News & Expert Interviews

Friday, August 3, 2007

Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety

public speaking coach Lisa BraithwaitePersonal coach, Lisa Braithwaite, works with individuals to uncover their challenges and build their strengths in presenting themselves confidently as speakers.

1) How common is public speaking anxiety?
Public speaking anxiety is very common, although in varying degrees. Some people are so paralyzed by their anxiety that they avoid every opportunity

to speak, to the point of hindering their own career advancement. Others are anxious every time they speak, but find that a little bit of anxiety is helpful during presentations. Even experienced performers and celebrities suffer anxiety or "stage fright" before they perform, speak or sing.

Public speaking anxiety is not the same as public speaking phobia, however. People with fear of public speaking which is severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of social phobia make up a very small part of the population, between 3% and 13%. This is important to note, because people tend to psych themselves out of getting help for their anxiety, believing that it will be too difficult to resolve, and that's just not true for most people.

If public speaking anxiety can be learned, it can also be unlearned.

2) What are the root causes of this anxiety? Are they different for everyone?
Each individual fears one thing or another: rejection, being judged, losing one's place, being deemed an impostor, the audience noticing one's nervousness, making mistakes, being boring - and some people are just plain uncomfortable with being the center of attention. Some people have had experiences of embarrassment in public speaking situations; some have witnessed it in others, and this was enough to trigger anxiety. Each person has her/his own issues to overcome, but most are common to all who suffer from anxiety.

3) What mistakes do people make that add to their anxiety level before a speaking engagement?
The biggest mistake a speaker makes is to focus on her own anxiety! When a speaker keeps thinking about how nervous she is, and keeps dwelling on possible mistakes or "what ifs," she is only increasing her anxiety. Mental exercises like visualization and re-framing, and physical relaxation exercises are critical to turning off the negative self-talk that goes on in speakers' heads.

4) How important is rehearsing your speech, in terms of lowering your anxiety level?
Rehearsing a speech is important, but there's a fine line between rehearsing and over-rehearsing. I rehearse a presentation several times before the final event, but I always allow a day in between my rehearsals, to allow the content and presentation structure to seep into my subconscious mind a little bit. Over-rehearsing causes a presenter to come across as robotic or mechanical, especially when the presentation is memorized word-for-word.

I recommend memorizing a strong opening and closing, so you know exactly what you're going to say at the beginning and end and how you're going to say it. The rest of the presentation should not be memorized or overly rehearsed, because each audience brings their own personality to the talk, and you want to be flexible enough to go with the flow.

5) What do you do if you don't have time to prepare a speech, or if you are expected to speak off the cuff?
If you're asked to speak at the last minute, write out some notes. Take a moment to think about your audience and what you want to say, and make some quick bullet points, no more than three so you don't overwhelm yourself.

Take the notes with you when you speak; because you only have a couple of bullet points, you won't be tempted to stare at the paper or note cards (or napkin!) the whole time you're speaking and neglect to make eye contact with your audience. You may want to write out your first sentence and memorize it, so that you can start off your remarks with an air of confidence.

Take a moment to compose yourself; if you can get away, go to the restroom for some privacy. Breathe deeply and do some neck rolls and stretches to get the blood flowing. Clench and unclench your hands and feet a few times if you're sitting at a table and your hands and feet are hidden. And ideally, you will always anticipate being asked to speak in certain situations, and won't be caught off guard.

6) What general tips do you have to lower your anxiety before a public speaking event?
a) The best thing a speaker can do to reduce anxiety is to focus on the audience's needs. What's in it for them? What are they hoping to learn? How can you best serve them? When you start putting the audience's needs ahead of your own concerns, you will automatically start feeling more comfortable.

You can do this by researching your audience in advance. How many people will be there? What's their demographic information? How much do they know about your topic? You can also visit the space where you'll be speaking, to get a feel for the size, layout and dynamics of the room, any equipment you'll need, and any noises, smells or temperature issues that may affect the presentation. This adds to your overall level of preparation, which in turn reduces anxiety.

b) I also recommend incorporating interaction with the audience. Ask questions and write down their answers on a flip chart for later reference. Ask the audience members to disclose a piece of information with their neighbor that relates to your topic, then have people volunteer to share with the whole group. Break the audience into groups and give them an activity to complete in a short amount of time. Then have each group pick one person to talk about the results.

Interacting with the audience serves several purposes:
  • It takes the pressure off of you to be the sole source of information
  • It helps you learn where the audience is in their knowledge of your topic so you can customize your talk for them (and feel more prepared)
  • It allows the audience to share their own lifetime of experience and knowledge, bringing an essence of teamwork to the presentation
  • It gives you and the audience a mental break from straight lecture
  • It allows them to process what you've been talking about
  • It shakes things up a bit, adding discussion, movement and fun to the proceedings.

c) Finally, I recommend re-framing the way you see your audience. Visualize yourself giving a successful presentation, and start thinking of the audience as an ally, not an enemy. The audience wants you to succeed. They hope to learn something new, maybe even be entertained. They are certainly not hoping you fall on your face and forget your entire speech. They are rooting for you. Incorporate this perception of the audience into your visualization before you give your presentation.

These three things, together with careful preparation and practice, will guarantee reduced anxiety over time.

7) Is there anything good about feeling anxious before public speaking?
There are different opinions on this in the public speaking community, but my opinion is that a little anxiety is beneficial. Too much anxiety can hinder performance, so some stretching, breathing and relaxation exercises are still helpful. But there's no need to completely eradicate nervousness.

Just as an athlete uses that adrenaline rush before a competition to run faster, jump higher or throw farther, a speaker can use the adrenaline before a presentation to provide a helpful jolt of energy and enthusiasm.

Another analogy is that of riding a roller coaster. Fear and excitement are intertwined when we ride a roller coaster. Our brain logically knows that we aren't in danger; otherwise we would never get on the ride in the first place. We scream and we laugh, all at the same time. At the end, we experience relief and exhaustion, but our energy is high.

A little bit of anxiety propels a speaker to give her best performance. It gives a speaker a sense of excitement, an edginess, a sparkle in her eye.

Related Articles:
Reduce Your Fear of Public Speaking by Lisa Braithwaite
Getting Over Your Last Minute Fear of Public Speaking by Patricia Fripp
Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking by Steve Kaye

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