“…to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld
As Seinfeld’s quip suggests, there’s nothing abnormal about being afraid of public speaking. In fact, recent Gallup polls* suggest that around 40-45% of the population experience public speaking anxiety.
There’s good reason for this: the human brain has evolved to be highly alert to the threat of social rejection. That’s because throughout our long history, humans have been very reliant on social groups for survival. For our ancestors, getting kicked out of the clan or tribe was a recipe for disaster. It’s no surprise, then, that our brains tend to treat social acceptance like it’s a matter of life and death. The mere thought of being harshly judged by a group of people can often trigger our “fight-or-flight” response.
When we sense danger, the human brain automatically transmits chemical “alarm signals” to the body. A rapid cascade of physical changes then unfolds so that we can better fight or escape the perceived threat. The heartbeat quickens, muscles tense up, sweat production increases and dizziness can ensue. Mental attention narrows onto the source of the threat, making it hard to think about anything else.
This process is all very useful when we are confronted with a threat like a snarling dog, say. However, in the case of public speaking, there is no physical threat to fight or flee from. The only threat is our own thoughts about what might happen. Rather than helping us, the fight or flight response can make it harder to for us speaking with clarity and confidence.
Although public speaking anxiety is common, it isn’t universal. So what makes that difference between those who are relatively confident speakers and those who are not? Typically, people who fear public speaking inadvertently feed the fear in three ways:
Fixating On What Has Gone “Badly” In Previous Talks
Nervous speakers often dwell on the perceived mistakes and agonies experienced during prior performances. They replay the worst moments in their minds and dwell on the points when their distress was highest. Consequently, they overlook all the moments when they were okay and the things that they did well.
Imagining Problems Reoccurring In The Future
Nervous speakers not only tend to replay the most upsetting moments from the past – they also project them into the future. When they contemplate public speaking they see themselves doing badly and being undermined, once again, by their anxiety.
Worrying About Symptoms
Prior to a presentation, nervous speakers often channel a lot of mental energy toward trying to control the symptoms of anxiety. They mentally direct impossible instructions to themselves: “Don’t you DARE start getting shaky!” “These butterflies had better not get any worse!”
Unfortunately these attempts to control the fight-or-flight response actually make things worse. It’s like holding a gun to someone’s head and telling them that if they start to sweat, you’ll shoot! A vicious circle emerges: the stronger the physical response gets, the greater the worry about it gets, which in turn triggers a stronger physical response.
It’s tempting to use avoidance as a coping strategy. If you don’t have to speak, you don’t have to deal with the anxiety, right? Simple!
Of course, it’s not really that simple. For one thing, avoidance is not always an option. Sometimes you can’t say no to public speaking without serious consequences. The other problem is that avoidance undermines self-confidence in the long-term. For instance, it can hold you back in your career, which affects how you feel about yourself. Approaching challenges allows us to grow and to feel stronger. Avoidance has the opposite effect.
Climbing The Fear Ladder
Work out how you can begin to act against your anxiety and take steps towards the thing that you fear. It’s helpful to think of yourself as climbing a ladder, tackling one step, or task, at a time. Each step should be challenging but manageable and each step should build on the last. Your first step might be to practice delivering a short speech to your bedroom mirror. You would keep practicing this until you felt relatively comfortable with it. The next step might be to repeatedly videotape your short speeches and watch the tapes. Next, you might practice delivering a speech to a friend. Over time you will take on bigger and bigger challenges and with each step your confidence will grow. You can learn more about taking a stepped approach to anxiety here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exposure_hierarchy
Focusing On The Positives
Rather than focusing on evidence that you CAN’T be a good public speaker, turn your attention to what you CAN do. Think about the skills that you can develop. Can you learn to make eye contact with your audience? Can you practice speaking in a clear, low-pitched voice? Can you learn what to do with your hands as you speak? As you keep practicing new skills, pay attention to the things that you do well. Don’t beat yourself up over flaws and mistakes – just clock them up to experience and work out how you can improve on things next time.
One of the most important steps in developing your confidence is to practice accepting your anxiety. Instead of fighting or struggling against anxious feelings (which only intensifies them), learn to LEAN IN to them. This doesn’t mean that you need to like them. It just means that you stop judging and being threatened by them. When you notice your symptoms, you tell yourself something like this: “It’s OK that I’m feeling this way. It’s normal to be nervous about this. My brain is just trying to protect me from the unfamiliar. But I can handle this. This is just a feeling. I can keep moving in the direction that I want to go and the anxiety doesn’t have to stop me. In fact, it gives me energy.”
Keep practicing these strategies and you are bound to improve. You’ll also build your ability to be patient and encouraging with yourself. Nothing builds self-confidence like knowing that you can “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Good luck in climbing that ladder!