As irrational as it may be, we all feel our hearts beating a little faster right before speaking in front of a group. Our bodies react to public speaking as they would an actual physical threat, mostly because of the unconscious messages we’re telling ourselves, which create a fear response. Messages like:
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- What if I forget what I want to say?
- What if I mess something up?
- What if I trip and fall on my face?
The truth is, if you speak in front of groups often enough, all of these will likely happen at some point. Case in point – earlier in my career I was walking up to speak in front of a group of 30 senior-level partners and tripped over the projector cord, falling face first into a set of chairs. It wasn’t pretty, but it also wasn’t fatal.
What we’re really fearing is loss – loss of reputation, loss of respect, loss of credibility. And then, to add insult to injury, our brain kicks in with cognitive distortions. Catastrophizing is a popular one and sounds something like: “If I blow this, I won’t get the promotion. Or maybe I’ll get fired. And will never be able to work in this industry again!”
You may not be fully conscious of it, but this is what’s behind the palpitations. Speaking in front of a group is not a true threat to survival. Our brain just interprets that way.
I’d love to be able to say, “Now that you know this, you’re cured,” but unfortunately, it’s not that simple. If you care about your performance, which is positive in that it motivates you to prepare to do your best, then it’s likely you’ll still feel the butterflies. And the more you care, the more butterflies.
Beyond preparing in advance, knowing your audience and practicing, here are some additional tricks that can help:
- Start with a question. If your adrenaline is pumping, giving yourself a moment to take a breath during the first minute of your talk will help immensely. Plan to throw a “show of hands” question to the audience in the opening. This briefly takes the focus off of you long enough to break the anxiety spiral and allow you to calm down. This is one of my go-to strategies and it works.
- If you forget something. Walk a bit or move your body in some way. This is scientifically proven to get the blood flowing and will help your brain kick back in. This often works if you forget a name or have something on the tip of your tongue, too. Even easier, refer to your notes or your slides. Your goal is to get the message across, not to be flawless. Unless your primary goal is to entertain, don’t sacrifice content for performance.
- Expect technical glitches. It seems that the more technology advances, the more difficult it is to get through a presentation or webinar without a hitch. Even with practice and testing, it still happens more often than not it seems. Plan for it as much as you can in advance (e.g., print out slides, have a Tech person on hand, bring extra batteries for the microphone, etc.), and if it happens, don’t panic. Implement your back-up plan, take a breath and keep going. Everyone who’s ever presented has been there.
- Focus on the message. You’ve been asked to speak for a reason. Your job is to share the content with the audience. Their job is to receive it. Speakers often get nervous because they’re wondering how the talk is being received. Beyond doing your best to prepare, you can’t control that, no matter how hard you try. How your talk is received is the audience’s 50% of the responsibility. Focus on doing the best you can with your 50% – the delivery of the message.
- Acknowledge the elephant in the room. On that note, earlier in my career, part of my job was to deliver required policy and regulatory training on topics like harassment and workplace violence. If you want a tough audience, try leading mandatory HR training. After a few difficult sessions, I learned that empathizing with the participants, acknowledging they’d rather be someplace else, and adding some humor (to the extent you can in these types of sessions), helped a lot. The material was the material, and there wasn’t much I could do about that. But building rapport and adding some levity went far in making it less painful for everyone.
- Find your people. When I anxiously walked on stage to give my TEDx talk, there was a student in the auditorium sitting dead center who was fast asleep, mouth agape catching flies during my entire talk. Seriously? As if I wasn’t on edge already! While you’ll get the phone watchers, dozers and grumps, simply ignore them. Because every audience also has a few engaged faces, note takers and nodders. Find them early on, and focus there, especially anytime you find yourself feeling tense. The positive affirmation will truly transform your fear.
- To be human is to judge. So, the audience will judge you no matter what you do. Therefore, it’s not worth worrying about. Don’t try to read the faces. You’ll only convince yourself that the audience hates your talk and are completely bored, when in fact, they’re probably thinking about what’s for lunch or having a mental debate about skipping the gym tonight.
Once you realize that it’s the messages you’re telling yourself that are getting in the way, you can start to pay attention to how these are affecting you and shift the focus. Also, the more you present to groups, the more your brain learns that making a mistake isn’t life threatening, so the blunders have less staying power.
The unexpected happens and you can’t control everything. Just last week, I was presenting in front of a group of 130 people. As I was wrapping up my slides and introducing the next speaker, he walked up and reached out his hand, so I shook it. With a confused expression he said, “Um, can I have the microphone?” Ooops. Awkward. But stuff happens, and life goes on.
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Reposted from: Forbes.com