It’s quite bizarre that public speaking is such a terrifying thing. Most of the other fears we suffer are rational because they’re dangerous and should probably be avoided like death, heights, and cats. Speaking to groups is a strange fear because it is something that, when done well, will improve almost every aspect of your life. A great speaker will always be destined for greater successes (personal, romantic and professional) when compared with someone who doesn’t speak to groups at all.
So, stop being scared! If you wait until you’re not, you never will.
Here are some tips to overcome your fear of public speaking.
1. Do it more often:
The more you do something scary, the easier it becomes. When speaking to a group of people, your body will probably be dumping adrenaline into the blood and you’ll feel your face flush, you will hear your heartbeat pounding against your throat as you suck raspy gasps of air, your mouth will go dry and you will struggle to corral your thoughts. It’s natural, there are some pretty good evolutionary reasons why talking to a group of people (or confronting groups of strangers) should be scary. I also believe that evolution imbued us with a fear of public speaking so we can self-select leaders who are able to control their emotions.
But, our bodies are remarkable – and adapt to recurring stressful situations quite quickly. The more frequently you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel. You’ll get less of an jolt of adrenaline and your body will produce less and less cortisol (the so-called ‘stress hormone). So, rather than avoiding speaking to groups and bricking in when you absolutely have to, seek out opportunities to speak in public (or at least don’t shy from them), and you’ll very quickly become better at it.
There is no shortcut for experience.
That being said, you may be pleased to read on and find there are some shortcuts to confidence and calmness.
2. Adjust your self-talk:
If you have patterns of negative self talk, you’re going to have to change them. I’ll show you why: Get a bottle of water, a cup and a towel. Try pouring the water from the bottle into the cup from two feet above it while thinking to yourself “Do not spill it all over the table. Do not make a mess.” You will make a mess. Clean it up. Now try pouring the water again while thinking “Pour all of the water neatly into the cup” – if you are like most people, there will be a lot less on the table and more in the cup when you’re focusing on what you do want.
I had a client the other day who said “I feel like I’m going to make an idiot of myself every time I talk” – what kind of speech will come from a mind that is busy thinking those thoughts?
Think of proactive, future paced, positive things to say to yourself when you talk. Focus on your content, your audience and your desired outcome. Find ways to say to yourself (and believe): “I’m going to feel comfortable. I’m going to be clear, persuasive and entertaining” – say it out loud to yourself if you have to.
Developing helpful self-talk is often a lifelong challenge, and sometimes coaching can help. Or…
3. Find your placebos:
The placebo effect is the most powerful tool you have at your disposal when public speaking.
Placebos are not ‘fooling yourself’ – they are you using your body’s natural resources. Just as anxiety is a spiralling pattern of negative ideas, you can set and maintain triggers for positive ones that will convince you you’re going to speak well and enjoy it.
I once coached a client who had a fear of speaking in public and meeting new groups. He was an artist who often needed to meet dealers and talk at his exhibitions, so his anxiety with groups was a severe disability in his professional life (as it is for most people). He was also quite a spiritual chap, and depsite the fact that I’m a skeptic, I talked about energy paths that flow around the body, and how holding his left elbow with his right hand would temporarily disrupt the flow of his anxious energy and allow a calming, confident energy to flow in its place.
Despite the fact that what I was saying was utter baloney, his belief was enough to disrupt the old pattern. After letting him squeeze his elbow all the time and experience feeling calm with groups, I came clean and told him I’d made it up. He later told me that the ritual of doing it had become so powerful that despite knowing it was hogwash, he still found squeezing his elbow to be particularly useful. (In NLP this is called ‘anchoring‘)
Invent for yourself a ritual that will allow you to feel comfortable and confident, while thinking these useful thoughts. For some people, it can be their preparation process, but I’d suggest you use something small and immediate that you can still have at your disposal even when you haven’t been given an opportunity to prepare.
As far as rituals go, the next exercise is a bloody useful one:
I’ve written a lot about breathing – and will write a lot more. Breathing well is the most important part of anything to do with presentation. It will make you sound good, and a small breathing ritual will actually make you calmer – so when used as your placebo, both will be infinitely more effective.
Firstly: Do not take big deep breaths. If you do, you’re actually likely to disturb the natural pH balance of your blood and feel more stressed as a result. This is how anxiety or asthma attacks happen: Too much breathing. Try taking a bunch of deep breaths right now, huffing and puffing through your mouth and into your chest. You’ll instantly start to feel a bit lightheaded, and if you were under any kind of stress, you’d start to freak right the hell out. Your brain will actually be starved of oxygen (strangely breathing too much oxygen will have the effect of stopping it getting to the brain).
Try this instead: Hold your belt and put your thumb on your belly. Draw long, slow breaths through the nose only. Breathe into the lower lobes of your lungs, way down into your belly, feeling it expand. Your chest shouldn’t even move. Breathe in for 4 counts and out for 6. Slower and lower. Notice the difference? This way of breathing will calm you, and as you speak from this place, deep in your gut, you will also exude a sense of power and calmness as you talk. Thoughts will come to mind more easily, and you’ll find it easier to be the best version of yourself.
5. Be yourself:
I listen to many people who have a sort of professional ‘presenter mode’ they get into when they’re talking. It’s crap. Don’t do it. People in the audience want to connect with you, and the more personable you are, the more easily their empathic system will lock in on yours. We have neurons in the brain that are called ‘mirror neurons’ that mimic the mental processes of someone we’re in rapport with. Being in a ‘presenter mode’ will be disconnected from them (and yourself) and deny them the opportunity to empathise with you. As they disconnect, your mirror neurons will match their disconnect. Boredom ensues.
Connect with your audience. Speak to each one of them, like you’re speaking to just that one person at a time. It’ll allow you to see them as a room full of individuals (allowing you to calm down and get on with it), and them to see you as a real person. You’ll all relax and start getting along – and that’s when the magic happens. They will begin to actively want you to succeed. They’ll be more supportive of your suggestions, and they will start looking for ways to align their goals with yours.
6. Engage with your audience:
If you know people in the audience, connect with them as you start. Get them to introduce themselves, if necessary. As you draw more people into the action of what’s happening, everyone will become more involved. Use collective terms, talking about what “we’ve” done, rather than just your own achievements or experiences. The act of including them will allow you to relax, and they will enjoy themselves.
For presentations, rather than waiting to the end invite them to ask questions during the talk. It’ll allow you to connect with them – and you can refer back to points made earlier: “As Jack pointed out…” To really do this well, you must be willing to remain flexible, and if necessary, rewrite your script as you speak it. It will make your audience feel like they are participating rather than just sitting and watching. They will also feel invested in the outcome. People who are presented with a solution will often nitpick and find flaws in it, whereas people who feel they’ve constructed an answer will be far more inclined to support it.
7. …And have fun!
Don’t try to do it right, do it well. We enjoy watching people who enjoy public speaking, that’s why stand up comics or passionate TED talkers are such a joy to watch. Find a passion about what you’re saying and expose that, infect other people with your enthusiasm. It will be there – if you look for it. If you’re passionate, you’ll be entertaining, and if you’re doing that, you’re doing it well.