The ability to speak clearly, persuasively, and empathetically in front of an audience – whether an audience of ten or of thousands – is one of the most important skills anyone can develop.
People who are efficient speakers come across as more comfortable with themselves, more confident, and more attractive to be around. Being able to speak effectively means you can sell anything – products, ideas, ideologies, worldviews, and, more important, yourself.
It seems that everybody knows that. There are tons of articles about public speaking explaining about presentations techniques, giving tips and hacks.
However, as a psychiatrist for the last ten years, I’m missing something.
Those articles tell us to make eye contact, to be vulnerable, to be funny if we can, to be ourselves, to let go of our egos, to tell stories. They say not to ramble, not to go on about matters that no one else is interested in. And they keep saying “stay calm.”
It’s all good advice, and it looks great in theory, but the practice is a little bit different.
If you get nervous before giving a speech, you probably know that there is a difference between theory and practice.
And you are not alone.
Research show that 48% of the American population has some degree of public speaking fear, and a survey from Harvard Medical School estimates that the lifetime prevalence of extreme public speaking fear, characterized as social anxiety disorder, is 12.1%.
When we turn these statistics into numbers, we see that 140 million Americans would get nervous before giving a speech.
To overcome the fear of public speaking is essential to go beyond simple tricks and understand how your brain works when you are giving a presentation.
Here are 3 brain hacks to improve your public speaking skill:
Public Speaking Brain Hack #1: Change your thoughts
When you get nervous before a presentation, you have automatic thoughts and beliefs that contribute to your fear, like:
“People will think I’m stupid.”
“I’ll end up looking like a fool.”
“I won’t have anything to say.”
“My voice will start shaking.”
“I’ll seem boring.”
These thoughts are like traps. When you fall on them, you become anxious.
The first step is to recognize the automatic thoughts that underlie your fear. For example, if you’re worried about a future presentation, the underlying thought might be: “I’m going to blow it. Everyone will notice that I’m nervous.”
The next step is to analyze the thought. It helps to ask yourself questions about the automatic thoughts: “Even if I’m nervous, will people necessarily notice it?” or “Do I know for sure that I’m going to blow the presentation?”.
Through this analysis of your automatic thoughts, you can gradually identify some unhelpful thinking styles or think traps (check the most common think traps here).
Public Speaking Brain Hack #2: Learn to relax
Several changes happen in your body when you get nervous. But, there are techniques to teach you how to relax and reduce physical responses to anxiety.
One of the first body response in anxiety is that you begin to breathe racing. Rapid shallow breathing leads to physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a feeling of suffocation, increased heart rate, muscle tension, and dizziness.
Learning to slow your breathing down can help you bring your physical sensations of anxiety under control. Here is a breathing exercise to help you keep your calm in social situations.
Public Speaking Brain Hack #3: Face your fear
One of the most important things you can do to overcome the fear fo public speaking is to face it.
While avoiding momentarily uncomfortable situations may help you feel better in the short term; it prevents you from learning how to cope in the long term. In fact, the more you avoid a feared social situation, the more frightening it becomes.
While it may seem difficult to face a feared social situation, you can do it by taking it one small step at a time.
In other words, it’s important to face your fears gradually.
The key is to begin with a situation that you can handle and gradually work your way up to more challenging situations. It’s like to climb a mountain. You’ll build your confidence and social skills as you move up.
It’s never a good idea to move too fast, take on too much, or force things. This strategy will backfire and strengthen your anxiety.
José Hamilton is a psychiatrist on a mission to empower people to overcome social anxiety and feel more confident. He is co-founder and CEO at Youper, the first mobile platform to overcome social anxiety.