Know This One Thing to Defeat Your Public Speaking Anxiety

Best of the best performs suffered with stage fright throughout their careers so it never leaves you but you can train your mind to work with it.

A lot of us feel that our public speaking anxiety is beyond repair which leads us to believe that conventional means of resolving it will not help us. We do not want to find a way to work through it and we would rather continue searching in vain for that magic pill that will destroy our anxiety forever. 

I have news for you that it never leaves you entirely. Best of the best performers including actors, athletes, politicians and the likes suffer from public speaking anxiety so what makes you think that you will somehow force your fears to leave you once and for all? In America, 73% of people experience some form of glossophobia - fear of public speaking - and it has nothing to do with age or experience. One study interviewed 136 elite actors that are Tony Award winners and are some of the most famous theatre, film, and TV stars in history and revealed that “professional status, experience, success, age, or levels of extraversion didn't seem to matter. Stage fright is still a function of each new situation and the amount of confidence they have going into that situation.” 

Harrison Ford called it "a mixed bag of terror and anxiety” and admitted to suffering from it throughout his career. Entrepreneur Richard Branson, who makes $75,000 for a single speech, loathes public speaking. Brad Pitt went backstage after accepting an Oscar last year and told journalists that he is really “tentative about speeches” because they make him nervous. I mean, come on. Pitt has been performing for 30 years. 

So get over the idea of finding a miracle cure

The key here is to understand that it is a creation of your mind which results in biological changes that make our body shake and our voice tremble and the only way to do something about it is to find a way to work with it. 

In prehistoric times, humans perceived eyes watching us as an existential threat. Those eyes were of animals or of hostile tribes and so we were taught to avoid situations that put us in the spotlight, away from our allies and without anything to protect us from a potential threat. Humans were literally afraid of getting killed or being eaten alive and that taught the amygdala, an almond shaped part of the brain that activates the fight or flight response, to warn us in similar situations.

“Our brains have transferred that ancient fear of being watched onto public speaking. In other words, public-speaking anxiety is in our DNA. We experience public speaking as an attack. We physiologically register an audience as a threatening predator and mount a comparable response. Many people’s physical responses while speaking resemble how their body would react to physical signs of danger (shortness of breath, redness of face, shaking),” wrote Speech Coach Sarah Gershman.

People who cannot connect with their audience and express their ideas with conviction usually struggle in personal and professional relationships. 83% of human resource directors believe that workers with little to no social skills do not become high performers. 

Just because it is in our DNA does not mean that we can not do something about it

The trick is not to become fearless public speakers because no such thing ever existed but to have less fear. Think of it as fear-less

We can get there by activating the vagus nerve which in return calms the amygdala. The nerve runs from the brain to our intestines and oversees a range of crucial bodily functions, including emotional response, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. 

Deep breathing, laughing and even gargling can stimulate the nerve which is also known as the vagal nerve. One of the most effective ways to activate it is human generosity and in the case of public speaking it means that we stop thinking about ourselves and focus on how our presentation can help the audience. 

Gresham recommends that we research our audience to identify what their needs are and “craft a message that speaks directly to those needs.”

David Rubenson is a communications expert in Los Angeles. He advises that we reach out to the organizers of the talk to see how it was advertised. Was it promoted, for example, within a “single academic department or across an entire school?” That will help us figure out who the attendees will be. 

Don't get lost in performance, however. Attendees will not remember much about your presentation 24 hours after the talk so focus on the core message. 

 “Performance orientation means you view public speaking as something that requires special skills, and you see the role of the audience as judges who are evaluating how good of a presenter you are. In contrast, communication orientation means that the main focus is on expressing your ideas, presenting information, or telling your story. For people with this orientation, the objective is to get through to their audience the same way they get through to people during everyday conversations,” shared Theo Tsaousides, a neuropsychologist, speaker, and author.

The way to connect with your audience is by being human which means having flaws and making mistakes and allowing them to get to know you. Mandy Gozalez has a lead role in Hamilton on Broadway and had a regular part in CBS’s Madam Secretary. The way she allows her audience to feel a connection is by telling her story. In concerts, Mandy shares why each song has a meaning for her. 

“Being fearless is not about living without fear. It is about feeling the fear and doing it anyway,” said Mandy. “It’s the idea that we just keep on, and that has to come from deep within. For me, that comes from the people I was raised around, like my dad, who said, 'No pares, sigue, sigue,'" [Don’t stop, keep going, going].

Mandy says “You got this” to herself right before going on stage to put her in the right state of mind. When her fears do not let her sleep before a big performance, she writes them down in the first of three columns on paper. The second column is about the worst thing that could happen if the fear materializes and the third column is about the best thing that could happen. If she stumbles on stage, the worst would be that people will boo her and the best outcome will be that it will make its way to social media and more and more people will know about her concert. 

Keep in mind that most people attending your talk are happy that it is you, not them who is on stage. Gresham notes that it takes about four to six presentations to feel more comfortable with yourself and she encourages that you speak with listeners as individuals. 

“How? By making sustained eye contact with one person per thought. (Each thought is about one full clause.) By focusing at one person at a time, you make each person in the room feel like you are talking just to them.” 

Her clients used that technique for three consecutive times and saw a decrease in their anxiety.