All speech for business is public speaking. The fear of public speaking can put an unnecessary ceiling on your business success. This fear is unnecessary, but it feels very real and very intense. It should because a fear of public speaking is real, and social anxiety can make it worse.
The way you perceive things is subjective. However, there are some very real forces that are present whenever you find yourself in a public speaking scenario. The good news is that, once again, all business communications are a form of public speaking. That means you have many smaller opportunities to prepare yourself for the big rush of a presentation or a large event. You just need to look at it the right way and practice, practice, practice to overcome your fear.
The Three-Headed Monster of Speaking In Public
There are three forces at work whenever any individual finds themselves in the public speaking spotlight: the energy of attention, the sense of judgment, and the fear of consequences.
Most people lump them all together and call it “nerves” or stage fright. That nervous feeling is actually a reaction to the sudden awareness of the three-headed monster coming toward you. It sounds like a fantasy but these forces are real—and ever present. In order to tame the beast and become a less fearful speaker, you must look at the three heads separately.
1. The Energy of Attention
The energy of attention is the strongest of the three and it is actually the trigger for the other two. Whenever you speak to even one person, you can feel the energy of their presence including nervous energy and they can feel yours. Increasing the number of people you are addressing increases that level of attention or focus. It is a very real condition, just like the weather. You can’t change it and you can’t ignore it. But you can see it for what it is. The energy of attention is the main reason why there is always a feeling of excitement when you speak to a group. The larger the group, the higher the level of attention. If you are uncomfortable with the energy, you will probably find yourself feeling nervousness.
2. The Sense of Judgment
The second force that suddenly enters a public speaker’s awareness is the sense of judgment. The word judgment itself often gets a bad rap. No one likes judgmental people and a final judgment sounds so ominous and well, final. But we use our judgment in so many ways to make good and important decisions every day. Judgment is also the sense that your listeners use to determine if you are indeed “driving the bus” and if they are comfortable following along.
So, when all eyes are on you and you feel like everyone is judging you, they are! It is what they are supposed to do and it is, in fact, what you want them to do. Acceptance of this reality goes a long way toward helping you see things for what they are. Audience reactions are an indicator of judgment.
3. The Fear of Consequences
The last head on the monster is the fear of consequences. This force is not as strong as the first two, but it is constantly there in the back of your mind. It can be a general feeling of wanting to make good impressions and taking advantage of this opportunity to advance your career. On a personal level, you may also fear stumbling and letting yourself down once again. Your mind can slide very quickly into the cloud of consequences if you don’t recognize the triggers that push you there. It can happen in the blink of an eye if you’re not prepared, contributing to your fear of public speaking.
Your mind can slide very quickly into the cloud of consequences if you don’t recognize the triggers that push you there. It can happen in the blink of an eye if you’re not prepared. @PaulGeigerPSA
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The Energy of Attention is the primary trigger for the nervous feeling so many individuals experience and create a fear of public speaking. I mentioned earlier that when two people speak, they both feel the energy of each other’s attention. When the number of participants changes, the ratio of the energy of attention changes too. Add four more people to the mix and you will feel five times the energy of attention coming toward you when it’s your turn to speak. Conversely, your attention toward each listener has now dropped to one-fifth of what it was during the one-on-one conversation. That hardly seems fair! Knowing what is happening in these types of scenarios goes a long way to explaining what you perceive and making sense of it.
Worrying about whether you are going to feel this energy imbalance coming toward you in those crucial first seconds is where the fear of public speaking develops. Fear is anxiety over what you think is going to happen. When you know what will happen, you can better prepare yourself. It’s comparable to standing at the edge of a lake and worrying about whether you will get wet when you jump in. You can choose not to jump in. But when you have to give a speech or presentation, you are going in the lake!
The scientific word for acceptance of circumstances is habituation. Becoming accustomed to anything will happen over time. Because the rush of energy in the opening moments of public speaking is so sudden and overwhelming, your body reacts with a fight or flight response. Many people experience dry mouth which can make the fear of speaking publicly worse. You can condition yourself to lessen this response if you recognize what is going on, and you can ride the initial wave of energy.
Now that you know the cause of your nervousness, you will be able to focus your mind on what really is and isn’t going on. That’s all well and good. But how do you stop your body from repeating the same behavior over and over again? The fight or flight response causes tightness in the body, a clenching of the diaphragm muscle, dry mouth, and shallow breathing. By focusing on your diaphragm muscle, you will ease the tension and increase your inhalation of air that is so vital to being able to speak in front of an audience and move things forward.
Try This Exercise Before Public Speaking
Here is a simple exercise that will increase the amount of control you have over your diaphragm muscle. Inhale slowly over four seconds. Then exhale even more slowly. The amount of time that an individual can exhale will vary. Try to allow all of the air in your lungs to slowly escape.
Once you have reached that point, resist the urge to breathe in too quickly. Wait for three to four seconds as if you are calmly sitting at the bottom of a pool before you take a long welcomed inhalation. This is the key to the exercise and the key to your relaxation and control.
Now slowly repeat this exercise, extending the length of your exhalation. Make sure you are always attempting to squeeze out the last remaining air in your lungs. As you repeat this exercise, you should feel an increased sense of calm and relaxation.
Focusing on breathing will also serve as your primary source of forward momentum when speaking in public. It will give you the strong start that you need. The first, then seconds are critical. This is the time that you can establish that you are in charge, but not in an adversarial way. Remember, the majority of listeners are empathetic and want to hear what you have to contribute.
Don’t let the true nature of public speaking surprise you. Far too many people lose their way, wondering, “why is this happening again?” You need to practice recognizing the forces that are at work in less stressful situations.
Participating in an impromptu meeting can be a good practice ground to overcome your fear of public speaking. Remember that all business communications contain an aspect of public speaking. The reduced pressure of speaking at a meeting will allow you to monitor your reactions and get your mind and body used to being more at ease with the circumstances that surround you.
Habituation takes recognition, practice and time. Public speaking does not have to be a once a month or a once a year roll of the dice. If you can eliminate the element of surprise, your odds for success will greatly increase and you will improve your speaking skills.
It may sound like you’re playing with fire, but you have no choice. Your comfort, your confidence and your career depend on your ability to deal with the fear and to harness the power of public speaking. @PaulGeigerPSA
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It may sound like you’re playing with fire, but you have no choice. Your comfort, your confidence and your career depend on your ability to deal with the fear and to harness the power of public speaking.
The energy of attention, the sense of judgment, and the fear of consequences are all real. Together they create an unstoppable wave that you need to recognize and prepare for in any business setting. This reality can certainly compound any lack of confidence you may have in your speech technique or exacerbate your social anxiety and fear of public speaking.
On the flip side, learning to ride the wave can increase the power of your message exponentially and make contact with the audience. It may sound like you’re playing with fire, but you have no choice. Your comfort, your confidence and your career depend on your ability to deal with the fear and to harness the power of public speaking.