A Step-by-Step Process To Overcome Public Speaking Anxiety
You may successfully scrape by life without having to do any formal speaking. However, it will catch up with you eventually, because much of is not speaking in front of a packed auditorium.
It can include the following scenarios:
- Your family member gets sick and you have to attend a multidisciplinary meeting to advocate on their behalf for the type of care they receive.
- Your best friend hits a milestone birthday and you want to give a little .
- You have to present your work in order to receive full marks in a course.
- You feel strongly about a social issue in your town, and you want your voice to be heard at a local meeting.
- You attend a monthly work meeting with all the regional staff and are expected to take your turn in chairing.
What is ?
is the of , whether it be in front of a few people or huge groups. It’s a skill that will show up time and time again and you may find yourself not growing in your career or personal life if you consistently steer clear of any .
can range from about speaking to dropping out of higher education because the idea of giving a is so repulsive.
At the heart of the is discomfort and your level of discomfort may depend on many factors, such as:
- Who the is (and how well they know your subject)
- How big the is
- How well you know the subject
- How prepared you feel
- Where you will speak
- How much is riding on the speaking event ie., does your job depend upon it?
is uncomfortable for most people, and that may never disappear no matter how much you .
But it is possible to become comfortable with that feeling of discomfort.
Let’s use a cognitive behavioral (CBT) lens to look at how you can get more comfortable.
What is CBT?
First developed by Beck in the 1960’s to treat depression, cognitive behavioral therapy is a widely researched psychological technique that has been shown to be effective across many clinical and non-clinical populations.
It is a structured approach that focuses on how your thoughts, emotions and behaviors all interact to maintain a problem and how they can be altered to improve a problem. This article will look at the three main elements of CBT for :
- Techniques to reduce physical sensations of
- Identifying unhelpful thoughts and increase balanced thinking
- Identify a goal and create a graded exposure to
Excessive physical arousal
When I worked as a Clinical Psychologist I loved working therapeutically with clients, but I dreaded our monthly psychology departmental meetings. During those meetings I suffered from . I wanted to participate and have my voice heard but as I prepared to find a quiet moment to speak my heart would beat out of my chest, I would blush, stumble over my words, have sweaty palms and most of the time, fail to speak up at all. I would leave the meeting feeling like a complete failure.
Here I was, helping my clients find their voice and helping them overcome clinical depression or , but I was too scared to speak up in a meeting.
Did you notice the physical sensations of may include: I mentioned above? Symptoms of that show up in
- Rapid heartbeat (might feel like it’s pounding)
- Sweating, feeling hot
- Blushing/ hot flushes
- Trembling voice
- Shaking, tremors or twitches
- Digestive upset (needing the bathroom or feeling nauseous)
- Stomach cramps
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle tension
- Insomnia (the days leading up to the speaking event)
- Lack of focus
- Dry mouth
These symptoms are short-lived but they can really get in the way of saying what you want in the best possible way. And it feels really uncomfortable.
Your body responds to in this anxious way because your mind truly believes you are under threat.
So your body prepares you to either fight to the death or to run away from the danger by releasing a flood of hormones into your body. This happens quickly, so you may notice the before you’ve even consciously thought about opening your mouth to speak.
All of the symptoms of can be explained by the preparations your body is making to face the threat. For example, your muscles tense up because your body is preparing to either fight or run. Your digestive system plays up because your body doesn’t need to think about food while it’s under threat.
In a truly threatening life or death situation, we use up these excess hormones. But when there is no opportunity to release the hormones we end up with excess and annoying symptoms.
So here are a few relaxation techniques to help alleviate the physical sensations of . Remember, even seasoned speakers still get butterflies in their stomach. What you’re aiming to do, is to get the butterflies to fly in formation, so they don’t get in the way of your performance.
exercises are the simplest way you can help yourself feel less anxious, but it’s often something we forget to do in the moment. When you slow down your it sends a signal to your brain that you are safe.
Even better, if you can elongate the exhale, you’ll feel calmer much quicker.
This is easy to remember in the moments leading up to … breath in for a count of four … and exhale for six counts. With , you can learn to speak only on your exhale so you have a calmer voice.
Relaxing your body can help you to prepare for . Notice the tight spots in your body, where tends to linger. Jaw, shoulders and stomach are all hotspots. And take your time to consciously relax each tight area. Part your teeth ever so slightly and lower your jaw. Drop your shoulders down away from your ears. And let your stomach hang out, you’ll be surprised at how much tension you’re holding on to.
The way you hold yourself has a major impact on your for two reasons. Establishing an open posture with shoulders down and back and spine straight allows you to breathe fully, ensuring that you can get a calming breath when you need it.
Secondly, having good posture sends an unconscious signal to yourself that you are confident and in a safe place. (I have a quick tip for instantly improving your posture).
Negative Automatic Thoughts
Happiness comes from within and suffering comes from within. And the ‘within’ is your mind and the thoughts and self-talk you engage in about yourself.
Thoughts are what you are internally saying about a situation, yourself or other people. When approaching it might look something like this:
“speaking at a university means I’ll be questioned about my education and qualifications”.
“I am going to say something stupid and everyone will laugh at me”.
“the isn’t looking at me, they’re bored. They expected a much more engaging “.
These negative thinking patterns can interfere with giving a good . They undermine your abilities and overestimate how bad a situation will be. These thoughts can occur before, during or even after .
In CBT, a therapist can help you identify and then develop more balanced thoughts, so you’re less likely to anticipate a terrifying situation. In DBT, another type of CBT, there is a balance between accepting and changing these thoughts.
Identifying your thoughts about public speaking
Although the chatter of your mind goes on all the time, as Thich Nhat Hahn calls “non-stop thinking – NST”. We often don’t pay it much attention. We just let it carry on and it controls our behavior without us realizing.
