What are the biggest obstacles to happiness in the western world?
I have not performed a detailed analysis, but I believe that different forms of anxiety are high up on the list, stemming from worries about the future, one’s career or family, or direct forms of fear. Therefore, if we want to increase happiness, how can we reduce people’s anxiety levels?
This post takes a detailed look at public speaking anxiety, which is frequently identified as people’s greatest fear:
“According to most studies, people's number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
- Jerry Seinfeld
Understanding the Problem
In order to really understand the problem, I’ve tried to illustrate the different elements and how they are connected:1
(Click on picture for full page view)
Let’s examine the root causes of public speaking anxiety one by one:
1. Belief That Public Speaking is Stressful
This is a self-fulfilling prophesy: we believe public speaking is stressful, and therefore it actually becomes stressful.
It is important to understand that this is our mind messing with us. Speaking in public is not inherently stressful. When you were a kid, you didn’t hesitate to speak in front of others. Only later in life do we develop this fear, and as adults we believe it is an integral part of public speaking.2
Also, keep in mind that many people have succeeded in managing their fear of public speaking, so you can as well. Always remember (repeat after me): speaking in public is not inherently stressful.
2. Fearing the Fear
This is a nasty, reinforcing effect triggered by our belief that speaking in public is stressful: we start to fear the fear itself, causing a spiral of fear that leads to very high anxiety levels.
What can we do to prevent this vicious cycle? Here are some proposals:
Remember that speaking in public is not inherently stressful (see Section 1.)
(By the way, if you suffer from very high anxiety levels, you can also draw a positive conclusion from this analysis: if you succeed in believing that speaking in public is not stressful, you can reduce your anxiety levels considerably, reversing the reinforcing negative effect. In other words, success is not as unachievable as it may seem.)
Don’t fight the fear
A common mistake is to fight the fear by trying to resist it or by refusing to give into it. However, such an approach simply makes the fear stronger.
Instead, experience fear and regard it as a normal and expected part of public speaking. Don’t try to run from it. Make peace with it and say to yourself:3
- This is an uncomfortable feeling, but it is okay that I feel this way.
- This is not the best feeling in the world, but it is truly not the worst feeling.
- The more I can accept this feeling when I experience it, the more I will learn to manage my fear and do specific things to mitigate it.
- I’m going to be ok, no matter what happens.
- The fear won’t kill me; it is simply an uncomfortable feeling.
- The feeling will come and go from time to time and I can handle it.
- It is ok that I am anxious. I can still speak or perform when I feel anxious.
A bit of nervousness may actually be beneficial as it allows you to concentrate fully and reach peak performance. Try to use your fear to enhance your presentation, channelling it into dynamic energy and enthusiasm.
3. Pressure on Yourself to Succeed
If putting pressure on ourselves increases anxiety levels, why do we do it? There seem to be three main reasons:
3.1. Thinking “It’s All About Me”
To put it succinctly: no, it’s not about you. It’s about contributing value to the audience, mainly by teaching audience members something they didn’t know before.
Instead of focusing on yourself, focus on the audience and especially on the message you want to get across. This is what the audience cares about – not you.
Maybe this is why humour, openness and a willingness to show vulnerability go a long way. When you don’t take yourself too seriously and instead show everybody (yourself and the audience) that it’s not about you, but rather about the content of what you are saying, it reduces the pressure and takes the burden off your shoulders.
3.2. Belief That You Have to be Perfect or Brilliant to Succeed
You don’t have to be perfect or brilliant to succeed. Your task is merely to add bit of value to the audience. If you can convey a couple of key messages that are interesting and/or new to the audience, you’ve already succeeded.
Therefore, get the idea out of your head that you have to be perfect to succeed. Perfectionism will make you go crazy. The belief that one has to be perfect may emerge in various ways:
a) Belief that you cannot make any mistakes
This is rubbish. Everybody makes mistakes – a lot of them. In the end, all that matters is whether you’ve conveyed important messages which added value to the audience.
b) Belief that you have to give your audience every detail
Oh, God, no. Nobody wants to hear every minor detail, and nobody can remember all the details anyway. Just convey the key points.
c) Belief that everybody in the audience has to approve
You will not receive approval from everybody. Trying to behave so that everybody likes you is understandable, but unfortunately unrealistic. It is better to accept this from the beginning so you don’t go crazy if and when you see sceptical faces in the audience or some individuals leave the room during your presentation.
Also, it may be useful to lower the bar by saying to yourself, “I am not a public speaker.” That can help you dissociate from the I-have-to-be-perfect mindset and instead focus on your message.
3.3. Thinking You Are the Only One with This Problem
Believing that you are the only person with public speaking anxiety may reinforce the problem. You may mistakenly believe that while all others have succeeded, you are the last stupid individual still struggling to overcome the problem.
Of course, this is not true. Public speaking anxiety is often identified as people’s greatest fear, so don’t think you are alone – you certainly are not.
