One Hundred Beats Per Minute

Three weeks ago, some friends mentioned they’d attended a workshop by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, the famous couples counselors.  I’d heard about the Gottman Institute over the years but was surprised by something they said that night. Basically, that when your heart races, you can’t communicate clearly – or sometimes at all.

What’s the threshold for effective communication? Turns out it’s 100 beats per min. [Photo credit: Daniel Canibano]

What’s the threshold for effective communication? Turns out it’s 100 beats per min. [Photo credit: Daniel Canibano]

I saw a connection to public speaking and did what we all do when we hear something interesting. I googled it. I learned that, according the Gottman’s research, “if your heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute, you won’t be able to hear what your spouse is trying to tell you no matter how hard you try.”  The Gotmmans call this “flooding,” being overwhelmed by a barrage of emotions, which makes communication with other human beings all but impossible.

As my friends spoke, I realized I’d heard about flooding before: by clients who felt paralyzed by nerves right before a speech. Looking back, I’m guessing their heart rate was likely over 100 beats per minute.

Now, in the world of couple’s counseling, Gottman recommends taking a time out. Nothing good can be achieved when you or your spouse has been flooded by emotions. That’s not an option, however, when you’re about to step onto the stage, take the microphone, and deliver a 20-minute presentation.

My recommendation for speakers is first and above all, to be proactive. In other words, be hyper-aware of how your body is dealing with stress. Are your cheeks flushed? Hands sweaty? Heart racing? If they are, do a quick self-assessment. You can check your Fitbit, Apple Watch, or other tracker. But you don’t need fancy technology – just find a quiet spot to take your pulse. Count your heart beats for ten seconds and multiple the number by 6. This will give you objective data that can serve as a kind of early warning system. If your heart rate is, in fact, creeping up toward 100 beats per minute, it’s time to act.

The next step is figuring out what works for you. Some people benefit by taking a brisk walk around the venue before they speak or working out the morning of the event. This helps them shake off excess nervous energy (cutting down on pacing and verbal pauses like “um,” “like,” or “you know”) Other people use affect labeling to quell their anxieties. This involves naming the emotion that they’re experiencing, which can help take the sting out of it.

But by far, the most effective means I’ve found to calm nerves has been mindful breathing. I wrote about this in one of my first blogs, which you can read here. In short, regulate each breath by inhaling through your nose to a count of 4 and exhaling to a count of 4. Keep it up until you feel more composed. What I love about this process is that it interrupts the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for high alert “fight or flight” responses. When done correctly, it will help you tap into the parasympathetic nervous system that’s responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” functions. (For a quick overview of both, check out this article.)

In the end, public speaking is about communicating but that’s tough to do when your heart rate surges over 100 beats per minute. So check in with yourself before the next speech. Then use the right techniques to keep your nerves in check and ensure you’re at your best as you walk up to the podium.

How have you managed your fear of public speaking? Let’s talk!  – Rose (

Own It & Get Over It

Over the years, I’ve shared several techniques on how to manage your nerves before a speech. (See this blog and this blog.) Today I’d like to share another one. The scientific name is ‘affect labeling’ but I use another term: ‘naming it.’

Affect labeling basically means identifying an emotion as you’re experiencing it. When I was growing up, my Dad accidentally backed our Plymouth Valiant out of the garage with a backseat door open. The screech of crunching medal filled the garage. Dad stopped the car, hopped out, and stared at the crease in the door. He was fuming. Clearly, someone hadn’t shut the door behind them. His anger was, of course, understandable, and he was probably more upset with himself than any of us. But I remember him being pretty darn mad. Now, in retrospect, I know that affect labeling would have quieted the storm.

Identifying our emotions (Dad saying, “I’m royally pissed off right now”) has the power to calm them. That was the finding of psychologist Matthew Lieberman who coined the term ‘affect labeling’ in 2007. You can read the whole study here. The short version is that naming your emotions disrupts the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for fear, anger, and other emotions.

