Before I get on stage, I check in with my body: I notice my heart’s rhythm, and from there, imagine expanding that energy through my arms, down to my feet, my presence firmly planted on the ground. I imagine that energy expanding and filling the room.In that single moment, this is no longer an unfamiliar space. It is now my space, filled with my intentions, and I am centered. I’m no longer “up in my head” so to speak — I’m there with my audience.Because this is all about them. Not about me.You may be saying, “But Dr. Magie, you’re a professional. I tense up whenever I have to speak in public. You’ve practiced public speaking many times!”And to that I say: no matter if you’ve given a public speech 100 times, or only 10 times, the power to deliver an impactful speech is inside of everyone. Overcoming public speaking anxiety is a matter of harnessing your power.Do you sometimes feel that your fear of public speaking is holding you back from greatness? If so, know that you’re not alone. Fear of public speaking is one of the most common anxieties people around the world have in some form or another: according to the National Anxiety Center,approximately 40% of the population have this fear.So that’s the good news! Many people suffer from public speaking anxiety, and it’s natural to assume that a good portion of that 40% have discovered methods for effectively managing speaking anxiety.The not-so-good news is that addressing public speaking anxiety can be complex on its surface. Cognitive and behavioral components come into play, where even the idea of speaking in public provokes strong physiological and cognitive responses, and each individual is unique in how severely their anxiety symptoms interfere with their speech.However, public speaking anxiety should never prevent you from achieving success and connecting with your team. The best part is that the same thought patterns that promote speech anxiety are easily restructured; you are in the driver’s seat of your own mind, and I’m here to tell you how to effectively, quickly, and efficiently harness that control to transform your fears of public speaking into powerful techniques for conquering any form of stage fright.
What is public speaking anxiety?
Public speaking anxiety, also known as stage fright or performance anxiety, is the fear or nervousness that one experiences before or during a public speaking engagement. Some people become generally anxious about public speaking whether it is a real or imagined presentation, and the innate physiological reactions like heart racing and freezing can impact their public speaking skills.Public speaking anxiety is considered a type of social anxiety disorder (SAD). While it is normal to feel some level of shyness or discomfort in unfamiliar social situations, individuals suffering from social anxiety disorder experience anxiety related to social interactions sosevere that it interferes with their relationships, goals, and quality of life.While not as severe as general social anxiety disorder, public speaking anxiety affects many people, including seasoned speakers, and can range from mild nervousness to overwhelming anxiety.Public speaking anxiety can be distressing, but it is a common feeling that can be managed through various techniques, such as cognitive restructuring and skill training that includes deep breathing and relaxation techniques. Managing public speaking anxiety can be tough, but with practice and support, you can overcome this anxiety and become confident in your ability to improve specific speaking behaviors.But of course, the first step is recognizing the symptoms if we want to reduce speaking anxiety; thankfully, bodies of research have described the innate physiological reactions related to public speaking anxiety that are recognized as general physical signs.
Common speaking anxiety symptoms include:
Difficulty speaking or wording sentences correctly
Shortness of breath
It is important to remember that everyone who suffers from public speaking anxiety may show all, or only some of these symptoms, and their severity varies from individual to individual. For example, you may be someone who freezes and notices a rapid heartbeat while public speaking, while another person may shake and be unable to get any words out, at all.Luckily, there are ways of addressing communication anxiety symptoms and their involuntary bodily reactions. Fear of public speaking may seem unbeatable when you’re going through it, but I assure you: you have the power to redirect this energy into delivering a successful speech, and it’s this power I want to talk about the most.
What causes public speaking anxiety?
Anxiety in all of its forms is a an umbrella term for the natural and instinctual responses our brains activate in response to a threat — in public speaking anxiety, this is in response to real or perceived communication to a wide audience.Research on anxiety is plentiful, and it is now commonly understood as a complex cascade of neural signals carried throughout the cerebral cortex, midbrain, and our peripheral nervous system that provoke powerful physical responses such as heart racing and fear.All emotions, both positive and negative, have a purpose — anxiety is the result of natural chemical processes that are meant to signal threat, and promote an efficient response to the threat, whether that be escaping, freezing, or fighting (fight-or-flight, sound familiar?). In a sense, your brain is trying to protect you, but in the case of public speaking anxiety, our brains aren’t able to distinguish between a wild lion spotting us in an open field, and a crowd of people waiting for our next word. The physical responses are the same.With this in mind, it’s reasonable to suggest that the fear of public speaking is the result of equating negative judgment from others as being just as terrifying as facing down a wild beast. Human beings are social by nature, and for better or for worse, being perceived positively by our peers is an instinctual desire we value to some degree or another.The problem arises when this desire to be perceived positively promotes negative intrusive thoughts, and therefore causes negative self fulfilling prophecies.
For example, thoughts like:
“Everyone is staring at me.”
