Overcoming Fear: Lessons from Public Speaking

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Public speaking can be terrifying. It’s you, standing up in front of a bunch of people, all eyes locked on what you are about to say and do. There’s no hiding behind teammates, no passing the ball to someone else, not even a helmet with a face mask. Just you, alone on stage, trying your best to keep people from reaching into their pocket to scroll, or worse, conk out for a midday snooze due to boredom. There’s a reason that public speaking is consistently rated as one of people’s biggest fears. (This is also why various public speaking paradigms are frequently used in psychology experiments to elicit fear and anxiety in participants.)

If this resonates with you, I feel your pain. I still remember having to stand up in front of my 6th-grade speech and debate class and give a talk on sweatshops. Did I mention that I was assigned to argue for sweatshops? It was a nightmare for a shy and introverted 11-year-old who just wanted to play sports.

But don’t despair, there’s hope. Our alarm is adjustable. While you may never get rid of the butterflies, you can learn to corral them a bit better. Here are some tips for those who might find themselves in the spotlight one day, offered by someone who went from wanting to hide under their desk in junior high when asked to speak in front of the class to someone who now does this for a living.

1. Get to the Gun Going Off

In racing, you are a nervous anxious mess that goes to the bathroom about fifteen times before you make it to the starting line. The busiest port-a-potties in the world are at cross-country meets. But then something magical occurs. Those nerves are swarming, but they instantly dissipate once the gun is fired and you are racing.

Why? You’ve moved from waiting to do the thing, where your predictive brain is unleashing a cascade of stress hormones to prepare you for what’s to come, to doing the thing, where you are utilizing all the energy that the cortisol swirling in your body unleashed. You know what to do. The first part of a race isn’t complicated, you get off the line. And it’s not even painful. Simply shifting from waiting to action relieves stress.

The same is true for public speaking. Get to the action. But like in racing, where even if you turned your brain off, you’d know what to do that first 200 meters, take the same approach in speaking. Nail your first few slides or anecdotes so you can groove in. Know it like the back of your hand. And just like in racing, if you can get into a rhythm quickly, the rest takes care of itself.

2. Do Your Best Super Man Impression

When we’re stressed, we tend to narrow (I explained the neuroscience behind this in Do Hard Things). We latch on to what’s right in front of us and often over-index on that feeling, sensation, or feedback. One psychology-backed trick is to copy Superman. No, not necessarily to power pose, though if that makes you feel good, go for it. But I’m talking about taking your glasses off.

When you take your glasses off, you go from being able to see exacting details to only seeing broad details. It forces you to zoom out. And when your vision zooms out, your thinking tends to go with it. You stop over-indexing on the tension in your shoulders, or that person who looks like they want to be anywhere but here in the second row of your talk. If you don’t wear glasses, all is not lost. Shift your vision: instead of focusing narrowly on a person, adopt a soft gaze, where the audience becomes a bit blurry. You’re just trying to gently change your perspective, to get you out of freak-out mode.

3. Disarm by Naming It and Owning It

The first time I spoke with a professional sports team that was far from my area of expertise, my first slide was a picture of 9-year-old me playing that sport, which was the last time I played it. The point was to show that of course, I’m not going to tell the audience how to coach soccer, basketball, or hockey. The audience knows that better than I do. I did the same when my 5′ 11”, 145-pound self stood in front of a strength and conditioning conference full of people who could break me in half.

I call this disarming. In some settings, people see speakers as either a waste of time or a threat. We’ve all been at the corporate luncheon where we think, “Here comes another guy or gal who is going to rah-rah me to death and tell me how to do my job.”

Call out the obvious: that might mean that it’s kind of strange and absurd that you are standing on stage lecturing this group of experts. But…there is a reason for it! You aren’t here to tell them how to play their sport or sell their specific widgets. But you can help them with X, Y, and Z. Name what you can’t do, and then own what you can.

4. Go Off Script and Have a Few Stories

No matter how well planned, things sometimes go awry. We find ourselves talking, and the audience isn’t reacting. Go search for some of the top comedians playing local comedy clubs on YouTube. There are many jokes that they are trying out that bomb. They test their good stuff on the local level so that when it’s time for the HBO special, everything is A+ material.

While you might not have a local comedy club to test your presentation, we all have stories that people love. Whether it’s in prior presentations, or in conversations with colleagues, we have stories that are funny or inspiring or just grab other’s attention. Have a few of these in your back pocket. Practice telling them. Have a lesson you can pull from them.

If things start to go awry, you can always pivot. Sure, the PowerPoint slide might not match up exactly. But if you’re losing the audience, throw something in there that will get you back in a groove because you know it so well and past experience says there’s a high probability you capture their attention.

5. Abide by the Peak-End Rule

There’s a psychological phenomenon that tells us that we tend to remember the peak emotional moment and the end of the experience. Think about a recent concert, what do you remember? The most moving song and the encore performance. What about races? The most painful or toughest park, and the kick to the finish. The same goes for your talk. Sure, it would be great if you crushed all of it. But, the reality is if you have some story or point that really connects with others, and you do a decent job of landing the plane at the end, most of the middle will be forgotten. You just need to be good enough to get there.

Steve

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