“There are two types of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars.”
― Mark Twain
Heart racing. Palpitations. Palms sweaty.
A general feeling called anxiety.
Who doesn’t experienced those feelings when approaching a pitch or public presentation?
Of course, each one of us with a different intensity.
And one thing is clear: it’s not a matter of how prepared you are, how well you master the topic, or how trained you are with pitching (even if it helps in modulating the emotional reaction). It seems that getting closer and closer to a public performance creates stress.
Let me tell you a brief story
As a scientist, I had the chance to attend numerous international conferences with professionals ranging from: important, well-know, less important or completely unknown (like myself). Besides being specialised in neuroscience, I am fascinated by human behaviour (actually, not only human, but this is another story). Thus, going to a conference resulted in a great anthropological spectacle, observing social and individual public interaction, with and on the stage. Being myself scared about public speaking, I spend a lot of time trying to find an explanation of —or a sort of correlation between— external variables and a given talk’s success (irrespective of the content). I saw very competent professors who were running up and down the room, thereby creating almost a feeling of seasickness amongst the students; others who were screaming or who were having any kind of tic, which are somatic symptoms of anxiety.
I did not find the holy grail of stage-anxiety yet, but I learned something interesting.
Why are we Experiencing These Feelings?
Preoccupation and fear are at the basis of anxiety. The more primitive parts of our brain control our reaction to stimuli that are crucial to our evolutionary survival. The most well-known examples are taking care or avoiding dangerous situations. And these automatic responses are extremely difficult to control. “Glossophobia” is actually described as a form of anxiety and physical distress, avoiding verbal communication. In the worst cases, it can even lead to panic attacks.
Fear responses are also known as “fight or flight syndrome.” These are responses that prepares our body to "fight" or "flee" from a perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival. Like seeing a snake, or a tiger. The automatic reaction begins in your brain and through the hypothalamus’s activation. A series of physiological chains make that adrenaline is released in the bloodstream, resulting in our perceived somatic signs of anxiety.
Some researchers argues that what causes stress, is that we worry about our reputation and “what people may think.” From an evolutionary view, being part of a group was fundamental for our survival: finding food or defending ourselves from predators were much more effective as a group. Others argue that it is something we learn during our childhood. During childhood we are extremely sensible to the opinions of others, as we are still forming our own identity.
Concluding, when we are scared, our brain is biologically predisposed in tell us we have to do everything we can do to survive.
Tip & tricks
But how can we somehow reduce, control, or even overcome this anxiety for public speaking? Here are some useful Tips & Tricks:
1. Prepare ahead of time and be clear and on time
David Beckett, author of The pitch canvans, gives us some useful tips on how to prepare the best three-minutes pitch for your business ideas. Most important, if you have only a couple of minutes, present just three points in your presentation (The power of Three), since that is the amount of information that sticks best to the mind of the audience.
”Three is the perfect number. It is the first number indicating complexity: two can be “either this or that,” three, on the other hand, is “this, that … or the other.”
2. Practice your speech
Do this as much as you can, preferably out loud voice. It’s even better if you can do this in front of friends or family. It helps in getting used to be watched by “potential predators” and you can learn how to manage your physiological reactions.
3. Don’t expect to be perfect.
It increases anxiety and negative thought about consequences of not attending to your expectations.
4. Be positive
Don’t have any negative thoughts about yourself. You are perceived as you feel about yourself.
Visualize success! You will get it! You should be the first believing in yourself! So, go and be successful!
5. Locate a familiar face in the audience
Maybe someone you know, which can make you feel comfortable and forget about the rest.
Breathe deeply between the sentences and before starting the pitch.
Finally… Sit open before pitching and raise your hands for a while. Or take any other “power pose.” It makes you already a winner, as you would get to the end of a run competition. This way you can manage energy flows against anxiety and stress.
Amy Cuddy gave a well-known and insightful presentation on how we can influence our mood and perception through our own body language.