4. Not Being Yourself
As a result of putting pressure on yourself, you may try to mimic other people whom you consider to be successful (or your abstract and vague idea of how a good public speaker behaves and feels), thereby pretending to be somebody you are not.
- Further increases anxiety levels
- Is an unauthentic, uncomfortable feeling
- Distracts from the message you want to convey, and
- Is spotted by the audience in about 100% of the time
So be yourself and tell the audience naturally whatever you have to say. Your listeners will thank you for it.
5. Preparing Too Much and in the Wrong Way
This is a tricky one. Preparation is good, isn’t it?
In my experience, preparation is very important to the extent that it helps you add value, (e.g. allowing you to convey information clearly and helping you indentify any inconsistencies in your message).
The best way to prepare may be to rehearse the presentation on your own while imagining the audience in front of you (videotaping yourself may be a good idea) or to practice your presentation in front of some of friends who will provide feedback.
However, you can also over-prepare (or prepare in the wrong way). This often happens to those who think they have to be perfect. For example, imagining every second of your talk (which exact words you will say, how you will say them, how the audience will react, etc.) may give you a deceptively comfortable feeling of control before the presentation. However, because the actual presentation will always differ from what we had anticipated (which is absolutely fine), this mindset can make you panic as soon as you realise things are different than imagined.
6. Lack of Purpose / No Value to Contribute / Nothing to Say
Unless you are a politician, you will always feel uncomfortable if you don’t have a message to convey. Without a message, facing hundreds of eyes that are eager for knowledge can indeed be an uncomfortable situation.
Therefore, make sure you have good, well-thought-out messages to convey, and you’ll be fine.
7. Belief that Something Bad Will Happen
Sometimes our imagination and creativity can harm us. When thinking about speaking in public, many overblown and unrealistic thoughts come to mind. What if I pass out from exhaustion? What if I forget everything I intended to say and am left standing alone, totally speechless?
The question is: how can we avoid going crazy?
Remind yourself that your fears are completely overblown.
Apply this mindset: “everything that happens can be used to my advantage.”
The credits for this one go to Morton C. Orman. He proposes to always think that no matter what happens, you can use it to your advantage.
For example, if some members of your audience leave the room, ask them why they left and whether your topic, style or manner offended them. Regardless of what they tell you, dealing with the situation honestly and humbly will often score points with the remaining audience members.
Morton C. Orman continues:
“Even if everyone walked out and refused to give me a reason, I could ultimately find ways to benefit from this experience. At the very least, I could use it as the opening for my next presentation. "You know, I gave this same talk the other day and everyone in the audience walked out in the first ten minutes. That's my current record, so I guess we'll just have to see what happens today."
The same principle holds for dealing with hecklers or people who ask harsh or confrontational questions. If you assume that nothing truly bad can ever happen when you're speaking in public, you'll be amazed how well you can relate to such events and how often you can indeed use them to your advantage.”
Do NLP exercises
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) provides an interesting set of techniques to change our learned perceptions. The following method can be useful in reducing our fear that something bad will happen:
1.) Imagine yourself speaking in front of an audience (as vividly as possible, seeing every detail, hearing voices, taking in the smell from the room, etc.)
2.) Imagine the worst possible scenario happening (you are completely speechless, or you run into a pole, knocking yourself out, etc.)
3.) Once you have this vision in mind, make it as ridiculous and silly as possible by unleashing your creativity (make people have wings and fly around the room as you stand on your head looking at everyone upside down, etc.)
During this exercise, your mind will struggle to reconcile the absurd scenario with the original frightening vision, thereby preventing your mind from developing those horror scenarios altogether.
8. Belief that the Audience Does Not Want You to Succeed
Your relationship with the audience is another key point. As long as you regard your audience as your enemy (which is almost never justified) you will put unnecessary pressure on yourself.
In reality, your audience members want you to succeed and deliver the information that interests them. A slip of the tongue or a mistake of any kind might seem a big deal to you, but it’s not that important for the audience. Your listeners are just interested in learning something new.
Generally, it is a good idea to like the audience and/or establish a relationship with your listeners. Think of them as sympathetic people who have fears just as you do and who truly want you to succeed. If possible, speak with some of your audience members before the presentation.
Core of the Matter: Lack of Experience
I believe that anyone (I mean anyone), with enough practice, can become comfortable speaking in front of other people. Think about those who didn’t choose to speak in public, but now do so because their role requires it, such as –professional athletes. I don’t think any of them who are still nervous after they’ve had enough practice.4
Arguably the most important conclusion from the flowchart above (which is not new at all) is that practice is the key. Only through practice can we convince ourselves that many of the fears are merely creations of our minds.
There are several ways to gain practice:
Toastmaster clubs exist for only one reason: to help individuals overcome public speaking anxiety and give them the skills needed to be a good speaker. The clubs are inexpensive and effective ways to get practice. If you are serious about overcoming your fear, come out of your closet and give Toastmaster a try. Toastmaster clubs exist all around the world. Find a nearby one here.
