“What scares you most?” Year after year when the Book of Lists asks this question, public speaking is the most often reported response.
In fact, people rate fear of speaking in public 10 to 20 percent higher than the fear of death, heights, spiders, and fire. As a student of mine once joked: “People would rather stand naked while on fire, overlooking a 30-story fall, covered with spiders and snakes than give a speech.” For kids and adults alike, presenting in public can be anxiety provoking and potentially demoralizing. But this need not be the case. By focusing on and believing in your ability to become a better public speaker you can develop agency over your anxiety and also become a more confident and better communicator.
As an academic and communication coach, I have helped students and clients to reduce their nervousness through easy-to-implement cognitive reframing. By actively working on how you approach your presenting and mindfully adjusting your relationship to your audience, you can develop a long lasting sense of confidence and agency over an anxiety that often feels uncontrollable.
Cognitive Reframing Techniques:
Greet your anxiety. The first reframing technique involves accepting the physical, emotional, and mental anxiety you experience prior to speaking: view it as a typical and natural reaction. After all, these sensations do not show anything beyond your body’s normal response to something that is potentially threatening. Avoid giving these natural responses special significance. Or, even better, you can greet these reactions by saying to yourself: “Here are those fixed minded, anxious voices again. It makes sense that I feel nervous; I am about to speak in front of people.” This acknowledging practice is an empowering acceptance that dampens your anxiety rather than allowing it to make you even more stressed.
Replace performing with conversing. Another reframing effort involves seeing a presentation as a conversation rather than a performance. In performing, you place a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself “to get it right.” Anyone who has ever performed on stage, danced, or played a sport knows what this pressure feels like. But a conversation feels less stressful and more engaging. How do you reframe presenting as a conversation? First, when you practice, don't stand up and deliver in front of a mirror or camera. Practice by sitting at a kitchen table or in a coffee shop with friends or family and talk through your presentation points. Practicing with a small group in a comfortable environment leads to a more conversational delivery. Second, include the word “you” frequently when speaking. “You” provides a direct, verbal connection with your audience. You can also use audience members’ names, if you know them, to create more personal connections with participants.
See presenting as an opportunity. The final reframing technique has you change the way you relate to your audience. Rather than seeing your presentation as challenging or threatening, visualize it as an opportunity. For example, when I coach executives on Q&A techniques following a presentation, they often view it as an adversarial experience—them versus the media, investors, whomever. I work with these leaders to change their perception. A Q&A session is actually an opportunity to clarify a point, create better understanding about the topic, or to promote collaboration. Perceiving a presentation as an opportunity feels very different than thinking of it as a potential threat. You are more willing to engage. When you feel threatened, you will likely do the bare minimum to respond because you are protecting yourself. However if you see the interaction as a chance to explain or expand on an area of personal expertise, you are going to interact in a more connected, compelling manner with your audience.
Taken together, these reframing techniques empower you to deliver more confidently. Of course, employing them takes time, practice, and persistence, but it is well worth it to experience freedom from what most report as their greatest anxiety.
Matt Abrahams is the author of Speaking Up Without Freaking Out: 50 techniques for confident and compelling presenting as well as Co-Founder of Bold Echo, LLC. He also teaches strategic communication at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.