Affect labeling can help quiet the fear of public speaking. [Photo Credits: Wynand Uys]

Affect labeling can help quiet the fear of public speaking. [Photo Credits: Wynand Uys]

There’s now a large body of work on affect labeling. One more study worth mentioning involved spiders and people who feared them. Michelle Craske and her research team divided participants into four groups and asked them to walk toward spiders. As they did so, one group was told to label their feelings (ex: “I’m scared, anxious”). Another was asked to think of the spider as less threatening (ex: “You can’t hurt me.”). Still another group was directed to distract themselves (ex: “This is an experiment. I’ll be fine.”) and the last group was a control group (given no instructions.)

The study found that the first group – people who acknowledged their fears – had the lowest emotional reaction to the spiders than any other group. Psychology Today summed up the study, “These findings suggest that having greater emotional clarity about one's fear can help reduce the physiological manifestation of this emotion.” One more key finding of the study is that verbalizing emotions (not just thinking them) is what made the difference.

Affect labeling is a useful technique to manage those overwhelming feelings you have before speaking in public. I often ask speakers, while they are rehearsing or before they step onto the stage, to stop and reflect. What are they feeling right now? Their answer – just naming it – puts the emotion under a microscope and turns it into an object they can observe. As a result, fear and anxiety no longer grip them, no longer control them. The result? They’re able to relax and deliver a much more natural, compelling talk.

Has affect labeling worked for you? Let’s talk about managing your fear of public speaking. – Rose (

Work Out, Speak Out

When I hear the term ‘working out,’ I’m more apt to think of my New Year’s resolution than public speaking. But there’s an important connection between the two. A light work out before you present will discharge that excess nervous energy that will otherwise destroy excellent remarks.

Last year I was working with an executive in the field of health care. I’ll call him “Ed.” Ed had come to me because, a year earlier, he’d frozen up on stage. He said that suddenly, as he glanced at the audience, a steam roller hit him. He couldn’t breathe. A black circle filled his vision. The room telescoped in on itself, growing darker by the second.

Ever since the panic attack, Ed hadn’t been able to present without taking medication to calm his nerves beforehand. He and I worked together for a few weeks. We tested out various coping mechanisms and he made mild progress … but nothing major. That is, until the topic of running popped up in our conversation.  

Ed sat back in his chair, exhaled, and talked at length about running cross country in college. About how much he loved jogging through the woods. About how being an athlete was fundamental to his identity. And about how he’d let the demands of his job – including 40% travel – stop him in his tracks.

[Photo credit: Jenny Hill]

[Photo credit: Jenny Hill]

In the end, what helped Ed to not just face the podium, but excel as a speaker was returning to what he loved. He got back to running trails (and back on the treadmill when traveling). The result? Ed said goodbye to his anti-anxiety meds for good.

Now, to be clear: working out is, by no means, a cure all for glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. But discharging excess energy before you speak will help you manage it. You don’t have to run a marathon, but you could walk briskly around the block or do jumping jacks in your hotel room. Don’t try to exhaust yourself. Just do enough to shake off the jitters and channel that energy into your best performance yet.

I love this tip. Has it worked for you? Email me at or reach out on Twitter at @RKing_Portland. -- Rose

The Spot Light Effect

I use a number of techniques to help people who are nervous about speaking in public. Taking a few deep breaths before stepping behind the podium helps some. Other people rehearse ten, maybe twelve times, becoming so familiar with the material that their jitters fall away. Still others benefit from hearing about the spot light effect, the notion that the audience is probably paying less attention to you than you might think! 

[Photo Credit: Paul Green]

[Photo Credit: Paul Green]

I first read about this idea in Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. She talked about a major league baseball player who felt self-conscious when he stepped up to the plate. Seeing his face (and batting average!) plastered across the two-story scoreboard made him anxious. Some of my clients have expressed similar feelings when they’re asked to speak in public.

