Making a speech can be one of the most stressful events in an adult’s life. It doesn’t matter whether it is a brief talk with your boss, a presentation at work, or offering a toast at a wedding. Just the thought of having to do this causes much stress for many people. Public speaking has been rated the number one fear among adults in the United States. It’s something that we are often called on to do, but our fear can prevent us from participating in this part of everyday life.
I can relate. I struggled with this fear for most of my life until I understood presentation stress and learned practical solutions to cope with my fear. Since then, I have enjoyed being the keynote speaker at several national and international conferences as well as on live television. I am excited to share some of my findings in hopes to help others that are in a similar place.
Presenting to a group, regardless of the size, can be highly stressful, especially if you hold some common misconceptions about public speaking. Note that these thoughts have no rational support; however, if you believe them, they will make you even more nervous and negatively affect your performance. Let’s start by clearing up these misconceptions.
Everyone will see that you are nervous.
This is a common concern for many presenters, known to researchers as the illusion of transparency. Scientific evidence has proven that audience members do not pick up readily on speakers’ anxieties. No matter what you may think, even the intense inner feelings you may experience are too subtle to be detected by others.
Everyone will judge what you say and how you look.
Researchers refer to this as the spotlight effect. There is considerable evidence proving that presenters overestimate the extent to which others are judging them, or even paying close attention to their words, message, or appearance. In spite of what you may think, many of your audience members are going to be preoccupied with their own thoughts and appearances.
You are not going to present well because you are nervous.
Research conducted at Yale and Harvard has demonstrated that the effects of high stress are largely dependent on how the symptoms are interpreted. If you feel some of the normal physical effects of stress, like a racing heart or shaking hands, and think that it means that you will not do well, you will not. However, if you interpret the symptoms as positive excitement rather than anxiety, and learn how to use the extra energy, you can become a much more effective presenter.
Recent research at the University of Western Australia studied 230 college students who were all due to give group-based presentations. About half of the students were randomly assigned to the control group, which received no training. The remaining students received Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) in three phases.
The first phase of SIT was conceptual, advising the student presenters that it would be a stressful event. The second phase involved acquiring new skills, where the students learned a variety of relaxation techniques including: deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation, cognitive behavioral strategies, and visualization. The third phase applied these skills in practice presentations. The entire goal of SIT was to clear up the three main misconceptions about public speaking.
In the results of the University of Western Australia study, the group of students that completed the SIT training, compared to the control group, reported significant improvements in three areas: lower levels of anxiety in the time leading up to their presentation, fewer physical manifestations of stress (such as dry mouth, trembling voice, and perspiring), and improved thought processes about their public speaking fear by interpreting their presentation-related anxiety in a positive way.
As a peak performance psychologist, I have worked with thousands of performers, athletes, and musicians to help with challenges ranging from managing performance energy, focusing, building confidence, strengthening courage and more. While the solutions are wide-ranging, I can offer some very actionable tools you can put to use right away.
Before your next presentation, I would recommend that you:
Clear up your own misconceptions about making presentations to groups. If needed, write down any worries you have and read them back to yourself to point out that these worries are not rational thoughts.
Learn a relaxation technique that works for you (Centering, meditation, deep breathing).
Take the time to practice your speech in your mind until it is right, and you see it going well.
Rehearse it in front of a mirror. Next, record yourself on video and watch it. Finally, give it in front of an audience of one, then three, and then five people until it flows comfortably. Now you will be ready to go!
I am very excited for you to apply these skills to your next presentation. They have helped me tremendously. Good luck with conquering your next public speech!