Public Speaking: Why we fear it and 7 tips on how to dispel presentation nerves.

If you’ve always enjoyed stress-free public speaking then I am very happy for you and you can stop reading right here. This is for those of us who’ve been crippled by the fear of public speaking and no amount of supportive advice and good will seems to help.

This week I gave a presentation to 300 people; no butterflies in my stomach, no dry mouth, no sweaty palms, but it wasn’t always like that.

I used to be a mess; caught in the grip of “Fight or Flight”. That annoying vestige of our million year evolution. What wild animals practice every day: the instant choice of stand your ground or run. An essential survival instinct that modern western life has allowed us to forget about, until of course we’re confronted by something like facing 100s of faces staring back at us! Then our brains kick in with fight or flight. The rush of adrenaline, racing heart, a stiffness in our muscles, bowels ready to evacuate, dry mouth, flop sweat and those darn butterflies are all biological outcomes of our sub cortex stuck in a loop of fight or run, while our neo cortex where conscious thought sits is saying: “Damn it, why can’t I just get up on that stage and do it!?”

Unfortunately, just knowing about fight or flight is not enough to cure ourselves of it. The sub cortex (and specifically the Amygdala) is where memory, decision making, and emotional reactions sit, but not language. Language sits in our neo cortex. So simply telling yourself not to stress, or other people telling you it’s not so bad speaks to the wrong part of our brain. To fix this you have to rewrite your own story.

That’s enough for the neurology! The fix is psychology.

I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the notion of “Cognitive Dissonance” and how we humans strive for internal consistency. Our brains are constantly re-writing our life story in the name of consistency. We do it every day and we’re practically hard-wired to fight against opposition to it.

A gambler can believe with 100% certainty he has an innate talent for wining blackjack or roulette even when the facts are that randomness is at play, and he’s losing money. This isn’t simply lying to oneself. The gambler is taking each new piece of information and his brain is rewriting it to avoid the dissonance of a clash. Every time he wins the gambler will add that memory into his internal assertion that he is skilled. Whenever he loses his brain will adjust the new information in one of two ways; forgetting it or qualifying it. A loss is suddenly blamed on an assumed external factor: someone distracted me, I wasn’t told all the information, I was feeling under the weather, somebody cheated. A million excuses, so that the information is dumped or devalued as inconsistent. This can also be referred to as “Confirmation Bias”, where we have a bias for any new data that backs up our own world view.

There’s a reason why law enforcement don’t like depending upon eyewitness statements, it’s because our brains keep picking, discarding, and making up facts to bring new information into line with our world view.

It’s not just gamblers. We’re all doing it. Ask us how we think of ourselves in our most intimate thoughts and we may say smart, funny, kind, thoughtful, selfless, calm, wise and that’s our internal story of ourselves. But is it a story written with 100% unbiased facts? Or do we discard all the thoughts and deeds that bring into question that story? When confronted by someone saying,: “Actually you’re kind of selfish, you make more mistakes than you think, and have you noticed you’re the only one laughing at your jokes?”  …well, we get offended, and we discard that opinion as crackpot.

So what does this have to do with my dumb brain making me need to go to the bathroom 30 seconds before I go on stage?

Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias work to reinforce your personal story, not just the good stories, the bad ones too. You will not be aware you are doing it. You have amassed a list of memories that convince you you’re no good at presenting. Every forgotten line in a school play, every snigger in class as you read an assignment aloud, every silence after a joke told kept and filed as evidence you’re terrible at presenting. Meanwhile, every pat on the back and every bit of praise from people who’ve seen you present has been discarded, written off, forgotten.

So you’re going to have to rewrite that story. Here’s how I do it:

  1. Practice. Practice. Practice. Not alone but in front of people out loud. Just start with one person, and for the last time you can tell them to expect it to be terrible. Guess what? At the end they’re going to give you some feedback to improve, and they’re going to tell you it wasn’t nearly as terrible as you had suggested. Grab that feedback, and don’t forget that comment that it wasn’t so bad. Repeat. Move to two people, three, six. Whoever you can get your hands on, colleagues, friends, family, anybody. And stop telling them it’s going to be terrible, you’re only allowed to say that the first time.
  2. Banish negative words. ‘Stress’, ‘worry’, ‘clumsy’, ‘forgetful’, whatever words you use to describe your stress or to describe your perceived inadequacies, they’re all banned. Somebody asks you if you’re feeling stressed? You answer “no”; regardless of how you feel. This might sound crazy but trust me, every time you vocalise these fears your brain is happily adding the experience to your life story! Stop the reinforcement, and if you’re presenting with other people who are talking about their fear then avoid them or tell them to stop reinforcing it too, fear is contagious.
  3. Smile. I mean a lot, and when you’re feeling most frightened then grin the hardest. I’m amazed at how much this helps me, and how it can dispel presentation anxiety in seconds. I’ll grin for a few minutes before jumping on stage and feel much happier when I do it. There have been several studies in the last decade on the power of smiling to reduce stress; and there is a feedback loop (JD Laird, 1974), where smiling makes your brain more open to happy thoughts and you smile more. There’s plenty of writing on smiling like The untapped power of smiling and The science of smiling.
  4. Keep praise. Print it out, post it on your wall. When you get praise make sure it is kept where your brain is not allowed to dispel it. Positive reinforcement, you’re using confirmation bias for a positive effect not a negative one.
  5. Be comfortable with doing your best. You do not have to operate at Martin Luther King jr presentation levels. Your best is good enough.
  6. Be comfortable with making mistakes. You’re human so you will make them. The beauty of presentations is the only person in the room who knows what “right” sounds like is you. Everyone else is going to be happy with whatever they get. Forget a line? No one is going to notice except you; and there’s no need to broadcast your mistakes, no need to swear, exclaim “whoops!” or insert any other words to identify a break in continuity to your audience. They don’t need to know.
  7. Be patient with yourself. While I’d love to say this is a quick fix, true success comes from repetition.

In my second year of “nerve-free presenting” I am happy to say that the story is rewritten in my brain. My confirmation bias now works the right way, I keep the good news stories and discard the negative ones. Gaining confidence becomes automatic.

Good luck!