“People are judging me.”
“I’m going to forget what to say.”
“If I mess this up, no one will take me seriously.”
“If I don’t do perfectly, my career is over.”
Of course, many of these examples sound ridiculous. No one speech or presentation can make or break a successful career, but in the throes of public speaking anxiety, these thoughts seem as reasonable as ever.But that’s where the real trick lies — they are thoughts, just thoughts! While those thoughts cause intense physical responses that interfere and affect communication negatively, cognitive restructuring strategies allow you to harness that physicality into fuel for an energetic, controlled presentation or actual speech. It all starts with perception, and you have had the tools to do this all along.Let me show you what I mean.
What is cognitive restructuring?
Cognitive restructuring is a form of therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns. What are these negative thought patterns, you may ask? In short, our brains do not always perceive things reasonably — what may seem unremarkable and simple to one person may promote intense anxiety in another.For example, a person who does not experience social anxiety disorder may go to a party where they don’t know everyone in attendance thinking, “I may not know a lot of people at this party, but maybe I’ll meet some new friends.”In contrast, a person with debilitating anxiety about social situations may think, “I don’t know anyone at this party, and if I mess up, I’ll never get invited anywhere, and everyone will think I’m weird, everyone will judge me, I just shouldn’t go.”It’s an extreme example, but it illustrates my point: our minds don’t always assess reality in a way that’s reasonable. This unreasonable perception of reality that provokes stressful thoughts is known as a “cognitive distortion,” or in essence, our thoughts taking things to an unrealistic extreme in the face of evidence to the contrary.
How do I use cognitive restructuring for public speaking?
Cognitive restructuring entails changing those unrealistic thoughts, and challenging their implications with positive thinking. In a sense, it’s a matter of being present, and aware of our thoughts: mindfulness. In the context of public speaking, it involves challenging and replacing negative thoughts with positive, realistic ones. For example:
Identify your negative thoughts: Start by becoming aware of the thoughts that make you feel anxious. Write them down or say them out loud.
Example: “I have a big presentation coming up at work, and if I don’t do perfectly, I won’t get that promotion.”
Challenge your negative thoughts: Examine the evidence for and against each negative thought. Ask yourself if your thoughts are realistic or if they are based on assumptions or irrational beliefs.
Example: “No one is perfect. One presentation doesn’t reflect my ability to be a productive team member. I know my topic well.”
Replace negative thoughts with positive ones: Once you have challenged your negative thoughts, replace them with positive, realistic ones. For example, if you think, “I’m going to mess up my presentation,” replace it with “I have prepared well, and I’m going to do my best.”
Example: “I have the opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge on something I’m an expert in. I’ve prepared well.”
Another important aspect of managing public speaking anxiety is mindset. Instead of focusing on your fear, focus on your goals and what you want to achieve with your presentation. Remember my example in the opening sentences of this post? I transform the space into an unfamiliar place of danger into my domain. It all comes from mindset, presence, expanding that energy from our restructured perceptions.It’s no longer an “everyone is judging me” mindset.It becomes a “everyone is excited to hear what I have to say, and I’m excited to help them” foundation for greatness.It all comes back to your audience!What do you want your audience to take away from your talk? How can you connect with them and make your message resonate? Remember, at the heart of it, every presentation is about the audience, not you. Audiences are very forgiving of mistakes, and do not notice most anyways — your ability to shine will be evident.
Other helpful cognitive restructuring techniques include:
Communication-orientation modification (COM): instead of thinking of a speech as a performance, we instead restructure this perception by seeing it as a conversation with our audiences. Most of us don’t experience intense anxiety while simply talking to our best friends, or to our family members. In a sense, your audience is having a conversation with you, where you are the expert and you have all the control.
Positive thinking: visualize success, and imagine yourself already succeeding. It’s easy to relax into a speech if you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Positive thoughts reprogram our negative perceptions of public speaking, and allow us to process and prepare for the event rationally. Thinking of the potential negative consequences does not prevent unforeseen problems from arising, so why waste the energy on them?
Physical relaxation exercises: these are critical complements to the cognitive aspects cognitive restructuring addresses that lead us to improving specific skills related to delivery and body language. When we master our minds, we need to do a little extra work to calm our bodies. Very old exercise traditions such as deep breathing, vocal warm up exercises, simple and discrete stretches, and rehearsing our vocal and physical delivery all address involuntary bodily reactions and harness the anxious energy into a source of charisma. Instead of the fire burning through everything in sight, we control the flame that ignites our passion for the subject we are talking about.
Almost all my students cite speaking publicly as a common source of stress in their careers, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Using a combination of specific and measurable goals and other cognitive restructuring strategies allow us to refocus the cognitive and physical aspects of giving a presentation. You have the power to manage public speaking anxiety, and it’s been inside of you the whole time.
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