A positive mindset is necessary if you want to overcome fear of public speaking. Knowing that you're skilled enough to speak with impact is important. But so are your overall peace of mind and enjoyment of speaking, especially if it's part of your job. (Here's a cheat sheet with ways to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.)
So how will you actually achieve those positive developments? You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the best way to overcome stage fright (and to reach your speaking goals) is to learn a few techniques from the theater.
What Theater Can Teach You About Speaking Fear
Actors are the world’s best speakers despite speaking anxiety. Did you know, for instance, that actors suffer from stage fright as much as anyone? The difference between them and everyone else is that stage acting teaches them the most efficient ways for overcoming their speaking fear.
You don’t need to suddenly become an actor to benefit from these techniques yourself. In fact, the time-tested tools and techniques of the theater are not only available for people from all walks of life, but they produce the same results. After all, effective performance is the core of all good speaking—whether it’s in a theater, a boardroom, a meeting, or at the conference you’re attending.
Another thing that actors understand is that talking about performance is helpful only in the beginning phases of rehearsal. After that it’s time for action.
Actionable Exercises for Reducing Speaking Fear
That’s why as a speech coach, at each stage of helping people cope with their speech fear, I include actionable exercises to help reduce apprehension while boosting skills and confidence. Some of these exercises are designed to change thinking patterns (a process known as “cognitive restructuring”). Others are based in emotional response. Still others feature positive visualization; while another group concern themselves with staying focused and present for audiences. To make what you say unforgettable, take a look at my publication on "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience."
Whichever exercises my client and I are working on, however, my approach always includes dealing with the body’s response to stage fright. That’s because fear of public speaking nearly always produces a predictable physical reaction. And speakers like actors are bodies in motion, something frequently forgotten in approaches to overcoming speaking anxiety. Want audiences to view you more positively? Download my free cheat sheet, "Dr. Gary Genard's 5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language."
There's some good news in all of this concerning the speaking jitters you may experience: this level of mental and physical activation is perfectly natural and even beneficial. Without those butterflies in the stomach, you might become too laid-back and bland, without any of the edge or energy that makes you exciting as a speaker. It’s only when the balance tips too far toward anxiety that the normal level of nervousness that otherwise helps you, morphs into debilitating fear.
Nervousness Is Normal, but Fear Makes You Irrational
Don’t believe that those butterflies can be helpful? Then ask yourself this question: Do you know anyone who doesn’t get at least a little nervous before speaking in public? I don’t. I’ve been performing on stage since I was nine years old, and I still get those butterflies, and a high-stakes speech will give me trouble sleeping the night before.
Those reactions are normal and fairly universal.
As I said, stage performers undergo all of this, too. The difference is the degree of the reaction they experience. Getting slightly nervous is helpful because it psyches you up for the “big game.” But deep-seated fear or a gnawing anxiety is likely to push you over into irrational thinking.
Below are four common myths about public speaking that reflect such thinking. Each of them is an unreasonable conclusion. You should learn to recognize them and send them on their way.
Myth #1: Public speaking is dangerous. This is a particularly widespread and damaging myth. Not only are audience members not your enemy; but even a failed presentation will rarely result in your being fired, demoted, or even seriously compromised in your job. Speaking isn’t a perilous adventure on the order of any of the things that should really scare you, no matter how hard you try to make it so. Remember, a diamond is formed by pressure, and only afterwards is it polished. If you find speaking in public challenging, that means it’s a golden opportunity for you to shine.
Myth #2: Nervousness will make your performance worse. Rarely is there a true link between feeling anxious and giving a bad performance. At least in all my years helping speakers, I’ve seldom found one. Quite to the contrary, there are many stories from business and the professions where someone will speak and then say to a colleague, “I know I was horrible . . . I was so nervous.” And the other person will respond: “Really? You looked fine to me.” Here are 10 ways to stay fully focused in your speeches and presentations.
Myth #3: Everyone will see how nervous you are. And once they do, the entire audience will doubt your credibility! This is nonsense. Most nervousness isn’t visible to others because it’s internal. And if people do see you’re nervous, they’ll most likely have the normal reaction, which is to sympathize with you. Since audience members feel good when you’re succeeding and embarrassed when you’re failing, they’re actually on your side and want you to do well.
Myth #4: You have to be an excellent speaker. Who says so? If you’re a motivational speaker by profession perhaps that’s so, but otherwise it isn’t true. The belief that you have to be “excellent” is often a hindrance to effective public speaking because it confuses polish for true communication. When you speak to people (who almost always want to be in the audience), your job is to connect with them and give them something of value. Your task isn’t to be slick, charismatic, or a stand-up comic. So concern yourself instead with being honest and trustworthy. And if you happen to give a lackluster presentation, so what? Failure can be the best of teachers, since you’ll want to do that much better the next time.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- Speaking skill is important. But so is peace of mind and enjoying the moment.
- The stakes usually aren't as high with one presentation as you think they are.
- Despite nervousness, your performance probably won't suffer.
- You may feel nervous, but most of it won't show.
- Rather than trying to be excellent, aim for being honest and trustworthy.