If you pay attention to your thoughts, it won’t make them stronger. In fact, quite the opposite happens. You’ll start to notice how your thoughts are influencing you and how biased and untrue the thoughts are.
Keep a log of your thoughts. What are they about? People noticing your ? Write them down, then say to yourself “I’m having the thought that … (complete the sentence with your thought.
For example, “I’m having the thought … that the will notice I’m sweating, so I should keep my arms down while talking.”
“I’m having the thought that I’m not as important as the other speakers so the won’t pay attention to what I say”.
Affirmations for public speaking
An affirmation can help to interrupt your usual pattern of .
If you have a of , you likely have frequent about stumbling over your words, the booing or perhaps tripping up on . Those thoughts can stop you from giving presentations. Using positive affirmations can help to interrupt those thoughts to allow you to take action, get your message out and build up your .
Even if you don’t believe the positive affirmations yet, they make room for the possibility that there are different facts other than your automatic thoughts.
An example of an affirmation for will depend on what you find difficult, but here are some examples:
I have an important message to deliver which will help someone in the .
I speak clearly and confidently.
I am excited to speak in front of an .
I can make people laugh and enjoy learning.
Being kinder to yourself
Calm those with kind self-talk. Like you would talk to a child or a good friend. In comparison to self-critical thoughts, kind words make you feel safe and more confident. (You might want to read my blog post about how to be less negative).
Being kind to yourself does not mean you ignore the negative self-talk, it means you accept yourself and all your feelings. You accept that you are nervous, but being critical of yourself does nothing to stop the .
If you’ve ever had a critical teacher or parent in your life, you’ll know that your performance suffers as a result of the criticism. In comparison with a teacher who doesn’t get disappointed at your failure, you’re much more likely to try again.
Kind self-talk might sound like this:
“I accept that I feel nervous, it’s a normal reaction to speaking in. But I can cope with the distress I feel because it will soon pass and I want to get my message across”.
If you , you already experience the intense urge to avoid speaking in front of an . As soon as you decide not to speak or give a , the goes away. Avoiding the releases dopamine and you feel safe again. It’s a reward that makes avoidance more likely in the future.
But did you know, that if you stay and give the anyway, the will still recede? Except we don’t stay around long enough to test this theory.
So, to make avoidance less appealing what can you do to feel the and do it anyway?
Set a public speaking goal
What is one thing, with regard to , you would like to achieve in the next few weeks?
Your definition of success will be different from anyone else, so be specific about your goal. It might be a huge achievement if you can speak up at a departmental meeting of five people or success might mean doing a one-off at a conference in front of 500 peers.
Only you can decide.
Why are you wanting to overcome your ? What are the deeper reasons that will keep you motivated through the tough times?
What is your idea of success? How will you know when you’ve achieved it? How can you measure it?
When you’ve decided on your main goal, write it down, or if you like, create a picture of your desired outcome. You can choose to draw, paint or make a collage from magazine photographs or use a graphic design computer program. The success plan picture will show you in your ideal scene with your goal realized and any other items that will support you in feeling your best. It is important to include yourself in the success plan.
Build your own plan of action
The only way you can overcome your is to get in front of other people and talking. But, because you do this in your own time and only within your comfort zone, one step at a time, it’s not such a scary process. Working your way backwards from your ultimate goal, start creating situations that will lead you to that goal. Ask yourself,
“Based on that goal, what’s the ONE THING I would need to already have done to be able to reach my goal?”
And then consequently ask yourself:
“And based on THAT STEP, what’s the ONE THING I would need to have done in order to be on track?”
Keep going, asking yourself this same question over and over until you have various scenarios, which when you put them all in order will lead you to your ultimate goal. It is important that you create your own individual game-plan. Even if you have a of that seems the same as another , the route you choose will be dependent on what goal you are trying to achieve. It is your own personal plan of action.
Now it’s time to start exposing yourself to the feared situation gradually. Yes, it’s time to p speaking in front of an
Create an Alter Ego
In The Ego Effect, a book by Todd Herman, he suggests that you can improve your life by using an alter ego, a secret identity that you assume when you have a difficult situation come up. So, find a celebrity, TV character or historical figure that you identify with and ask yourself what would they do to be brave enough to speak in ?
This is a great idea when you are trying to first overcome a . Because everything you need to be brave is already inside of you, you just need a way to reveal it. (I’ll let you in on a little secret – mine is Dolly Parton).
The Ultimate Public Speaking Anxiety Checklist
Here is a step-by-step process of how a Clinical Psychologist might approach overcoming .
- Notice your thoughts about . Keep a thoughts log.
- Start practicing techniques and try progressive muscle relaxation.
- Start a gratitude diary to keep note of 3-10 things everyday you are grateful for.
- Learn how to use kinder self-talk when you notice you’re being critical of yourself.
- Come up with a goal you’d like to set yourself, not too easy, not too terrifying.
- Create a graded exposure list, starting with the least scary step all the way up to your big goal.
- Create an affirmation you can repeat to yourself when approaching each step on your hierarchy.
- Start with step one on your graded exposure list and doing it over and over until it gets very easy. See each step on the hierarchy as and preparation for the end goal.
- It’s common to do well on the first steps, then all of a sudden feel like the is coming back and that you’re getting worse. It’s part of the process. Be gentle with yourself about any mistakes and remind yourself that you’re doing great.
- While speaking in , even in easier situations, make sure to have good posture.
- Focus on what your speaking can do for others, rather than focusing on you and your .
- Work your way through the list of steps until you get to your ultimate goal. It might take days, weeks or months. That doesn’t matter (remember, be kind to yourself during this process).
- Celebrate and then keep going! You can create a new, bigger, more audacious goal and work up to it in the same manner.