In Shakespeare's most famous play, Hamlet tells the character Rosencrantz: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” It’s a statement that’s absolutely true concerning your own thoughts about your fear of public speaking. (To become a dynamic rather than a nervous speaker, download our free cheat sheet "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.")
In one sense, you create your own fearful response to public speaking. That’s because, almost universally, there is never as much danger or risk as you think there is concerning a speech or presentation. But your anxiety leads you down a path with no exit, since you’re substituting your fears for more accurate measures to judge your success. And so you create a false reality that’s actually much harsher than the actual speaking situation.
You need, of course, to change such unprofitable thinking about speaking in public, to turn unhealthy thoughts into a constructive mind-set. Banish the negative self-talk that’s been undermining your achievements, and you'll be able to build a repertoire of positive coping statements to take their place. By doing so, you’ll discover how to evaluate your speaking performances more realistically, using accurate measures of your progress.
Is that a lot to accomplish? Maybe. But you’ll be able to do it. That’s because restructuring negative thinking is a key activity in overcoming speech anxiety—and no one knows as much about your own negative thoughts as you do. (Do you know how to use body language to improve your speaking confidence? Click on that link to find out!)
This process, of re-routing negative thinking into productive channels is called “cognitive restructuring.” For you as a presenter, it simply means going from a negative mindset to a positive one where public speaking is concerned. Another way to say this is: you’ll be changing your role from being your own worst enemy to becoming your own best friend as a speaker.
Are You Biased Against Yourself?
Karen: A Case Study
Karen is a 36-year-old Senior Learning Manager for a leading computer manufacturer. She conducts in-house workshops worldwide for IT managers on the software that her company sells. She came to Public Speaking International a little less than a year ago because, she said, “I’m a horrible presenter!” Not only did she believe that she had no talent for speaking in public. She was also sure that she was broadcasting that fact to her trainees.
In Karen’s mind, it was only a matter of time before her firm’s management discovered the awful truth about her lack of skills and let her go. So she was a bundle of nerves: terrified of conducting the training workshops that were the core of her job, while to her own thinking she was “living a lie” and was constantly on the verge of being found out.
Note Karen’s response to her public speaking assignments, as described above: She believed that she had no talent for the task. She was certain everyone else realized it too. And she knew she was living a lie as a supposedly competent training professional. Clearly, Karen’s own cognitive process was a major stumbling block to her job satisfaction and feelings of self-worth!
Naturally, Karen desperately wanted to improve what she considered inferior skills as a trainer and presenter. But as I pointed out to her, before she could get to that point, she had to change her thinking. Starting out with feelings of negative self-worth is the weakest possible position from which to build dynamic speaking skills.
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Let’s take Karen’s situation and apply it to the general population of people with speaking anxiety. After all, feelings like hers are common among people who believe they’re simply poor speakers.
One of the biggest challenges anxious speakers like Karen face is that they overestimate how negatively other people will judge their performance. The truth is that most audience members aren’t picking apart a presenter’s speaking skills. Instead, they’re looking for something positive from the experience—for they want to know that attending this meeting or lecture is worth their time. In this sense, audiences actually have little interest in the speaker. They’re much more focused on the message and the information being given. While that may seem a little rough in terms of your reception from an audience, it’s actually good news since you’re not under as harsh a spotlight as you may have imagined!
But if you’re speech phobic, you aren’t aware of this, because you’re too busy monitoring what you consider to be your own poor performance. You’re biased against yourself! You may, in fact, be doing quite well. But you spoil your success by creating “a negative reality.” Then you reinforce your belief that you’ll do badly through self-criticism . . . even if you’ve actually succeeded with your goal for the speech! You might even say that you’re determined to be miserable despite your success.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? If it does, you need to make the commitment not to indulge in self-talk like this that’s clearly counter-productive to successful speeches and presentations.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- We create our own fearful, non-realistic response to public speaking.
- You can turn unhealthy thoughts into a positive mind-set.
- A positive outlook can help you judge your performance accurately.
- You can actually be biased against yourself and undermine your success.
- Make a commitment not to indulge in self-talk that's counter-productive.