So, you’re on stage, armed with your notes in case you forget what you need to say, wearing your best smile and your best clothes, and with your meticulously-prepared visual aids right behind you. You open your mouth to say good morning, but nothing comes out. You try again but all you get is a squeak.
Sounds like a horror story, doesn’t it?
Well, it is. But sadly, unlike horror stories which mostly contain fiction, this one can be true for many people. If you have glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, you’re more likely to experience your throat closing up and your presentation not pushing through. The National Social Anxiety Center reports that glossophobia affects over 70% of the population.
The good news is, there are strategies you can use to prevent your throat from closing up when you’re speaking in public. But before we delve into these, let’s answer the obvious question: Why does my throat close up during public speaking in the first place?
Why Does My Throat Close Up During Public Speaking? The Scientific Explanation
The thing is, there’s a perfectly rational explanation for what happens to you. According to the University of Pittsburgh professor and speech-language pathologist Jackie Gartner-Schmidt, when your throat closes up, it’s because it literally closes up.
Let me explain. According to Gartner-Schmidt, the vocal cords (also called vocal folds) actually exist to defend people. They prevent us from inhaling water in the lungs when drinking. So, since they’re in a way, a defense mechanism, they also respond when they feel threatened. In this case, since the body senses you’re in a stressful situation (on stage, about to speak in front of an audience) your muscles around and inside your voice box are activated shut.
Think of it as the body protecting you from a perceived danger.
But if the throat closing up is an involuntary response, then, does that mean there’s nothing else you can do to stop it from happening? Not really. There are strategies you can implement to get the air flowing freely, thereby ensuring a stable voice. How do you clear your throat for public speaking? Let’s look at those strategies in this next section.
Why Does My Throat Close Up During Public Speaking? The Best 2 Strategies To Fix It!
There are two ways you can address issues of throat-closing during public presentations. You can train your muscles to allow the air free passage when you speak or you can remove that anxiety that’s causing your throat to close up in the first place. Let’s look at each of those:
1. Vocal Warm-ups
Your vocal muscles are just like your other muscles in the body. If you want them to work the best way they possibly can, you need to train them, too. That’s where vocal warm-up exercises come in.
Vocal warm-up exercises are, well, exercises for your voice. They help all the muscles in the parts of your body involved in voice generation (your thorax, throat, mouth, chest, and larynx) achieve optimal performance. The result is a high-quality voice and one less prone to injuries. And the best part of all for public speakers? The next time you face your audience, your throat will no longer close up because your vocal muscles already know the drill.
That said, here are some warm-up exercises you can do before your big presentation or even when you’re just relaxing at home:
Exercise No. 1:
This one is recommended by Gartner-Schmidt. Put your index finger just a few inches from your mouth. Inhale then exhale for five to ten seconds while you say the word “Wooooo!” Do that five to ten times. According to Gartner-Schmidt, this exercise is great for relaxing the vocal cords.
Exercise No. 2:
Massage your muscles surrounding the jaw. You can just use your fingers. Then massage the inside of your mouth.
According to some health care professionals, the massage doesn’t just relieve facial tension. It also helps you open those sinuses and helps prepare your frenums for when you speak. Frenums are connective tissues inside the lip vestibules and under the tongue that can be tense and, therefore, prevent other tissues in the mouth from moving as they should.
Exercise No. 3:
Open your mouth and shut it afterward. Make sure you open it from up to down, not from side to side. With this exercise, you can train your mouth to open that way everytime you speak, thereby allowing the air to flow freely. Opening your mouth this way also helps you ensure resonance. So, the next time you speak, your voice will resonate inside the venue.
Exercise No. 4:
Do lip trills. Purse your lips loosely then make that trilling sound (like the sound of an airplane). Make sure that in the process of making the sound, you’re not just letting the air flow out of your mouth. Your diaphragm still needs to control that air as it goes out of you.
