by Gino Perrotte
MA, Interpersonal Communication
The 2014 Chapman University Survey on American Fears reports that the biggest phobia for US Americans is public speaking.1 The survey found that more than one quarter of those surveyed have an extreme or irrational fear of speaking in front of an audience.2
It’s important to note that a phobia is much more extreme than normal nervousness. Many of us get nervous at the thought of public speaking and our bodies react to that nervousness. Even as someone who is very experienced with public speaking, my armpits still often sweat when I’m in front of a new crowd. And that’s not a bad thing. Those nerves are more indicative of excitement than of fear. I love public speaking and it’s my desire to do a good job that creates the nervousness. So a healthy level of nerves can be a good sign: It means that you care. We will review some tips for handling nervousness after we discuss Communication Apprehension.
A phobia on the other hand is debilitating and creates an extreme reaction from the fearful person. The fear of public speaking can be classified as communication apprehension. And there is a simple test called the PRCA-24 (Personal Report of Communication Apprehension) that you can take to find out if you might have communication apprehension. Developed by Dr. James C. McCroskey, the free 24-question test can be found at his website: http://www.jamescmccroskey.com/measures/prca24.htm
If you’re experiencing fear of public speaking, realize that this fear is often irrational. Your body is reacting to perceived danger. But the reality most likely is that you’re not in danger. Think about it… what fearful things are you imagining? That you might forget what you want to say or embarrass yourself? That’s probably not dangerous, right? It’s just your perception of the situation that is creating your fearful response.
You have the power to reshape your perspectives. You don’t have to be afraid to speak. You can be in control.
If you do have a phobia of public speaking, you will want to learn to manage it. And the good news is that this is possible. I suggest that you work with an experienced speech coach to practice exercises and develop techniques to boost your confidence and skills. Your professional life (and personal life) will benefit from you managing this phobia.
Tips for managing nervousness
1. Speak up. Take every chance to speak that you can get. If you’re in a meeting and have a question, stand up to ask it at the appropriate time. Get used to being seen and heard. Enjoy using your voice. The more you practice, the easier it can get. You have to be willing to make mistakes and then fix them for the future. Is your fear of making mistakes the thing that’s causing your nervousness? It’s time to get over that.
World-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset The New Psychology of Success, explains how your mindset can change the meaning of mistakes. According to Dweck’s research, there are two mindsets: fixed and growth. The fixed mindset says that your intelligence and talent are set in stone and mistakes are evidence of your inadequacy. Dweck says, “In the fixed mindset, however, the loss of one’s self to failure can be a permanent, haunting trauma” (p. 34).3 If this is your mindset, no wonder you are nervous! You are taking yourself way too seriously.
However, the growth mindset sees mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn, grow, and become better for the next try. With this mindset, mistakes are natural and inevitable. If you continue to challenge yourself with harder and harder tasks then you will eventual fail. And probably fail often on your way to mastering those tasks. The growth mindset focuses on the learning and the mastery, not on the failing that’s part of the process.
So to help yourself get over your nerves, have a growth mindset. Challenge yourself, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and try again using what you learned. This is how we grow. This is how we become better and more confident speakers.
What’s your general mindset? Take the Mindset Quiz to find out:
2. Believe what you see. Visualization and positive self-talk are powerful tools to accomplishing great things. During my younger years as a gymnast and competitive diver, I would practice seeing myself successfully completing a skill. While visualizing, my body would often respond with appropriate muscles tightening as if I was actually doing the skill. Think about your most vivid dream. Perhaps it was pleasurable or frightening. While that dream was happening, did your body realize that it was just a dream or did it respond as if it was reality? Remember how your body reacted to that dream. So if you’re imagining terrible things about the delivery of your speech, why wouldn’t your body respond negatively to this?
A thought about oneself created by oneself generates 10 to 100 times more neuronal energy of the brain than a random thought. (p. 43)4
Because your body responds to what your mind says is happening (whether real or imagined), you want to picture yourself delivering your best possible speech. Doing so will help you begin the actual speech in a body that feels confident and not frightened.
