A fear of public speaking is something we learn – not something we are born with. So, we can equally learn to quash the debilitating nerves and harness the good nerves – the ones that give us positive energy and presence on stage. To achieve this, we need to re-programme our mindset and make friends with our nerves.
- Examine your excuses
What are the emotional barriers that you put up to convince yourself that you can’t speak in public? Try making a list of all your excuses. Once we know what our fears are, we’re in position to confront them head-on.
Interrogate them. Deconstruct them. Render them powerless and clear our head of negative thoughts. Think about what you would say to a friend or a child presenting you with these excuses. What would you say to them? Would it have something to do with self-belief, visualising successful outcomes or some other positive advice?
- The Chimp vs. the Human brain
According to psychiatrist Steve Peters who wrote The Chimp Paradox, we can learn to manage stress positively. He talks about the Human part of our brain that works with logic and reason and the Chimp that makes snap judgments based on emotions and gut instinct. They can work independently or together. In public speaking, we need them to work together.
As public speakers who are stressed or nervous, our Chimp will always react first. To keep us safe it will go into fight, flight or freeze mode. This is normal, but it is not what you need for a strong performance and quick thinking.
One solution is to programme your brain with positive speaking associations. This reinforces a sense of safety that does not need the intervention of the Chimp. What does this mean in practice? In any public-speaking environment, arrive early. Familiarise yourself with the speaking area so that you feel comfortable. Introduce yourself to members of the audience, so you see friendly faces from the stage. Register the applause. Give yourself a pat on the back for a speech well delivered. Once you are more comfortable and your Chimp is no longer in control, your ability to reason and think on your feet will grow, while your Chimp will help bring energy and enthusiasm to your speech.
- Don’t aim for perfection
We all make mistakes, so as a perfectionist, failure lurks around every corner.
The audience is unlikely to know if you make a mistake unless you tell them; they do not know what you had planned to say and, therefore, won’t miss any bits you may forget.
Instead, give yourself permission to be less than perfect. Set yourself challenging, yet achievable, standards and give yourself a pat on the back when you’ve spoken. Focus on what you did well, savour the glory and note ways in which you can be even better next time. Great speeches do not happen overnight. They are an iterative process of crafting and honing content, practicing delivery and seeking feedback.
- Nerves are normal
What is nervousness? It is energy; it is what we experience when the adrenaline is flowing. And adrenaline is our friend, giving us energy and presence on stage. It helps us demonstrate our enthusiasm and passion for our subject, it helps us engage with our audience and generate a real sense of fun and excitement.
Before the adrenaline kicks in, we need to be well prepared and focused on what will go right, not what could go wrong. Give yourself the pre-match pep talk – I’m ready, this is going to be fun, etc. Once the adrenaline surges, we need to make it help us. Some people find it helpful to move, run on the spot, jump up and down. Breathe slowly and deeply. Take to the stage and pause. Take a deep breath and start to connect with your audience with your attention-grabbing opening. After your speech, enjoy the surge of wellbeing you get from your success.
There will always be someone on the phone, yawning or looking distracted. This is not personal. Instead, focus on the majority of people in your audience who are with you, who are alert and attentive, the people who are smiling, nodding and appreciating what you have to say. Connect with these interested people by sharing relevant stories and ideas in a way that is meaningful to them and you will feel happier and more relaxed on stage.
Reprogramming your mindset won’t happen overnight, but continuous speaking practice and a permanent (post-it) ‘note to self’ about connection (not perfection), your new friends in the audience will set you on the road to more enjoyable speaking experiences.
Lyn Roseaman is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. To find your local club: www.toastmasters.org Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.