An acquaintance recently told me a story about the experience of public speaking that mentally paralyzed her for five years.
As the valedictorian of his high school class, he had prepared a speech called “The Power of the Mind.” She was not eager for the speech, as she was an experienced interpreter and speaker. He began his speech confidently, with a strong opening.
Shortly after the speech, he asked himself, “What if I faint?” It didn’t make sense, as he wasn’t afraid to speak in public, but he began to wonder if he could finish the speech. When this thought washed over her, she began to see spots in front of her eyes. She began to feel dizzy. He gripped the lectern with all his might to keep from collapsing.
Finally, he controlled himself, took a deep breath, and was able to finish the speech. He hadn’t delivered it the way he expected, but he was able to do it without falling.
For the next five years, every time she had to give a presentation, she would panic and this fear, which was literally created by her own mind, washed over her.
Most of our fears and anxieties about public speaking are based on thoughts that have little or no basis in reality. Sometimes a person has had negative experiences in real life that triggered those fears. But it is equally likely that a person who is afraid of public speaking has never had a bad public speaking experience.
I had a similar experience, in which I created fear and anxiety in my mind, but it was not about public speaking. Here is another example of this amazing power our mind has to create and control fear.
In 1990, a car hit me head-on while riding my scooter. He was not wearing a helmet; my head and the front of the car met in the middle of a busy intersection. I was lucky that nothing broke and that I did not suffer a more serious head injury. Recovery was slow and shortly after the accident I started having panic attacks.
I couldn’t sit in a crowded restaurant. He couldn’t tolerate the middle seat at the movies. The elevators made me anxious and my biggest fear was sitting inside a plane 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 he felt one approach, he could close his eyes, visualize a relaxing scene, breathe deeply, and overcome 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 to worry, “What if I have a panic attack?” By letting the idea get comfortable in my mind, I was able to create the panic attack out of thin air. Now he had the tools to combat the attack and also the tools to create one from scratch.
To this day, I feel more comfortable in an aisle seat. I know 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 have no other choice, I know that my brain can handle that too. I recently attended a traveling Cirque du Soleil performance. Anyone who has been to one of these shows knows how tight the audience is. The tent is crowded, dark, hot, and literally defines claustrophobia! I sat down during the performance, in a middle seat! – and I had a great time, never once feeling fear (or allowing it to take over).
If our mind is powerful enough to create fear out of “nothing”, it is also powerful enough to reframe our thoughts to propel us forward in a positive way. Many books have been written on the power of positive thinking; the best known is that of Norman Vincent Peale, first published more than 50 years ago. Recent medical research shows, for example, that a positive expectation of a drug 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 You can control the amount of fear and anxiety you experience when speaking in public. you they have the power to turn negative and scary thoughts into positive ones. How do you do it?
1. The first step is be aware of your negative thoughts. Many of these thoughts are subconscious, but becoming aware of them and bringing them to your conscious mind is an important step. Once you are aware of these thoughts, you can replace them with positive thoughts. You can say the following: “I am an excellent speaker. People want to hear what I have to say. I am going to have a great time. I am excited to share my experience.” You choose the words that work for you; the important thing is to tell yourself. This is the first step in believing your positive thoughts.
2. The next step is visualize yourself being successful in public speaking. Using your imagination, close your eyes and see yourself in the place, speaking to an attentive audience. They are smiling and nodding. They are fascinated with what you have to say! Visualize yourself standing confidently, smiling, and delivering your presentation clearly, concisely, and with passion and enthusiasm. Imagine the audience clapping at the end (why not have a standing ovation as you do so?). Imagine that people come to you afterward, expressing gratitude and appreciation for what you just taught them.
3. Finally, you will want physically prepare for your presentation. On the way to the place, warm up your voice by singing your favorite music. Breath deeply. Once there, stretch out and massage your back, neck, shoulders, chest, jaw, and face. Continue to breathe deeply to bring oxygen to your brain and muscles, improve blood flow, and reduce tension that can weaken or shake your voice.
If you have severe, paralyzing fear, it may be helpful 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 changing your perceptions. It won’t happen overnight, but if you commit to changing your negative thought patterns, you have the power to do so.
After five years, my acquaintance finally took control of her fears of public speaking, and you can too!