An acquaintance told me a story recently about the public speaking experience that paralyzed her mentally for five years.
As the valedictorian of her high school class, she had prepared a speech called “The Power of the Mind.” She was not anxious about the speech, as she was an experienced performer and speaker. She began her speech confidently, with a strong opening.
A short way into the speech, she found herself wondering, “what if I fainted?” It made no sense, since she was not afraid of public speaking, but she started to question whether she would be able to finish the speech. As this thought took hold, she started to see spots in front of her eyes. She began to feel dizzy. She grasped the lectern with all her strength to keep from collapsing.
Finally, she got a grip on herself, took some deep breaths, and was able to finish the speech. She hadn’t delivered it the way she had hoped, but was able to do it without falling over.
For the next five years, every time she had to give a presentation, she would panic, and this fear – that was literally created out of her own mind – took over.
Most of our fears and anxieties about public speaking are based on thoughts that have very little to no basis in reality. Sometimes, a person has actually had real-life negative experiences that trigger those fears. But it’s just as likely that a person who dreads public speaking has never had a bad public speaking experience.
I had a similar experience, in that I created fear and anxiety in my mind, but it was not about public speaking. Here’s another example of this amazing power our minds have to create – and control – fear.
In 1990, I was hit head-on by a car while driving my scooter. I wasn’t wearing a helmet; my head and the car’s front end met in the middle of a busy intersection. I was lucky that nothing was broken and that I didn’t suffer a more severe head injury. Recovery was slow, and soon after the accident I started having panic attacks.
I couldn’t sit in a crowded restaurant. I couldn’t tolerate the middle seat at the movie theater. Elevators made me anxious, and my biggest fear was sitting inside an airplane for ten hours, unable to get out. With a trip to Europe already planned, this was going to happen, whether I liked it or not.
I was referred to a therapist who specialized in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She taught me breathing, visualization and relaxation techniques. I started to find myself reversing the panic attacks. If I felt one coming on, I could close my eyes, visualize a calming scene, breathe deeply, and conquer the anxiety. It was a powerful tool.
However, I realized that I could also CREATE a panic attack, just by thinking of the trigger. So now, I could sit in the middle seat at the movie theater, but I would start worrying, “what if I have a panic attack?” By letting the idea get comfortable in my mind, I could create the panic attack out of thin air. Now I had the tools to combat the attack, and I also had the tools to create one from scratch.
To this day, I am more comfortable in a aisle seat. I know that I can handle a claustrophobic trigger, but I still avoid putting myself there, knowing what my brain is capable of. At the same time, when I don’t have a choice, I know my brain can handle that, too. Recently, I attended a Cirque du Soleil traveling performance. Anyone who’s been to one of these shows knows how tightly packed the audience is. The big top is crowded, dark, hot, and literally defines claustrophobia! I sat through the performance – in a middle seat! – and had a great time, not once feeling the dread (or allowing it to) take over.
If our mind is powerful enough to create fear from “nothing,” it’s also powerful enough to reframe our thoughts to propel us forward in a positive way. There have been many books written about the power of positive thinking – the most well-known of these is Norman Vincent Peale’s, first published over 50 years ago. Recent medical research shows, for example, that a positive expectation of a medication has real measurable physical effects (not just the psychological “placebo effect”) on our health.
How does this apply to you as a public speaker? You can control the amount of fear and anxiety you experience around public speaking. You have the power to turn negative and fearful thoughts into positive ones. How do you do it?
1. The first step is being aware of your negative thoughts. Many of these thoughts are subconscious, but becoming aware of them and bringing them forward to your conscious mind is an important step. Once you are aware of these thoughts, you are then able to replace them with positive thoughts. You might say the following to yourself, “I’m an excellent speaker. People want to hear what I have to say. I’m going to have a great time. I’m excited about sharing my expertise.” You choose the words that work for you; the important thing is to say them to yourself. This is the first step toward believing your positive thoughts.
2. The next step is visualizing yourself being successful at public speaking. Using your imagination, close your eyes and see yourself in the venue, speaking to an attentive audience. They are smiling and nodding. They are fascinated by what you have to say! Visualize yourself standing confidently, smiling and delivering your presentation clearly, concisely and with passion and enthusiasm. Imagine the audience applauding at the end (why not have a standing ovation while you’re at it?). Imagine people seeking you out afterward, expressing gratitude and appreciation for what you’ve just taught them.
3. Finally, you will want to prepare physically for your presentation. On your way to the venue, warm up your voice by singing along to your favorite music. Breathe deeply. Once you get there, stretch and massage your back, neck, shoulders, chest, jaw and face. Continue deep breathing to bring oxygen to your brain and muscles, improve blood flow, and reduce tension that can make your voice weak or quivery.
If you have severe and paralyzing fear, it might help to see a therapist to get started, but most people who fear public speaking are not paralyzed or phobic. These simple tools may be all you need to start turning around your perceptions. It won’t happen overnight, but if you commit to changing your negative thought patterns, you have the power to make it so.
After five years, my acquaintance finally took control of her public speaking fears, and so can you!