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Conquering your fear of public speaking

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While some ten per cent of the global population experiences a buzz from being in front of a crowd, another ten per cent become physically debilitated by even the thought of it. The rest of us? We’re all prone to experiencing butterflies and lack of sleep the night before. So apart from the prior ten per cent, we all seem to fear public speaking to some degree. In fact, speech anxiety is so common that there’s a formal term for it – glossophobia.

According to cognitive psychologist and business neuroscientist Lynda Shaw, this is due to our desire to be part of a group. She explained: “Intelligence/gossip are the lifeblood of many groups and can travel at a fast pace in organisations, affecting our reputation. With so much uncertainty in this current age, group membership is increasingly vital. Effectively we want to stand out less and merge into a group more. This affects our ability and desire for public speaking.”

Many areas of the brain affect our public speaking, she suggested. “Memory is hugely involved in bringing insecurities to the surface by recalling occasions of angst, embarrassment or nerve-racking experiences. The limbic system, which is a major part of emotional processing, especially the amygdala which is associated with fear and memory, is involved in our fight or flight response to threat. The prefrontal cortex consciously assimilates higher executive functions such as planning, decision making and moderating our social behaviour. 

“For example, in worrying ‘if I don’t do well in this presentation then my job may be on the line.’ Any or all of these may result in a rush of adrenalin, creating symptoms such as shaky hands, dry mouth, a red face and racing heartbeat that many of us will be familiar with.”

Shaw is of the belief that not only are we more afraid of public speaking and outing ourselves on a platform in front of our peers, but we are increasingly less likely to give our opinions to colleagues because of stress and a lower tolerance of different opinions.

“We are fearful of telling people what we think because of the repercussions we believe this has on our group membership, magnified further by the power of online communities and social media,” she said. “It has become so easy to shame people anonymously.”

Shaw’s advise is to embrace public speaking. “Fear can do things such as cause us to speed up when speaking in public, a sort of ‘I’m going to get this over as soon as possible’ attitude, whilst possibly throwing away an opportunity we could have used to shine,” she explained. “Not addressing this fear is a sure way to undermine your own success. Being able to ‘own the room’ will grant you numerous advantages in your professional life as it will help you connect better with people and will enable you to shine.”

As such, we rounded up a few of her tips on how to overcome the fear of public speaking.

(1) Look at the audience as your friends. “In actual fact they want you to do a good job,” she suggested. “Focus on the friendly faces who are smiling and nodding. They will help give you confidence.”

(2) Think of the bigger picture. Identify any nerve-wracking memories associated with public speaking and evaluate whether it really mattered in the grand scheme of things.

(3) The fear you are feeling is just like a bully. You might think it has the power over you but when you confront your fear head on, it should fade away, she said.

(4) You may find you love it – so why not give it a try. There is no greater rush than doing something positive and releasing those endorphins after doing something you might have been afraid of, whether that be a presentation to your colleagues or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Have you ever heard someone say they regret doing a skydive?

(5) Failure isn’t as bad as it seems. As Winston Churchill said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Our mistakes help us grow as people and give us the knowledge to make us stronger.

(6) It is important to surround yourself with people who want you to succeed. This positivity that will surround you will give you a more determined outlook and will help you persevere, despite your fears.

(7) Use visualisation. “Try and imagine yourself conquering the fear that you are so afraid of,” Shaw explained. “Then imagine the worst that could happen, and then think of yourself overcoming the hurdle with ease. Even if the worst case scenario does happen, it’s not the end of the world.”

(8) Always prepare beforehand. “There is an old cliché that says ‘if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail’, and it’s true,” she said. “The more prepared you are the more likely you are to do well. And remember the audience doesn’t know what you are going to say, so if you forget something just keep going as long as it still makes sense!”

Image: Shutterstock

Meanwhile, columnist Bryan Adams explains how harnessing stand-up comedy taught him the art of crafting a successful pitch.

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