Fearing public speaking is common and a lot of us would rather avoid it altogether. But there are effective ways to prepare yourself for the big moment. The key is not to try to completely eliminate fear but to accept it, reframe it and control it.
1. Accept your fear. I have met many top executives who would rather do anything else than give a presentation. In fact, new research finds you would be abnormal if you experienced no anxiety at all.
I recently spoke with Emory University psychology professor and neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns, who details the traits of creative, successful individuals in his new book, Iconoclast. He says fear of public speaking is an extremely common trait that can be traced back to our early evolution.
“The fear of being excommunicated from the community is literally hard-wired in us,” Berns says. The goal, then, should not be the complete elimination of something that is ingrained in our psyche. Berns says, “Instead of trying to eradicate the fear response, a more reasonable approach is to examine the situations that set it off and try to inhibit it.”
2. Reframe your fear. One of the situations that sets off public speaking fear is negative self talk. Several years ago I worked with a woman with extremely low self-esteem whose new job required her to present her company’s product to large groups. She panicked even when leaving voice messages.
Over a few weeks, she slowly built her confidence, reframing every negative thought about her abilities and turning them into positives. A few weeks later, she successfully completed a 20-minute presentation to 100 people.
What we had done was reframe her perception of the event. According to Berns, the fear may never go away, but the expression of the fear can be inhibited through cognitive reappraisal. This simply means replacing negative emotions with positive ones. “If someone consistently perceives public speaking as an unpleasant event, the brain will default to this interpretation,” says Berns.
3. Control your fear. I know the CEO of a large public company who dreads giving presentations at large conferences and gets nervous before every one. Yet this man is considered a brilliant speaker. His secret is practice. Lots of it.
He practices more than anyone I’ve ever met, spending many hours over many weeks. He knows every word on every slide. By the time of the event, he has built his confidence and typically rocks the house.
Your fear of public speaking must be addressed. Once you acknowledge, reframe and control your fear, you may still experience the anxiety but you will have the tools to manage it and make your presentations easier on yourself—and your audience.