Seek public speaking opportunities
Opportunities abound to speak in front of others. If you have public speaking anxiety, chances are that you tend to avoid these situations. This only makes the problem worse. Next time you have an opportunity, seize it!
Start slowly if required, but start!
As with lifting weights, you may start slowly, perhaps speaking to only a few people at once. After a while, you may gradually increase the “weights” and seize opportunities to speak in front of larger groups.
The important thing is that you do something about your fear and get practice speaking in public. Starting slowly is fine. (“Be not afraid of going slowly. Be only afraid of standing still.” – Chinese proverb)
Dealing Directly With the Symptoms of Public Speaking Anxiety
The approaches described above try to tackle the root causes of the problem, which is necessary for a long-term solution. However, we can also deal with the symptoms in the short term.5 Most of these techniques aim to help you feel calmer and more relaxed:
Learn relaxation techniques / deep breathing
You can learn many relaxation techniques, such as yoga. As a quick fix, breathing techniques can release tension in the body. For example, try the following breathing technique:
- Make yourself comfortable (either lying down or sitting in a chair)
- Gradually deepen your breath, allowing it to gently expand your lungs
- Count to four while inhaling, two while holding your breath, and eight while exhaling (exhaling should take about twice as long as inhaling)
This technique can have a very relaxing effect. If you feel dizzy while practicing it, stop immediately.
Do workouts before the event
After a good workout, you may feel naturally relaxed and less susceptible to anxious thoughts. Before you speak in front of an audience, go to the gym beforehand and see if it helps.
Avoid caffeine (coffee, colas, black or green tea, etc.), which increases tension in the body and may increase anxiety levels.
However, if caffeine motivates you and helps you look forward to sharing your ideas with your audience, it may help you deliver your presentation with more energy. People are different, so the best suggestion is to try things out and observe the impacts on you (this applies to everything said on this blog).
Consume relaxing food / drinks
Consider drinking tea before the event, which has a relaxing effect on the body. For example, try valerian tea, which is sometimes used to facilitate sleep.
Some people with very high anxiety levels use medication to deal with the problem, perhaps by taking Inderal, a type of beta blocker that is generally used to treat patients with heart problems. I am very sceptical of taking any medications. Do so only after consulting your doctor and after you’ve tried everything else.
Do other things that help you to relax
I’m sure you can do many other things that have a relaxing effect on you. You know best what these are. For example, some people calm down when walking outside and getting fresh air.
- Speaking in public is not inherently stressful.
- Don’t fear the fear. Don’t fight it.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to succeed:
- It’s not about you.
- You don’t have to be perfect or brilliant to succeed.
- You are not the only one with this problem.
- Be yourself.
- Don’t over-prepare or prepare in too much detail, but do rehearse if possible.
- Make sure you have a message to share. Focus on your audience and on the message itself during your presentation.
- Don’t believe something bad will happen.
- Don’t think your audience does not want you to succeed.
- Get practice to see firsthand that all the points above are true.
A final thought: This post was written in an effort to reduce an uncomfortable feeling (i.e., reduce “unhappiness”), but it could just as well have been written to tap a new source of happiness: many speakers say that speaking in front of others while feeling relaxed and engaged is a fantastic feeling they will never forget. The rewards of overcoming public speaking anxiety are very, very high!
I sincerely hope this advice helps you. Please leave your comments and ideas for further improving this advice.
1) I used many sources (mostly online) for this analysis. Morton C. Orman’s article, How to Conquer Public Speaking Fear, was especially useful. I also took some information from Janet E. Esposito’s excellent book, In the Spotlight
2) This is a key point throughout this article: our learned beliefs cause public speaking anxiety (they were not there from birth). Therefore, the logical solution to the problem is to question those beliefs and unlearn them.
Many proposals targeted at reducing public speaking anxiety don’t take this approach, but instead ask us to actively “do” a lot of things, such as:
“Keep your hands still!”
“Walk around during the talk!”
“Imagine holding a magnificent speech!”
While these proposals may be useful for some individuals, they should be used with care.
They may make us even more nervous (as we actively try to think about all this advice).
They may give us a false sense of comfort (and backfire).
They may be difficult to remember (all forgotten when facing the audience, in my experience).
They don’t tackle the underlying problem (so how can they be solutions?).
Most of them (keeping the hands still, moving around during the talk, etc.) result from confident speaking, but do not always lead to it. Instead of imitating others, be authentic (see above).
The approach proposed in this article is to understand the problem and react to any incorrect beliefs that emerge.
3) These suggestions are taken from Janet E. Esposito’s excellent book, In the Spotlight
4) This also applies to athletes who are no longer successful, so it cannot be said they are comfortable speaking in public only because they excel in their sport (and due to the confidence that comes with it).
5) However, if these short-term solutions make it easier for you to speak in front of others, you may get more practice while using these techniques. Again, practice is the most effective way to deal with public speaking anxiety in the long term.