and hearts—have the opportunity to embrace a fuller spectrum of human experience, our emotions are heightened and allowed a fuller playing field. And when that happens, we say we are “moved.” The protective barriers that allow us to conduct our nine-to-five lives are penetrated, suppressed emotions bob to the surface, and “moved” sometimes becomes a physical thing: we are moved to tears.
Nothing wrong with that at all. It makes us human, sympathetic, empathetic beings. But it can be mighty inconvenient if you want to be seen as strong, confident and in control. You probably are, but the tears are sending another message.
My previous post, Big Girls Wont Cry: Ten Tips to Avert Tears When Speaking in Public (find it at http://wp.me/p5pgLG-4g) offered ten tips for helping to stave off that perceived loss of control. Many suggested subtle physical shifts and movements you could perform while speaking.
Here are some more physical blocks and other ideas to ward off the waterworks:
- Focus on your breathing. Holding your breath for twenty seconds or so may be impossible if you are in the middle of a speech, but even one long controlled breath, in through the nose, hold for a moment, and out through the mouth, can be helpful in regaining your equilibrium, because calming yourself is a big contribution to stopping the tears.
- Remove the lump in your throat. When your body registers that you are under stress, the nervous system responds by opening up the glottis, the muscle controlling the opening from the back of the throat to the voice box. The open glottis feels like a lump in your throat. (no wonder you can’t speak!) So…
- Drink some water, which relaxes your throat muscles and calms your nerves
- If no water is on hand, breathe steadily and slowly and swallow several times. The breathing will help you relax, and the swallowing will signal your body that it doesn’t need to keep the glottis open
- Yawn surreptitiously. Yawning helps to relax your throat muscles, which means that it helps ease the tightness you’re feeling there.
- Relax your jaw by opening it once or twice.
- Distract yourself physically by…
- pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth or up against your teeth
- squeezing something, like part of your clothing, or if you’re lucky, a loved one’s hand
- Clench your fists as tightly as you can. Accompany by breathing in deeply and quickly through your nose, and slowly out either through your nose or mouth.
- Shift your line of sight. Look at your surroundings and put your energies toward focusing on the mundane for a moment: if the walls are white, silently repeat “white walls’, or similarly, green grass, black chairs….. This will remove your thoughts from the emotional danger zone.
- Search for 90 degree angles and fixate on them. This is another quick diversion tactic to move you away from the emotional edge.
- For something new and different: prior to speaking, write down a few long division problems. When you feel you may lose it, make a quick attempt to solve the math problem. Apparently, our brains can’t let us cry and process numbers at the same time! The audience will think you are just composing yourself for the next part of the speech. DISCLAIMER: I’ve never tried this, but I can tell you it would certainly distract me! I’m a word girl: for numbers, I have to THINK!
- A good way of learning how to handle a challenge is to observe someone else do it. Watch this six-minute TED talk by Candy Chang to see her graciously work through her tears and drive her very personal message home.
10. I can’t emphasize this enough: preparation is key to being in control, so practice, practice, practice! And a further recommendation for that part of the speech that you know in advance may make you emotional: memorize the line or phrase that causes your throat to close. Memorizing it drains the words of their emotional wallop; repeating the thought till you know it actually helps you to accept the new reality you’re describing.
Good luck! You’ve got lots of ammunition now to help you get through your speech, so if powerful emotion clutches you when you speak in public, pause, and use the tips in your arsenal that work best for you to advance through the moment. Then use your eyes to connect with another person to keep you grounded, and proceed as the strong, confident, controlled speaker you know you can be.