Some presenters make it look so easy. They don’t seem to tremble, fumble or sweat. So why do others feel like they are about to fall apart in front of their audience?
Research compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that 74 percent of the population fears public speaking. John R. Montopoli, Co-founder of the National Social Anxiety Center, adds: “The fear of public speaking is the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders, or heights. . . The underlying fear is judgment or negative evaluation by others.”
If you harbor this concern, know that this is fixable. Dr. Craig N. Sawchuk, Associate Professor of Psychology at the Mayo Clinic, assures that “with preparation and persistence, you can overcome your fear.”
Examine Your Fear
Think about presentations you’ve delivered. How did you feel before and after? Is there a particular memory that haunts you?
Ita Olsen, renowned speech language pathologist, author, communications expert and founder of Convey Clearly, explains that public speaking fears may be rooted in mistaken assumptions: “If you give the wrong answer when the teacher asks a question, and they tell you, ‘No’ and look around for someone with the right answer, that’s some negative feedback right there. If I’m not right, I’m a big loser. I’m not going to answer anymore because there’s a chance I could be wrong and I can’t go through that humiliation.”
Clearly, getting an answer wrong doesn’t mean that the student is a loser, but if he or she internalizes it that way and then hesitates to contribute in the future, it can set the stage for anxiety, which impedes communication.
Olsen explains: “Our brains haven’t evolved enough yet to communicate clearly and persuasively in high-anxiety situations. . . Your prefrontal cortex shuts down when you feel stress. That’s why you can walk away from a stressful communicative encounter and one hour or one week later think: ‘Oh my gosh I know what I should’ve said!’ You have the answers in your brain, you just don’t have access to them during anxiety-ridden situations.”
Anticipate that you will need to care for yourself emotionally before and during your presentation, as well as prepare and practice so that you know your subject matter well enough that you go on autopilot once you get rolling. Keep things simple with bullet points or an outline, so that you don’t have complicated papers or note cards to juggle when you’re at the podium.
Aim to connect with your audience. Keep in mind that many of them probably share your public speaking anxiety. Imagine that rather than silently judging you, which is at the root of this anxiety, that they are silently rooting for you.
Olsen’s advice: “Just think about the information that you have that your audience needs. In doing that you’ll realize that it’s not about you after all. It’s just about them. If you feel really motivated about helping others in delivering your message, it’ll help you take the focus off yourself. That results in your delivering powerful and persuasive message.”
Part of what makes this unnerving is the physical reactions that can feel so uncontrollable — the sweating, shaky hands, shaky voice. Olsen explains: “There’s a vicious cycle involved in anxiety over public speaking. . . ‘People are gonna see how nervous I am! Now I’m even more nervous!’”
Olsen notes that these fight-or-flight responses arise because the situation is high stakes. Olsen explains, for example, that “tension in your throat closes up your throat and causes you to not let the words out.”
Her advice: “What we have to do is use a very relaxed musculature when we communicate.”
Olsen recommends using shoulder and head rolls to relax. She also emphasizes the importance of relaxing the facial muscles and calming down with deep, abdominal breathing.
Olsen’s approach involves understanding how tension invades your body and teaching yourself to disperse it. She explains: “I can’t promise that tension will not continue to try to manifest into your musculature, but I can tell you that you’ll be able to get rid of it and refract it immediately. That’s the skill.”
Olsen assures: “every great speaker or communicator has worked on it to some degree” — and you can do it too.