The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 73% of the US experience public speaking anxiety
In the first of our series of public speaking workshops, Anna Lao-Kaim discusses the pre-presentation principles: ‘Getting your mindset right.’
The red face, shaky legs, dry rice cake mouth and stress sweats – most of us are familiar with the symptoms of a bout of pre-presentation nerves. For some, a fear of public speaking is akin to a kind of paralysis, with The British Council reporting that 75% of us experience severe performance anxiety while 10% suffer from a debilitating public speaking phobia (known as glossophobia).
The stats are equally revealing in the US, where The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 73% of the population experiences anxiety around public speaking. The knowledge that even Mark Zuckerberg blow dries his armpits to eliminate “anxiety sweat” before delivering speeches is testament to the fact that public speaking can strike terror into the hearts, minds and voices of even the world’s most successful CEOs.
I got a particularly acute case of the public speaking scaries last summer at the prospect of giving a speech at my wedding. In addition to pitching the tone and length just so, I knew that I would be delivering my speech to a large audience, with the inclusion of excerpts in Thai and Polish as a nod to my new husband’s heritage, after having had most likely not a lot of sleep and with the whole performance being filmed.
I was a rabbit in the headlights of my Word doc but understanding that almost everyone feels the fear, that few people are natural born speakers and that confidence comes in many forms helped me to step up to the mic. As did stand-up comedian and author Viv Groskop’s How To Own The Room, a book that examines and dissects the power of women using their voice and cheers readers on to do the same. Groskop emphasises that effective, exciting (yes, really) public speaking is really just a state of mind – here’s how to get yours in a great place before you grace the stage or start the Zoom call.
Even the most seemingly serene of speakers is likely paddling an adrenalin wave. Award-winning speaker and communication consultant Shola Kaye explains that a fear of public speaking is primal:
“We crave the protection and approval of the group. Back in the caveman days, if we were ostracised from society for doing something wrong we would die either from being attacked by wild animals or due to exposure to harsh elements.
“The primitive part of our mind still maintains these fears and that’s why, even though being laughed at, criticised or rejected won’t kill us, we hold onto that basic fear and overemphasise the impact of screwing up a talk.”
Negative self-talk may have protective prehistoric precedence but that doesn’t mean that you can’t challenge it. Shola has some ‘be your own cheerleader’ advice up her sleeve:
“It can be hard to shut off negative experiences but a great way to overcome them is to list all of the negative chatter and ‘flip it’. If your internal monologue is ‘I’m rubbish at speaking’, turn that statement on its head by switching it to ‘I’m a decent speaker and getting better all the time’.
“When you’ve flipped your list of negatives, throw away the original doubts and read the positives like a mantra. This will train your brain to expect success.”
Mantras not quite hitting spot yet? Shola advises workshopping your speech beforehand:
“Write a vivid script visualising everything going brilliantly. Perhaps you’re getting high-fives from the crowd, laughs and maybe even a standing ovation at the end. Record it and then listen back to it at night, during quiet moments or whenever imposter syndrome creeps in.”
Shola also advocates harnessing your natural ‘fight or flight’ response to a public speaking opportunity for good:
“It’s important to feel excited about what’s to come and to anticipate a great accomplishment rather than a failure.”
If nothing else, bear in mind that your crowd will have confidence in you to begin with, not to mention the fact that a fear of public speaking is so universal that they’ll have sympathy in spades if you do experience a bout of brain freeze.
Hypnotherapist Malminder Gill emphasises that, if you’re giving a talk, you can glean self-esteem by focussing on the fact that you already possess something valuable that’s worth sharing:
“There will be a reason why you are choosing or have been asked to present. It is likely that you are giving a speech on account of your wisdom and/or life experience that you can communicate to others.
“Instead of putting the spotlight on your own anxiety, reframe your outlook to concentrate on what you’d love to share with your audience. Concentrating on the benefits of what you are doing and keeping this positive objective at the forefront of your mind will make your fear much less significant. Be the expert that people already know you are and you’ll exude confidence.”
Given that remote working is likely to continue well into the future, adding digital glitches and inevitable WFH interruptions into the mix could stand to make presenting even more daunting. Gill attests that the Zoom ‘room’ can actually play to your speech-giving advantage:
“Hosting a talk on video actually has some perks. You can keep notes just out of sight, open another window on your screen so that you don’t have to look at everyone’s faces as you’re speaking and tailor lighting and the angle of your screen exactly as you’d like it. Light a calming candle, set the scene and take your time getting ready rather than worrying about a frantic commute.”
If the dog bounds in it’ll only add to the energy of your speech, after all, authenticity is key to delivering a memorable performance. No one expects perfection and it’s the speaking and showing up that counts. Who knows, Fido’s entrance could even go viral?