Can You Stop Being Afraid of Public Speaking?12 Aug 2016
What are most people afraid of?
Is it death or flying? Perhaps it is getting ill.
Well, according to The Book of Lists, none of these even make it into the top five. The five most common fears – presented here in order – are: Speaking before a group, heights, insects and bugs, financial problems and deep water.
While it may seem hard to trust the methodology behind this assumption, according to Dr Glenn Croston writing for Psychology Today, the rampant phobia of public speaking is supported by multiple research projects. Luckily, with a PhD in biochemistry, he can help us understand what is really going on in the body and why it is such a difficult communication skill to master.
Why do we fear public speaking?
Dr Croston explains that it goes back to our primal instinct. We knew to stick in groups to better our chances, so over thousands of years of evolution, we became social creatures that naturally fear exile. Why? It’s fundamentally about surviving. These instincts essentially manifest as social anxiety and the fear of ostracism. Ultimately, when we get up in front of a group and speak in public, we are putting ourselves at risk of social rejection. And for many of us, this results in a massive rush of chemicals to the brain.
Your heart rate increases and muscles tense. You become more aware and can see and process things quicker. You stop feeling pain and your impulses quicken. Known as the fight or flight response, this was once was necessary for survival when we faced real life-threatening predators. Having to either stand up and fight or flee for your life, nowadays, most of the triggers are not even related to physical harm. For instance, speaking in front of a group, insects and missing a repayment are certainly not going to kill you – but that doesn’t make them any less scary.
“To the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
It makes you think about how much truth there is to Jerry Seinfeld’s famous statement, “To the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
How can reframing your thoughts help?
When we feel threatened, the rush of chemicals – adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol – results in a sometimes overwhelming feeling of anxiety. While this can be debilitating, it certainly doesn’t have to be. You may think that the answer is various calming and relaxation techniques, but a growing body of research suggests that it could be to embrace it.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is now commonly used for the treatment of anxiety disorders. A fundamental principle that patients learn is the ability to reframe thoughts and situations. Our physiological response to anxiety and excitement are very similar. They both result in a heightened state of awareness driven by the release of stress hormones. Interestingly, they have very similar symptoms. Think about it – you may have trouble sleeping because of a performance review the next day or because of your birthday, but you’ll probably have butterflies and a thumping heart either way.
This ability to reframe – to look at the glass half full, not the half empty – has major implications not just for CBT patients, but for every person who potentially can channel their fear to enhance their public speaking skills.
Why should you embrace your nerves?
In a 2013 study published in Harvard Business Review, researcher and author Dr Alison Wood Brooks found out that this idea of reframing our fear can actually be achieved very easily.
“Anxiety is incredibly pervasive,” she said. “People have a very strong intuition that trying to calm down is the best way to cope with their anxiety, but that can be very difficult and ineffective.”
“When you feel anxious, you’re ruminating too much and focusing on potential threats.”
One experiment randomly asked karaoke participants to state aloud that they were anxious and excited. Those who had said they were excited again outperformed those who said they were anxious by over 150 per cent (80 per cent versus 53 per cent). In another test, participants were asked to prepare and deliver a persuasive speech. To increase anxiety, they were videotaped and told they would be judged. Right before speaking, one group was asked to repeat “I am calm” and the other “I am excited”. According to the independent speech evaluators, the “excited” group gave speeches that were more persuasive and competent, they spoke for longer and looked more calm than the group that had said they were calm. So what does this all mean?
“When you feel anxious, you’re ruminating too much and focusing on potential threats,” said Dr Brooks. “In those circumstances, people should try to focus on the potential opportunities.” It really does pay to be positive, and people should say they are excited. Even if they don’t believe it at first, saying ‘I’m excited’ out loud increases authentic feelings of excitement.”
For more tips and training in public speaking and business communications, get in touch with the Institute of Communication Management and Leadership today.