So you’re about to take the stage to give a speech, and you start feeling a little strange. Your stomach feels like it’s tied up in knots. Your heart is racing and you have a warm and tightening feeling in your upper body. This is a normal feeling that even experienced speakers feel from time to time. So how do you deal with it? Just try imagining your audience in their underwear.
I’m not sure where this idea initially came from, but it was made popular in an episode of the Brady Bunch called “The Driver’s Seat” which originally aired on January 11th, 1974. In this episode, Jan, the middle girl, is nervous about giving a speech as part of a debating contest. Her family tells her to imagine her audience in their underwear – and that seems to work for her. But does it really work?
This question comes up in nearly every public speaking class I teach. I feel it can actually make you more uncomfortable because it distracts you from important things like remembering your speech. It can have some embarrassing side effects depending on your state of mind and who is in your audience.
This advice may have been helpful at the time the episode aired where underwear was more functional than fashionable. In an era of Victoria’s Secret where underwear has evolved into a symbol of sexuality, imagining that attractive person in the front row in their skivvies can backfire on you. I don’t think it’s wise to give this advice to today’s high school students. Many already spend most of their day imagining their classmates in their undergarments (which isn’t difficult given the way they dress) So this will make things worse for them.
There are some variations on this that take the sensuality out of the equation. For example, try visualizing your audience in funny t-shirts or imagining them with funny colored hair. These variations go back to the initial intent of the advice – making the audience look funny so you’re less nervous. Even if you’re very imaginative, your brain still has to work pretty hard for you to trick yourself into believing that your audience is in that humorous altered state. So again, you’re further taxing your brain during a stressful situation and making it do something other than focus on your speech.
A better use of that brainpower is to search around the audience for friendly faces to focus on. That usually helps while you’re on stage. Of course, the best thing to do is to practice your speech ahead of time. It’ll help you feel confident and comfortable with it. When you get up to talk, you might still feel that nervousness initially, but it’ll be short-lived once you get into your groove.
If you are into visualizing, try to imagine your audience reacting positively to your speech. Running that image through your head a few times before you begin your speech will help ease your nerves in a non-distracting way. But remember, the best way to feel more comfortable with your audience is to first feel more comfortable with yourself.