Conferences, meetups and other public events offer many unique opportunities for entrepreneurs and small business owners to market their business. Yet many people turn down opportunities to speak in public.
If the thought of speaking in public causes you to panic and sweat profusely, you are not alone. 74% of people fear public speaking. In fact, you might be surprised to find out that some of your favorite celebrities and public speakers also have a strong fear of public speaking.
I understand how daunting it can be to speak in front of a large audience; public speaking is one of my biggest fears. But I know that to succeed, I will need to be comfortable speaking in front of large groups, so I try to find ways to cope with my fear and learn from those who don’t fear public speaking.
After a little over two decades of putting subjects through the Trier Social Stress Test and other studies, researchers have concluded that any form of public speaking triggers a release of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released because we intuitively fear judgement, and public social settings are a definitive place where judgement will happen. This means that everyone, whether they feel it or not, experiences some sort of anxiety before and during public speeches or presentations. This is not necessarily bad – some level of stress is good:
How can people shift into a stress-is-enhancing mindset? Start by recognizing that stress can be useful. ‘We only stress about what we care about,’ Crum [a psychologist at Stanford University] says. She points out that achieving goals necessarily involves stressful moments. If we know that stress is coming, then we can see it for what it is: part of the process of growth and accomplishment.
But of course, there’s a difference between controllable stress and run-away stress. Researchers have found that people who seem to have no fear of public speaking have been able to find ways to control their cortisol levels. In fact, some people don’t release as much cortisol as others, while some people find ways to control their anxiety.
Researchers have discovered some broad techniques that relieve anxiety for many different types of people. When applied to a situation where someone fears public speaking, these techniques can help calm the fear and make the feat seem more plausible. Sure, you can follow the common advice to imagine your audience in their underwear, but that mostly confuses me. Instead, here are five of my favorite tips (they work for me!) on calming the anxiety to make public speaking a little easier:
1. Step away.
Right before a public speaking event, sometimes the worst thing to do is to reread notes or practice the presentation. The constant practice can trigger even more anxious thoughts, and aggravate the fear. Before I have a public speaking event, I like to step away and take some time to clear my head and center my thinking. My favorite ways to do this are to listen to acoustic covers of songs that I know well, or practice yoga. Other people like to meditate or get massages, but I personally find that without a specific focus, my thoughts wander back to public speaking far too easily, once again inducing the fear. Instead, I change my focus and am able to forget about my fear.
2. Get enough sleep.
It might seem unrelated, but scientists cannot stress this technique enough! Sleep recharges the human body and mind, allowing us to benefit from things such as muscle repair and memory consolidation. Not only will a full night’s rest allow you to better memorize your speech or presentation, but it also keeps our mood more balanced. A lack of sleep has been proven to contribute to increased levels of irritability and negativity, both of which leave more room and fuel for anxiety and fear.
3. Take deep breaths.
Breathing deeply can help regulate fast heartbeats and clear anxious thoughts. While there’s no magic number of deep breaths that can do this, there is a methodology. A good deep breath consists of a slow inhale through the nose, with an equally slow exhale through the mouth. I use an app called Pacifica that leads me through a series of deep breaths via a calming voice. This forces me to keep a steady rate of deep breathing, and to not cheat myself out of the exercise as I normally would when anxious or scared. I highly recommend it.
4. Accept that you can’t control everything.
This is potentially one of the most difficult yet rewarding techniques to practice when trying to calm the fear of public speaking. Accepting that something may go wrong, whether it be a stumble in speaking or a rude audience member, changes the expectation of perfection. Perfection in public speaking is unattainable, and since everyone knows and accepts that, there is no reason why one error would mean that the presentation was a disaster. Yet this is typically the part of public speaking that people fear most – that they will fail. Understanding that one mistake does not define failure goes a long way.
Seriously. Just do it. Laugh for no reason if that’s what it takes! But laughter is one of the best ways to reduce stress and fear easily and effectively. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, hormones that are our body’s’ natural “feel good” chemical. When the endorphins are released, they overpower the cortisol and end up reducing it to low number. Once the cortisol is reduced, the fear seems more manageable. However, laughing in stressful situations is difficult, so I rely on talking to friends or family members that know how to make me laugh in a pinch. When that doesn’t work, I turn to an album or a collection of funny quotes, pictures, or videos that I can turn to that trigger laughter.
With these strategies, we can reduce our fears of public speaking and open ourselves up to the opportunities that we were missing. Each person takes a different amount of time of to implement these strategies to overcome their fear. But eventually, most that try will succeed. We are all human, and this fear is a natural part of our humanity. But like everything else in business, it is something that we can work to change.
image credit: Feral78
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