Public speaking anxiety is extremely common – in fact, I would say that more of us are anxious about speaking in public than not. You can think about it as a hierarchy of anxiety: speaking to one person you don't know can make you a little nervous; two, three, four, more anxious still; addressing a group of people you haven't met, a bit more difficult; giving a presentation to a small room-full of strangers, just that bit worse; then finally, way up there on the anxiety scale, giving a speech to a conference, or appearing on live TV – too hard to even contemplate for some people.
The first thing to remember is that anxiety is a perfectly normal human response to situations we find scary or threatening. It's not bad or wrong, any more than joy or sadness are. In fact, anxiety is very important – if we didn't feel anxious when, say, we walked down a dark alley at 3am, or our toddler opened up a toolbox full of sharp objects, we would fail to prevent potentially bad things from happening.
But when we get super-anxious about giving a 10-minute speech to a small room of friendly, interested people, we are clearly feeling anxiety that is disproportionate to the situation. When we get this anxious we are likely to experience a racing heartbeat, get sweaty and dry-mouthed, possibly go blank or have trouble concentrating, think lots of worrying, worst-case-scenario thoughts... no fun at all.
The good news is that this form of anxiety is treatable, either with cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT), which is very effective for anxiety-related problems, or using self-help techniques like this one, which I often teach my clients:
Change the movie
When we get anxious about something in the future, we usually play a movie (let's call it the Scary Movie) in our heads about all the things that might go wrong – we imagine ourselves drying up and having nothing to say; forgetting our speech notes, so we have to wing it for 10 horrible minutes; other people seeing how nervous we are and judging us for it; or our audience looking bored, yawning, fidgeting and talking among themselves because our speech is so dull. Play this movie in your head enough times and, guess what? You will succeed in making yourself extremely anxious and, ironically, causing the exact problems you are worried about on the day.
So let's change the movie to... let's call it the Problem-Solving Movie. First, write down all the things you think might go wrong and find solutions for them. Worried about being dry-mouthed? Take a bottle of water with you. Worried your speech is dull? Read it to a colleague and ask for constructive criticism. Worried about appearing worried? Practice deep breathing to calm yourself down before and during the speech.
Then play this new movie every day in your head, in which everything goes well – you solve any little problems that come up, imagine everyone looking interested and engaged, giving you a big round of applause at the end, then see yourself looking proud and happy after the speech. The more detail you can include the better, especially about how things look/feel/sound, because then your brain will believe it's actually real and has already happened (our brains have exactly the same response to imagery like this and real-life experiences). This will help you feel less anxious on the day. Incidentally, this technique also works really well for driving tests, first dates, meeting in-laws, job interviews...
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