3. Talk kindly to yourself. Positive self-talk is speaking words of encouragement to yourself. I am not suggesting that you be arrogant or lie to yourself. Instead, say honest and kind things. Maybe you aren’t the best in the world at public speaking. But you could tell yourself that you have come a long way since the first time you ever delivered a speech.
A thought about oneself spoken out loud is 100 to 1000 times greater in its neuronal energy and impact on our self-concept than a random thought. (p. 43)4
Speak kind words to yourself because you are hearing every word you say. And those words have the power to affect you.
4. Stand strong. Harvard Business School social psychology professor and researcher Amy Cuddy presents evidence that the position in which you hold your body influences not only those around you, but also your own brain chemistry. In her interesting June 2012 TEDTalk, Cuddy explains how adopting a “power pose” or posture of confidence for as little as two minutes can affect you.
Participants who held a “power pose” reduced their cortisol and increased their testosterone levels. Why does this matter? Cortisol is the stress hormone and testosterone is the confidence hormone. This evidence suggests that by holding your body in a confident pose, you can tell your brain that you are empowered. On the other hand, if you hold a low-power position then you can increase cortisol and decrease testosterone which tells your body that you are stressed.5
Tip #2 says that the mind affects the body. Cuddy’s findings in tip #4 say that the body influences the mind. Regardless of which came first (the chicken or the egg, the body or the mind), it’s evident that the mind and body are connected and influence one another. So we should give equal effort to both feeling and acting in confident and positive ways.
Do yourself a favor and watch Amy Cuddy’s “Your body language shapes who you are” TEDTalk.
5. Practice proper nutrition. Since our bodies influence our actions, we should treat our bodies well especially before speaking. My friend Anastasis Tzanis is a Nutritional Therapist and Nutrigenetics Counselor (www.atnutrition.org) who specializes in increasing energy levels and improving mental health. He and I coauthored a blog on nutrition tips to help you to manage speaking anxiety and present more confidently. In the blog Tzanis suggests that you:
- Stay hydrated by drinking enough water up to an hour before speaking.
- Refrain from stimulants such as sugar and coffee prior to public speaking.
- Use the bathroom immediately prior to your next presentation.
- Maintain energy by eating a small meal two to three hours prior to the presentation.
- Manage stress with helpful vitamin supplements. Before taking any supplement, you should always check with your doctor first.6
Make sure that your body is getting the nutrition that it needs so that you will be able to feel and be your best.
6. Think of others. The final tip is to remember that the speech isn’t about you the speaker. We are often very ego-centric and think about ourselves. Instead, realize that as the speaker you are on a mission and you’re there not for yourself but to serve the people in your audience. You have something important to say and you need them to know it.
So you have a job to do and this job is about helping others, not about you.
1 Chapman University. 2014. The Chapman Survey of American Fears, Wave 1. Orange, CA: Earl Babbie Research Center [producer].
2 Ingraham, C. (2014, October 30). America’s top fears: public speaking, heights and bugs. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/30/clowns-are-twice-as-scary-to-democrats-as-they-are-to-republicans/
3 Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
4 Bullard, B. and Caroll, K. (1999). Communicating from the inside out. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.Cuddy, A. (2012, June).
5 Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
6 Tzanis, A. and Perrotte, G. (2015, February 9). Nutrition tips for public speakers [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://rightbrainjourneys.com/nutrition-tips-public-speakers/
Gino Perrotte is a university instructor for a variety of Human Communication courses including Communication for Executives, Persuasion and Influence, Nonverbal and Intercultural Communication, and Public Speaking and Technical Presentations. He is the 2015 “Teacher of the Year” for the Florida Communication Association. His professional career is dedicated to communication coaching, consulting, and training. Learn more about Gino and the services he offers at www.rightbrainjourneys.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.