• Banishing your public speaking nerves

Everyone has nerves when it comes to public speaking. Your confident colleague giving a marketing report, your line manager at a networking event, even your CEO delivering a keynote address at a conference. How these people manage their nerves is what makes their speech memorable, their product appealing and their message hit home. How many times have you had similar thoughts to these;

‘My nerves manifest as loads of adrenaline and fast heartbeat.’

‘Anxiety takes over, I get hot! and I’m almost paralysed’

‘I tense up and worry about making a fool of myself, and might rush things a little bit to just ‘get it done’

These sentiments are incredibly common among our clients before taking our Speakers Club course. It might therefore be comforting to know that public speaking anxiety is not your fault! According to author, Sarah Gershman, our fear of public speaking can be traced back to when humans perceived eyes watching us as an existential threat. As those eyes were likely predators, people were literally terrified of being eaten alive!

In response to that prehistoric reality, the amygdala, the part of our brain that helps us respond to danger, kicked in. Which means; our brains have transferred that ancient fear of being watched onto public speaking. In other words, public speaking anxiety is in our DNA!

Immediately, I can think of a dozen people that this cannot apply to in my personal and professional life, not to mention businesspeople, politicians and celebrities. How on earth do they make it look so effortless? The answer is surprisingly simple; like children learning how to rollerblade, they have learned how to manage their nerves. Here are some top tips to help you cope better.

Control your inner chimp

Famed sports psychiatrist Steve Peters developed a model, known as the Chimp Paradox, that helped him improve the performances of athletes from British Cycling, Liverpool F.C and the England National Team and is entirely applicable to public speaking anxiety. Peters splits the human psyche into three distinct roles; The Human (you – is associated with logical thinking and works with facts and truth), the Chimp (an independent emotional thinking machine, working with feelings and impressions and acts without your permission) and the Computer (a storage area for thoughts and behaviours).

Everyone has an inner Chimp. It thinks independently from you and it is not good or bad, it is just a Chimp.

When stress or anxiety strikes, in whatever form, the Chimp will always react first – in some instances it is incredibly useful; i.e making split-second emotional decisions that could actually save your life. The Chimp reacting first is entirely normal – although not always helpful, especially in public speaking. The key, according to Peters, is to develop a way to stop the Chimp from taking over.

This can be done in the following ways;

  • Recognise the Chimp is reacting
  • Slow down your thinking (to allow the Human to get involved)
  • Get a perspective
  • Have a plan.

Let’s see where the above methods could benefit your public speaking. If you are giving a presentation to senior management on projected sales growth for example, take a moment – say thirty minutes – before your speech to acknowledge your feelings. Is the human in control or the Chimp? Listen to the logic that reassures us that this isn’t a life or death situation, nobody is out to make fun of you and you will come out of it alive. Slow down your thinking and distil the core goal; senior management in that room are expecting to receive certain information on sales growth and you are the one who has control over how that message is given.

It’s not about you

It might come as a shock but by and large, the people in the audience are not there to watch you speak. Well, unless you are a minor celebrity in your field, perhaps they have come to watch you but the odds are, in your workplace, you are simply the vessel carrying and relaying the information. In a rather arrogant way, we assume that the audience are focused on us as individuals and that of course increases our levels of anxiety as we assume that we’re being judged.

As author, Seth Godin asserts, ‘The members of the audience are interested in themselves. The audience wants to know what they can use, what they can learn, or at the very least, how they can be entertained’. The topic of the talk isn’t you, the topic of the talk is the audience, and specifically, how they can use your experience and knowledge to achieve their objectives.

Once you understand this concept, you will be able to focus on what is actually happening in the moment; You are not being judged, it is the value of what you are bringing to the audience is being judged. Practice this when preparing your next speech; who are my audience, what are their needs and what content am I going to share with them that they will find useful? This immediately takes away so much pressure from you, the individual.

Learn more about delivering a rich, interesting and useful speech with our article on how to give a TED talk.

FOPO (Fear of Other People’s Opinions)

Most of us will be aware of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) but a less commonly acknowledged (although not less commonly felt) cause of anxiety, especially in public speaking comes from our fear of what other people think about us.

U.S psychologist Michael Gervais has worked with some of the best athletes in the world. In the season the Seattle Seahawks won the Superbowl in 2014, their coach, Pete Carroll credited Gervais’ techniques as an integral factor behind the team’s success. Gervais argues that FOPO has become ‘an irrational and unproductive obsession in the modern world, and its negative effects reach far beyond performance’.

It stands to reason; when you pay increasingly less attention to what makes you unique – your talents, beliefs, and values and start aligning to what others might think – you harm your potential. You start playing it safe because you’re afraid of what will happen on the other side of the criticism. This includes the fear of being ridiculed. You’re less likely to stand up for your own view point, less likely to raise your hand when you can’t control the outcome, less likely to go for that promotion because you won’t think you’re qualified.

According to Gervais, the best way to combat this is by developing a keener sense of who you are. If you are someone who identifies with FOPO, try the following steps;

  • When I’m at my best, what beliefs lie just beneath the surface of my thoughts and actions?
  • Who are people that demonstrate characteristics and qualities that are in alignment with mine?
  • What are those qualities?
  • What are your favourite quotes? Your favourite words?

After answering these questions, circle the words that stand out to you. Then, try to come up with a phrase or sentence that ties up with who you are and how you want to live your life. Share the draft with a family member or close friend, ask for advice, and hone your philosophy. Then commit it to memory and return to it daily. It is a surefire way to help you better control your public speaking anxiety.

Here’s an article with more tips overcoming the fear of public speaking.

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