With this exercise, you don’t just ensure the air flows freely inside and outside of you. You can connect your sound to your abdominal support wall, too. That abdominal wall can help support the sound you make. The result? Your voice sounds “round.”
Exercise No. 5:
Yawn and sigh. This is similar to exercise number 3. In this exercise, though, you’re more deliberate in the way you open your mouth and shut it. Open your mouth in the same way you would when you yawn. Make sure you inhale when you do that. Once you’re closing your mouth, make sure you let out a sigh.
This is great for relaxing the muscles in the throat. That will allow the air to flow freely in and out.
For more information surrounding this topic, check out the article "How to Improve Voice Modulation in Public Speaking- 7 Easy Tips"
2. Exercises for relieving anxiety
Another way you can stop your throat from closing up is to remove the anxiety that’s causing it to close up in the first place. That’s where exercises for relieving anxiety come in. Here are five strategies you can use:
Exercise No. 1: Relax!
Practice relaxing. Find a place where you can be alone. Then close your eyes and let your mind wander. Just let it go where it wants to go. Take note of how you’re breathing in and out, too.
Exercise No. 2: Exercise
Do some physical exercises. You can do this right before the presentation. Find a spot and do some jumping jacks, pushups, whatever works for you. You want to get your mind off what you need to do to relieve the stress then and there. When you do some physical exercises, you can get your mind off the presentation and focus on, well, your exercising.
Just make sure you give yourself time to wash and fix yourself up afterwards. You don’t want to look all sweaty when you face your audience.
Exercise No. 3: Give yourself a pep talk
It helps if you give yourself that empowering speech that will help you gain more confidence before you face an entire audience. Tell yourself you’ll do great because you did prepare and you have a good grasp of the subject. Remind yourself the key is to provide value to your audience, and not focus too much on whether or not you’re saying the right words correctly or if you’re making the right gestures.
Tell yourself you’re awesome (but not too much, though), and that you wouldn’t have been invited to the speaking engagement if you weren’t. So, when you get up there, you’re just oozing with confidence.
Exercise No. 4: Socialize
Socializing before you get on stage can help get your mind off of things that give you a lot of stress, in this case, public speaking. So, instead of focusing on that presentation, talk to the organizers and thank them again for inviting you. Crack a joke and make them laugh. Tell them about your day before you got to the venue. Ask them how their day was, too.
This is a great deflection tactic. Since you weren’t obsessing over your presentation in the first place, when you get on stage, you won’t feel as anxious and nervous anymore.
Exercise No. 5: Eat and drink
This might sound a bit unconventional but for some people, it can actually work. If you eat a small snack and drink something before a presentation, you can get your mind off of the presentation and focus on those delicious flavors and on how you’re not supposed to stain your clothes.
Just make sure you don’t eat an entire meal right before the presentation for obvious reasons. Pub grub such as a sandwich or some chips will do. As for the drink, well, a glass of water is perfect. Best not to drink coffee before the presentation. You might just end up too jittery.
If you’re one of those people whose throat closes up when you’re on stage, don’t worry. It’s not the end of your dream of becoming a great speaker.
Fortunately for people like you, there are still strategies you can follow. Since throat closing can be seen as the body’s natural response to a perceived threat (public speaking), you can address the throat-closing in one of two ways (or both): do vocal exercises to ensure the air flows freely in and out of you or just remove that anxiety that’s triggering the body’s natural response.
You learned some of those strategies you can implement from this article. You don’t need to follow all of them at once. Just pick the ones you think will work for you and see how those go. The key is to come up with the perfect combination of strategies that can help address the problem. Because when you do, there’s no stopping you from achieving greatness!
For more resources to develop your public speaking skills while you are in the comforts of your own home, please check the Online Resources for Public Speaking and the article, Where Can I Learn Public Speaking? If you would like to leverage the best presentation software for your next big speaking engagement please read the article 'Best Presentation Technology tools'.