I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Speaking in front of people causes anxiety, no matter who you are, your skill level or your amount of experience. I’ve been in front of people almost my whole life and I still get nervous. That’s because there are two types of hazards that are baked into public speaking that trigger anxiety purely because of the way our brains are wired. I call them “confidence busters” because they make your confidence a little shaky: uncertainty and being judged or criticized. The psychological terms for these are ambiguity aversion and fear of negative evaluation.
When we find ourselves in ambiguous situations (things aren’t clearly defined or we aren’t certain of the outcome), or if we think we’re going to be negatively judged by other people, the amygdala (aka the reptilian brain) is activated and causes the ‘fight or flight’ response. Because of this, our brains try to avoid these situations at all costs – hence, the anxiety we feel when speaking in front of others.
Just understanding the science behind why public speaking anxiety rears its ugly head points to some common causes of public speaking nerves and several strategies to help you overcome them.
Reason #1: Lack of Experience
You might lack confidence in your public speaking skills because you don’t have much experience. Unless you’re a professional speaker or have a job that requires it, there’s no reason you would have had much practice.
Solution #1: Get training and practice.
Take a class, find a coach, join Toastmasters, or ask someone at work who’s a polished speaker to give you some tips. And then, practice. Practice at home on your own. Record yourself. Rehearse in front of people you trust. Keep doing it, and you’ll find that your confidence will rise like a thermometer on a summer day.
Solution #2: Collect your success stories.
Setting a big goal for yourself or entering into a high-stakes situation can make you question whether you’re up to the task, It’s easy to forget about all the triumphs that led you to that opportunity. When you’re feeling insecure about your ability to deliver, remember your success stories – times when you triumphed over obstacles. Use your success stories as evidence that you’re up for the challenge.
Reason #2: Insecurity
Standing in front of a group of people guarantees that you will be seen, and the increased visibility can be very unnerving – especially if you’re worried about your appearance, personality, social skills, or visible signs of nerves.
Solution #1: Recognize they’re on your side.
Trust me: after coaching hundreds of people on public speaking, experience has shown me that your audience likely won’t notice any of the things you’re worried about, because:
- Not many people actively desire the schadenfreude of watching someone crash and burn. Most people want to be inspired and entertained.
- Their brains are trying to comprehend your message, not measuring your waistline.
- They’re just glad it’s you everyone is watching and not them because they’re insecure too.
Solution #2: Reaffirm your authenticity.
If you’re worried that people might judge you on some small features, it’s a sign that your focus might be too narrow. Widen your perspective by affirming who you are and what’s important to you. Right before you deliver your presentation, write briefly about an experience that brought out your best self, or a time when you achieved something important to you.
Reason #3: Fear of Failure
We’ve all been there: you have a lot riding on this presentation and the pressure is high to do well. Failure, as they say, is not an option. But instead of motivating you to do well, the pressure can negatively impact your performance.
Solution #1: Redefine failure as an opportunity to learn.
Before your big engagement, prime yourself to shift into a growth mindset by setting the intention to learn something new. After you’re finished, perform a post-mortem: what did you learn that you can apply to the next time? If you focus on learning, you’ll always be successful.
Solution #2: Decatastrophize.
One of the reasons why failure can cause anxiety is that we begin to catastrophize, meaning we imagine worst case scenarios. The real consequences are rarely as bad as what we imagine them to be. You can reduce your anxiety by decatastrophizing, or questioning your irrational thoughts. When you find yourself worried about the outcome of potential failure, ask yourself:
- What’s the worst that can happen?
- How likely is it that the worst will happen?
- What’s most likely to happen?
- If the worst happened, what would you do to cope?
Public speaking anxiety is not personal – it affects us all. The best way to overcome it is to set achievable goals, practice speaking in front of friends and coworkers, and realize that you are your biggest (and harshest) critic.