Here’s where the spot light effect comes in. Dozens of experiments show that we generally overestimate how much attention we think other people are paying to us. One of my favorite involves a study in which college students were asked to wear t-shirts sporting a picture of Barry Manilow. Researchers asked them to estimate what percentage of their peers they thought had noticed the embarrassing t-shirts. They said about half. In reality, only about a quarter of their peers noticed the Manilow t-shirts. In some studies, the number was as low as 10 percent.

You can read about these studies here but, in terms of public speaking, two takeaways are worth noting. The first is relax. Chances are the audience isn’t eying you as closely as you think. The second is to remember that you’re competing for their attention. They may be thinking about their daughter at school or daydreaming about their recent trip to Hawaii.  On top of that, they’re probably texting and tweeting. That’s all the more reason for you to prep great material, practice your delivery, and demand their attention with engaging and compelling remarks.

To learn more speaking tips, click here to subscribe, email, or follow me on Twitter at @RKing_Portland. -- Rose


During the holidays, I heard lots of "mini speeches." Last week my father-in-law offered a toast at the dinner table. Yesterday a friend talked about appreciating our time together. Both were beautiful little tributes: kind and heartfelt. The next time you want to say a few words but are holding back, consider a technique called “priming.”

Joe Maggie, a professor at NY University, uses priming to help people under stress. Before doing a nerve-racking activity (like public speaking!), he encourages people to remember a moment when they felt powerful & confident. And to that I'd add this: reflect on a time when you felt good about yourself. Perhaps it was after you volunteered at a food pantry or made chicken soup for a sick neighbor. Maybe it was how you felt after a long run or doing yoga.

By reflecting on a moment when you were your best self, you'll reduce your anxiety about speaking in public. It’s not a magic bullet. It won't quell all your nerves or shake free the stress of everyday life. But it will help you feel more relaxed and confident. Adding a few deep breaths is important as well. Give it a try. When you’re moved by the spirit, “prime the pump” first then share your thoughts aloud. My guess is that your friends and family will appreciate what you have to say.


Have a question about your next speech? Email me at If you'd like to learn more speaking tips, please click here to subscribe. Thanks! -- Rose

[Photo credit: Deniz Altindas]

[Photo credit: Deniz Altindas]

Just Breathe -- Tips & Tricks of Great Speakers

JUST BREATHE: The Woman in Chair #2

[Photo Credit: Daria Nepriakhina]

[Photo Credit: Daria Nepriakhina]

I recently attended an event at the Lucky Lab, one of my favorite local bars in Portland, OR.  I was there to watch a client that I'm coaching. She was among a group of about ten engineers and architects who were doing PechaKucha (basically presentations of 20 slides @ 20 seconds each).

The first 5 speakers were seated stage right. As the first speaker began, I noticed a well-dressed woman seated in chair #2.  She was the next presenter.  As she waited for her turn to take the stage, she tore up her fingernails one by one. She squirmed in her seat. She swung her legs beneath it.

When the speaker finished, the woman in chair #2 leapt up. She took the mic and began to speak rapid-fire style. She talked so fast that no one could understand her. I didn't time her, but would guess she was covering about 175 to 200 words a minute. That's crazy fast.

I wanted to seek her out after the event to help in some way. Unfortunately she slipped out the door and headed to the bar. My advice would have been pretty simple. Breathe ... just breathe. Doing a few simple exercises before you speak will not only calm the nerves, but ensure you're ticking along at about 125 words a min (about the right pace for most speakers).

Here's what to do when you're in chair #2:

  1. Put both feet on the ground and sit up straight.

  2. Inhale to a count of 4. Exhale to a count of 4. Breathe through your nose.

  3. Repeat.

  4. If this pattern is too easy, try a count of 6 or any of the options listed here.

To be honest, it doesn't really matter which breathing exercise you use. If you know you're extra nervous before speaking, focus on breath beforehand. It will slow down your pace so you can convey your message in a more thoughtful manner. It will also help you master "the pause," a hugely underrated trick that's part of the exceptional speaker's repertoire.

I love this tip because it never fails. To learn more, click here and scroll down to subscribe. Thanks! -- Rose