Because I’m doing speaker training again I did my annual search of Top Ten Fears and found that, as it has been for decades, public speaking hovers near the top of the list. What’s a little different now than was the case when I was teaching public speaking 20 years ago, is that we know a little more about how the brain works.
I have particularly found Patrick Renvoise’s Neuromarketing and Dr. Bill Crawford’s presentations especially enlightening on this front. (My apologies to all your neuroscientists out there for what are undoubtedly the oversimplifications contained herein.) Through them I know that our “limbic/lizard” brain holds a lot more sway over our reactions and decisionmaking that we might like to admit, and that it is possible to shift control of our actions from the limbic brain to the neo-cortex/thinking brain when we want to do that.
Knowing what I know know, I tend to break down fear of public speaking into three categories:
1) primal fear – Public speaking is experienced by most of us as a confrontation, which is the kind of thing that makes our limbic brain sit up and take notice. When I want to ask the limbic brain to ride in the back seat and let the neo-cortex drive, I find it helps to work on managing the physical symptoms of anxiety that public speaking engenders. For example, I get short of breath when I think about facing an audience, so I concentrate on breathing deeply because it calms me and lets me think, speak and engage.
2) fear of not being liked – Perhaps its because I’m over 40 or because I’m married to a psychotherapist, but I’ve finally learned that it is next to impossible for someone to learn enough about the real me in a 40-minute presentation, during which I might be on deck for about 10 minutes, to make an accurate judgement about me. Through lots of trial and error, I’ve learned not to pay too much attention to whether people like me or don’t. Instead I focus on liking them. I’ve also learned to create a “presentation persona”, a sort of alter-ego who does my presenting for me. If someone doesn’t “like” that construct, I tweak it a little here and there. I figure if it works for Janet Jackson and Beyonce, it should work for the rest of us.
3) fear of saying/doing something “stupid” – Strangely enough, it’s those of us who have been presenting long enough or feel comfortable enough presenting to believe we can ‘wing it” who are in the most trouble on this front. The only way to mitigate this issue, in my experience, is to prepare, to rehearse and to develop a shared understanding among a presentation team about roles, messaging and process. In this case, if you’re not a little nervous, you should be worried.