Does the idea of speaking in public fill you with fear? If so, you’re in the majority says Stephanie Davies
According to the National Institute of Mental Health up to 75% of people have a phobia of public speaking, also known as Glossophobia. It doesn’t matter how many times you practice; as soon as you get in front of an audience, your voice starts shaking, your mind goes blank; you forget your own name, your face and neck go red and you suddenly have an over powering urge to go to the toilet.
It can happen when presenting formally or any time when asked to speak in front of others: team meetings, presenting to clients, even waiting for your turn as you go around the table introducing yourself at a training day. Everyone else seems to have come prepared with a great story, but the closer they get to you, suddenly you start thinking ‘why has my life been so dull?’ as the presenter quirkily says – “just say your name and something interesting about yourself” your mind goes completely blank.
You’re not on your own. Public speaking is one of the most common phobias and there is something you can do about it.
1. Challenge your thoughts
We all have an internal voice, and sometimes it becomes really loud with negative comments. Neuroscience tells us that our internal voice can actually wire the brain and cause certain behaviours. So if your internal dialogue is unhelpfully telling you that you’re going to die during the next presentation and urging you to run away fast then your brain will associate public speaking as a real threat, causing your fight or flight response to kick in. You must over ride your amygdala (emotional auto-response that causes fight or flight) by getting your rational brain to kick in. Talk to your amygdala and tell yourself the situation is not a threat. Even challenge the internal dialogue and recognise in the moment it’s a feeling driving the anxiety rather than reality itself.
2. Have a mantra
Following on from the above, develop a mantra to really challenge the negative dialogue. Years ago I was very lucky to be inspired by a well-known comedian who told me his mantra before he went on stage. He would say over and over to himself “I am a funny F&*ker, I am a funny F&*ker.” It was a mantra I adopted during my comedy years and I have continued to use it. It makes me chuckle and anchors my thoughts. Try developing your own and practice it to yourself over and over.
3. You know best
One of the things people report get most nervous about, is forgetting what you are going to say. The best thing to remember is that no-one knows your ‘script’ apart from you. This means if you miss something out or get a bit back to front, no one will know unless you tell them. Remember you know best what comes next as you wrote it. As long as you say it with enough confidence you can convince people it was always meant to be said like that.
4. Power pose
How you stand and hold yourself will impact greatly on how you feel, and how others feel about you. Practice “power posing”. Amy Cuddy ,a professor and researcher at Harvard University, carried out an experiment with Dana Carney and Andy Yap (UC-Berkeley) on how non-verbal expressions of power (i.e. expansive, open, space-occupying postures) affect people’s feelings, behaviours, and hormone levels. In particular, they claimed that adopting body postures associated with dominance and power (“power posing”), for as little as two minutes can increase testosterone, decrease cortisol, increase appetite for risk, and cause better performance in job interviews. This was widely reported in popular media. Simply put: if you act powerfully, you will begin to think powerfully. Just watch Amy’sTED talk for further information.
You’ll be surprised how many people forget this simple thing!
Breathing is what we do every day and we take it for granted that it just happens. However when we’re nervous, scared or anxious our breathing can become quick and short. Taking in deep breaths and counting as you do for five seconds, holding the breath for five seconds and breathing out again for five seconds will slow your heart rate down and instantly calm you. Catch how you’re standing with how you’re breathing. Your brain will recognise these behaviours and interpret them as feeling calm.
6. Think happy thoughts and memories – Distract your mind
The ability to be in control of your thoughts is a great trick to have. When we are in a heightened state of reaction of any kind, our thoughts tend to get hi-jacked by our feelings. Your feelings are driving irrational thoughts and your imagination starts to run wild, filling in all kinds of possibilities of what might happen. Your mind will automatically jump to negative thoughts if you’re feeling stressed. It does this to protect you from dangers and alert you to any potential hazards. The problem with this is that it just heightens our fear of threat. Use your imagination in a positive way. Allow yourself to think of memories of things that made you happy, relaxed, or even something that made you laugh. The more you allow these thoughts into your mind the more you are likely to relax and be diverted from negative thoughts. Write down as many different memories as you can, include things that have made you laugh or smile. Use these as happiness or laughter triggers when you need them most.
7. Practice, practice, practice
It’s the oldest advice, and the most important. Don’t underestimate the power of practicing. Practice without a script, with a script, in front of a mirror, by yourself, with a friend. Recite what you’re going to say until it sits in the back of your mind like an unconscious script that can be delivered in any which way and form.
8. Write a set list
This is a great old comedy trick. Trying to remember a script can be a challenge and comes across as unnatural. The best thing to do is to write 10-15 words that represent your presentation that you can remember. Link the words together through a story, using a memory technique called linking. Stories are a great way to memorise information as they create more meaning and you’re more likely to be remembered too. Once you have your set list, try to remember the words in order, and backwards. This way you are more likely to create a connection to the information in your long term memory. A set list is also easier than remembering a script and will look and sound more natural. If you need to remember facts and figures use tricks like planting them in the audience under chairs in envelopes. This way you get audience participation and you’ll get your facts and figures right!
Smiling can greatly improve your mood and reduce stress. Even when “fake smiling”, you still get the same results. Smiling doesn’t just benefit you on the inside, it also works to your advantage from the outside. A study at Penn State University found that people who smile are more likeable, perceived as more courteous, and even more competent. This is reason enough to smile at every person you potentially want to do business with! Lifting those facial muscles into a smile is also contagious; if you smile and they smile, everyone in the room becomes a little happier. So why is a smile so powerful? It all comes down to how smiling can change your brain. When you smile, your brain is aware of the activity and actually keeps track of it. The more you smile, the more effective you are at breaking the brain’s natural tendency to think negatively. If you smile often enough, you end up rewiring your brain to make positive patterns more often than it does negative ones.
10. Keep going
Do as many presentations as you can, speak as often as you get the chance to in public, and speak out at events. You need to train your brain into thinking that doing this behaviour is easy and non-threatening and, like everything else, the more you do it the better you’ll get. There’s no such thing as natural presenters or speakers, or natural at anything. Science and neuroscience tells us the more you do something the better you get and the easier it gets, it is that simple!