Mark Twain once said: “There are two types of speakers: those who are nervous and those who are liars.” While most of us are comfortable speaking when sitting safely in a crowd, as soon as we stand up to speak before an audience, we become anxious.
Many are puzzled by this. “Why do freak out when I have to speak up? I know my stuff. I know what I want to say. Why am I so nervous? It doesn’t make sense.”
Actually, from the evolutionary perspective, it makes a lot of sense. Fear is a very appropriate reaction to facing a group of strangers. Back in the stone age, whenever you noticed several sets of eyes watching you intently, they were probably thinking if you’d make a tasty dinner that evening.
And your brain still remembers it. This is why, whenever you stand up to speak, it goes on red alert and triggers physiological reactions that will help you deal with the threat. Your breathing and heart rate speed up to deliver more oxygen to the muscles. Your pupils dilate to take in as much visual information as possible. Your blood gets pulled away from the surface of your skin to provide a layer of protection in case you bleed. You’re now ready to rock and roll! The name of the game? Freeze, fight or flight.
First, as part of the freeze response, you stand still. Movement attracts attention and that’s the last thing you want. To increase your chances of going unnoticed, you make yourself small. You bow your head, keep your legs close together, put your hands in the pockets. You try to hide in plain sight. In a well-lit conference room, it’s not an option, so you just end up looking like a deer in the headlights.
Once you realise the freeze strategy doesn’t work, you go on to the flight response. Since you can’t run away from a conference room (at least not without a dent in your professional reputation), you try to distance yourself from the source of threat — the audience — in a different way. By pacing, walking backwards, and standing at the back of the room. Alternatively, you might just rush through your presentation to get it over with as quickly as possible. Or engage in various blocking behaviours, such as arms crossing, to protect your vital organs from the bloodthirsty (or so your brain thinks) audience.
The freeze, fight or flight response leaves us agitated, stressed and unsettled. Our brain hates it when we are in such a state. That’s why it tells us to do something — anything — to calm down. How do we do that? By touching, massaging, stroking, rubbing and scratching different parts of our body — mainly neck, face and arms. By repeatedly adjusting our clothes. By rocking and swaying. All these moves do their job brilliantly. They soothe us. They reassure us. They calm us down. But they also make us look nervous, insecure and unprofessional.
So what can we do about fear? Can we lose it? Beat it? Avoid it altogether? Afraid not. But we can learn to manage it.
Fear is not a bad thing. It’s a biological response that keeps us from approaching the lion to ruffle his mane. Or doing other stupid things. Like telling the truth when your boss asks how you liked his latest presentation on health and safety in the workplace. You need fear. But not too little and not too much of it. Too little fear often ends up in a “I don’t give a damn” attitude. Too much fear messes with our confidence and hurts our performance. So how can we bring down fear to acceptable levels? Here are some proven techniques:
This one is a bit counterintuitive. Why would we repeatedly do something that scares us? Isn’t it better to stay away from public speaking altogether? That’s certainly an option many people use. But… if we avoid things that scare us, we feed our fear and help it grow bigger and stronger. We need to have lots of goes at things that make us anxious.This way we train your brain stop going haywire and to see public speaking for what it is. A potentially risky but not life-threatening situation.
Rehearse your presentation. Putting together a slide deck isn’t enough. Practice the delivery at least three times in real time. More if you are going to present in a foreign language. There is this myth about public speaking. That you’re either good at it or not. And if you’re good at it, you can just jump on stage and rock the room, without any preparation. And if you’re rubbish, well, in that case, no amount of preparation will help. Funny how nobody has ever said that to a violin player. A singer. Or an actor. A presenter is a performer. And every performer needs to rehearse.
Use the last moments before your presentation to connect with your audience. Greet them at the door. Talk to them. Shake hands to get the bonding hormone, oxytocin, flowing. When you turn your audience into your friends, you will see the situation as an opportunity to share your ideas rather than a possible threat to your professional reputation.
Have you noticed that you freak out the most at the beginning of your presentation? A minute or so into it, your anxiety levels drop significantly and you begin to relax. To smoothly get through your intro, write out and practice your first lines. Rehearse them over and over again. Word for word.
In the first moments of a presentation, when the spotlight is on you, the butterflies in your stomach begin to flutter. To get them to fly in formation, shift the focus onto the audience. Ask them a question. Get them to do an activity. Tell them to introduce themselves.
Have a powerful warm-up routine. Most public performers: speakers, trainers, actors, athletes have their own confidence boosting rituals. They jump, walk or run. Before coming on stage to deliver a speech, lead a workshop or act out a scene, they warm up. So before your next presentation, do something physical. A few stretches, power poses (think Wonder Woman) or dance moves, performed in the privacy of the office toilet, will send the “ready” signal to your brain. And believe me, it’s difficult to stay scared when you’re salsa dancing!
Most people say you should calm down when you’re anxious. But that is exactly the wrong thing to do. Instead, you should tell yourself: I am excited! Anxiety has the same physical symptoms as excitement. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure increases, your breathing rate goes up. That’s why it’s easier to trick your brain into believing that you are excited than that you’re calm. This way you get out of a threat mindset, where you think of all the bad things that can happen, into an opportunity mindset, where you focus on the potential positive outcomes.
Take steps to learn about the art of presenting before an audience. Read books, watch and analyse speeches by effective speakers. Go on an improv course. Competence will reduce your nerves and increase your confidence.
Public speaking anxiety can be debilitating. It might undermine your self esteem. Reduce your chances of professional success. And make you miss opportunities that present themselves to those who have the courage to speak up. So start speaking. Even if you think you’re not ready. Try out the techniques I’ve described. See which one works for you best. Do it now. Action will gradually chip away at the fear you feel today.
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