If it is, you wouldn’t be alone. Many people know that public speaking is one of the greatest fears people can experience. However, we don’t all find ourselves being required to give speeches. As leaders however, we are required to communicate…effectively. That’s hard. It’s stressful. And while you might not be speaking in front of hundreds or thousands, speaking in front of any amount of people can evoke a great deal of fear.
What is it then that makes public speaking as terrifying as death in some people’s minds? Sian Beilock, PhD., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and one of the world’s leading experts on the brain science behind “choking under pressure.” In April 2012 she published an article called The Fear of Public Speaking that asserts that it’s the threat of social evaluation that makes public speaking so nerve-racking.
Even if you are prepared, why do some people lose their composure when put on the spot and others thrive? What is the right strategy to minimize nervous tension and maximize impact? For over twenty years, researchers have invited people into their laboratories to stress them out by asking them to prepare a speech and deliver it to others. The goal has been to determine what makes these situations so stressful and how to overcome the associated challenges. The result is pretty interesting…
What You’re Really Stressed About
Some recent research on public speaking may have found the root of your stress. The research described is based on the “Trier Social Stress Test.” Each study contributor enters a room, faces a three-member panel, and is asked to create a five-minute presentation. The goal is to convince the panel that he or she is the right candidate for a position in their laboratory. They have ten minutes to prepare and are told that their evaluation is based on content and presentation style.
With the video cameras rolling, each person stands and delivers. To add more stress, when the speech is over, they are then asked to count backward from 1,022 by 13 out loud as quickly and accurately as possible.
Beilock cites this research to underscore that public speaking is a “clear and reliable way” to elicit a stressful response. Yet, it’s not only the act of giving a speech that causes the tension. The Trier Social Stress Test triggers anxiety because it includes elements of social evaluation. In other words, when people are judging you and your performance, speakers are afraid of being evaluated on the chance they may look foolish…because, who wants to be a fool? No one. But, that might just be what you need to get comfortable with.
You Need to Make a Fool of Yourself More Often
Beilock’s suggestion for overcoming your fear or stress is to condition yourself to lessen the pressure that comes with public speaking. The way to do that might surprise you: spend a little time each week making a fool of yourself; that experience will help diminish the fear when you are ready to deliver. One idea she provides for doing this is taking an acting or improvisation class.
I couldn’t agree more. With most of my clients and students I teach principles from a book called YES, AND: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. Based on lessons from The Second City, this idea is not just about developing comedic skills. You become conditioned to think and respond quickly on your feet. It helps you learn how to overcome the fear of public speaking in a nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way.
Beilock’s research emphasizes that when you have already experienced the worst thing that can happen when you give a speech, you’re less likely to stress out about it with each successive attempt. Eventually, you’ll be so accustomed to scripted and spontaneous communication, that reducing anxiety will translate into a more confident public speaker.
More Tips and Tricks
We could all benefit from being a fool a little more often – or, not take yourself so seriously all the time. However, if you fall anywhere on the fear spectrum for communicating – particularly with public speaking, simply telling yourself to act like a fool more often may not give you the confidence you need to tackle your fear. I’m here to tell you that you can overcome the anxiety you feel and become an effective speaker. When you do, your leadership skills will increase significantly and so will your career opportunities. The following are ten additional ways to calm your nerves for the next time you need to communicate in front of a group – in addition to your improv and acting practice:
- It’s Just an Extended Conversation. Think of your presentation as nothing more than an extended conversation. Rely on the familiarity of your subject matter to put you at ease. You’re the expert. Most people in the audience are not.
- Visualization is Key. Visualize what you want the experience to be prior to stepping on stage. Adjust accordingly if things don’t seem as you expected. Some of the best speeches I’ve seen went off-script and were improvised.
- Don’t Worry. Don’t worry about the things you can’t control. Unproductive worrying sucks the energy you need to stay focused on your energetic and compelling presentation.
- Keep Moving. Don’t stop for mistakes. The odds are good that no one will notice your error. Keep talking.
- Forgive and Forget. Don’t punish yourself for things you may have forgotten. The audience will never know what you meant to include.
- Watch Your Audience. Watch the audience and how they react. Remember that great speakers have a heightened sense of situational awareness. Make immediate adjustments in response to the room dynamic.
- Forget the Notes. Forget the notes you wanted to keep in your hand. They are a crutch and get in the way. They break your rhythm by looking down and up too much. Look at your audience…all the time.
- Eliminate Barriers. Eliminate any barriers. Stay as close to your audience as possible, as it is difficult for you to establish rapport from a distance. Rapport is what will help you feel more at ease with your audience.
- Loosen the Tension. Bend your knees and/or stretch your arms to loosen the tension. It is best to step on stage after the body is warmed up. This isn’t that different from exercise!
- Be Prepared. Don’t wait until the last minute to prepare for a presentation – never wing it! Feeling unprepared is a huge source of anxiety and adds to the preserved social scrutiny you fear. Being unprepared is inexcusable, unnecessary, and can cause serious self-inflicted harm.
Just a Final Thought
It would be easy to assume that those in the spotlight are comfortable with that attention and pressure. For some, that may be the case. But for others, those who maybe didn’t choose the spotlight, they can struggle just as you and me. In fact, King George VI of England was terrified speaking due to a speech impediment. In the 2011 movie, The King’s Speech, Colin Firth plays George VI, who, through no choice of his own, became the monarch of the United Kingdom when his brother abdicated the throne. It was 1939, and Great Britain had just declared war on Germany. The film centers on the relationship between the new king, a born stutterer, and his speech coach, played by Geoffrey Rush.
Part of King George’s responsibility was to speak to his subjects live through a new device called the radio. Terrified at the need to connect with his subjects, he would have preferred to live in the shadows. However, in wartime England, silence was not an option. Fearing the embarrassment and shame of his debilitating stutter, King George felt defeated from the onset. He was painfully aware that if he didn’t confront his fears, he would be crushed under the weight of his countrymen’s expectations.
I’ve seen a lot of King George in many of my coworkers, clients and students. While most don’t have the same physical challenges to overcome as George VI did, they often employ a handful of missteps, in terms of voice and body language that weaken their executive presence. When asked to present something forcefully and compellingly, they feel inadequate and not up to task. They can’t seem to shake off the nervous tension that erodes their confidence and inhibits their success.
However, like the finale of the movie, you can be successful and overcome what may seem like an impossible task. There are several strategies to employ in public speaking, each addressing what may be a personal weakness of yours. For George VI, the principles of speaking language with a musical approach – an emphasis on phrasing and pitch – helped him overcome his stutter to deliver a message when it was needed the most.
Put a name to your fear and work on your confidence with the tips I’ve provided. With diligence, you’ll be able to channel what feels like negative energy into delivering passionate and inspiring messages. Want to work on and conquer those fears in person? I’d love to work with your group at your next workshop, conference, or training. Learn more here.