Does the idea of speaking in public fill you with dread? If you’re someone who’d rather poke yourself in the eye with a knitting needle than get up in front of a crowd, you’re not alone. Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, had this to say about fear and public speaking; “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’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.” When you hear it put like that, it does sound rather crazy!
This week I’ve been helping someone prepare for an upcoming speech she will be delivering to a group of students in her industry. This woman is a powerhouse – hooley dooley! She’s run several businesses, boasts years of experience managing over 500 staff, has developed amazing networks and is diligently back studying another course to add even more fire power to her already impressive CV. She’s a successful and respected industry leader and you’d think she’d have no issue communicating her passions and experience to a group of people. Not the case. For years she has avoided public speaking because it makes her uncomfortable. What a shame because I know how much she has to offer. If public speaking is something you’ve been dodging too, maybe it’s time to face the fear. Here are some thoughts to consider….
Be curious about your fear
Our fears can be a bit like two year old toddlers – irrational and highly illogical. However, that doesn’t make them any less real or debilitating and you need to be kind to yourself and acknowledge when you are feeling uncomfortable, apprehensive or downright petrified! Being curious about your fear without judging it is a great place to start. Resistance to our anxiety and nervousness tends to arouse it further, not diminish it. Be mindful and curious about the inner monologue in your head, what are you telling yourself that might not be helpful and notice where you feel the fear in your body.
Flight or fight
I’m blown away by the human body. It’s this incredible thing which is hard wired to protect us when we perceive our life is threatened or in danger. It’s as if we’ve got this inbuilt emergency evacuation chute – our flight or fight response. Back in the days of the caveman, the flight or fight response was an essential tool that kept our ancestors alive and it continues to serve us today. The downside of flight or fight is that it can be triggered in lots of everyday situations when we are not in real imminent physical danger but our mind perceives a situation as threatening.
What physically happens in our body when we feel fear?
I’m not a scientist so I’m not going to pretend to know all the best, intelligent long words and complicated, hard to spell actual names for chemicals and brain parts but here is the physical stuff in a simplified, unsophisticated nutshell. Basically when something triggers fear in your brain, for instance standing in front of a large crowd or watching a scary movie, a region near the base of the brain sends a chemical to activate and trigger the flight or fight response. At this point adrenalin floods the central nervous system and you might notice a racing heart, sweaty palms or the sensation of butterflies in your tummy. Adrenalin causes all of that to happen. The physical sensations you are noticing, they are just the effect of the adrenalin.
Change your perception
Do you know what the physical difference is between fear and excitement? Nothing. Physiologically when we are fearful about something, our body reacts in exactly the same way as it does when we are excited. So the difference is all in how we perceive the situation in our mind. In both scenarios your body is simply preparing you for engagement and giving you the energy and adrenalin you need to act/react. Imagine what it would feel like to be an amazing, confident speaker and pretend to be that person. Be willing and open to improving your skills in this area and a bit of the old ‘fake it till you make it’ can actually help a lot.
Have fun with your nerves
As a performer I get butterflies in my stomach all the time. The secret is to use the extra energy to serve a performance and not detract from it. Since we’re friends, I’ll let you in on a little trick I use…I talk to my butterflies…often out loud as I’m warming up. In fact I’ve given them names – Bertha and Doris. Bertha and Doris are great pals and can get very rowdy some days yabbering away especially before a big show or an important audition.. And, yes, perhaps you’re now thinking I sound a bit kooky and mad but personalising nerves helps me normalise them and see the lighter side. There is a familiarity to having them pop up – they’re like old friends. I’m grateful for Bertha and Doris. Truly I am. Think about how dull it would be to watch a lethargic, bored and passive speaker? I’d much prefer to be enthralled by someone who is alert, engaging, enthusiastic and switched on. Bertha and Doris are the crackling, the accelerators to get my fire roaring. Not so bad after all.
I love seeing people grow confidence speaking to a crowd. It’s amazing to watch a person stand up, be visible and show an audience who they honestly are. Telling the truth of who you are with generosity, openness and your own unique imperfect perfection is an incredibly powerful and valuable skill. Don’t let fear get in the way of you telling your story and communicating effectively to influence, inspire and change the world around you.