As Mark Twain said, "There are two types of speakers -- those that are nervous and those that are liars."
The panic about having to present or speak in public goes by many names: stage fright, jitters, performance anxiety, nerves. But whatever you call it, this feeling can range from mild anxiety, where you may experience a racing heart and sweaty palms, to downright dread, where flight seems the only viable course of action. If any of that spectrum of emotion is familiar to you, it may (or may not) be comforting to know that you're not alone. Even famous celebrities suffer this kind of anxiety.
For example...the intrepid hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Harrison Ford, called speaking in public "a mixed bag of terror and anxiety." Johnny Carson, the king of witty quips and brilliant comic timing, experienced significant nervousness each evening before walking out on stage. Even the great Sir Laurence Olivier, in spite of his many hundreds of appearances and his stellar stage successes, felt terrified before each performance.
WHERE DOES FEAR COME FROM?
When we are faced with something we perceive as stressful or dangerous, our brain responds by initiating a chain reaction which releases the chemicals that cause physical reactions like shortness of breath, sweaty palms and a stomach turning somersaults.
Unfortunately it doesn't matter whether the stressful stimulus is a car careening toward us or the questions we'll get asked in next week's presentation; our brain responds with the same fight or flight response. Anticipating a stressful event can produce the same reaction as actually experiencing it.
HOW CAN WE OVERCOME FEAR?
So how are we to turn a perceived "dangerous" situation, like giving a presentation, into something more sanguine? According to Stephen Maren, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, fear overrules reason every time because the fear circuitry in the brain is more powerful.
Counterintuitive though this sounds, Maren says the solution to overcoming fears is not avoiding them. Rather repeated exposure to perceived fears in safe conditions helps us to realize that these threats are not real dangers. So that means get in front of people and present as often as you can. Don't slide away after the big conference or meeting, content to avoid any more presentations until next year.
IT'S A MIND GAME
In the fight or flight response, the brain is reacting instinctively to a perception, calling the autonomic nervous system into action. The brain, then, is precisely where we need to focus to reframe the perception. Here are some things that can help recast those stressful perceptions of presenting in public to more benign, or even positive, images:
- Visualize. The subconscious doesn't differentiate between fantasy and reality, so create your own "story" about the stressful event. Visualize yourself feeling confident and competent, eager to share your information with your audience. Shifting your perception of the situation allows you to change behavior. This technique, however, is not one that you can employ once and expect miracles. You need to visualize several times a day, particularly in the week or so prior to your presentation, to solidify these images in your subconscious.
- Listen to soothing music (your definition of soothing) before your presentation to trigger your relaxation response.
- Clip a photo of loved ones, your pet or a favorite vacation spot to your notes or put it on the podium or table you are presenting from...this will help you stay grounded and remind you of something pleasant.
- Enlist friends to sit in the audience and then search out those familiar faces once you start to present. Share your anxiety with them ahead of time and they will be sure to offer you big smiles of encouragement every time you look at them.
- Mingle with people in your audience before the presentation and even chat with a few of them, if time permits. This will establish a human connection. It's less likely that you'll perceive the situation as stressful if you've just established a nice rapport with people who are going to listen to you.
The more you understand the physiological reasons for fearing or dreading a presentation, the easier it will be to stop blaming yourself for shortcomings and move forward with a productive plan of action. With a commitment to overcome your fear and a dedication to present as often as you can, you will be able to unmask your perceptions for what they are and create a new reality.