Want to know a bit of a secret? I kind of love public speaking.
I know, I know. Public speaking is the #1 cited fear in America. The majority of people would rather do damn near anything else except get up in front of a group of people they don’t know (or even people they do know.) And here I am, quite possibly one of the quietest and introverted people I know, and I love getting up in front of people to talk.
I didn’t always love public speaking though. When I was in jr. high, I ran for a student council position unopposed and was “sick” the day I was to present a speech in front of the whole school. Fast forward to today where I’ve given countless academic presentations, trained employees for Disney, and have spoken in front of over 20,000 people.
So what changed? Fun fact-it wasn’t that I simply gained experience. In college, I had already been a Disney trainer and spoken in front of thousands. I still shook like a leaf when presenting to my undergrad peers.
Was it reframing the experience or using visualization or meditation techniques? Not so much. I understand how those can be beneficial, and now I use those skills all the time, but even as recently as a few years ago, my level of public speaking angst was far too strong for those to really make a difference.
It was experience and re-framing. When the fight/flight/freeze is triggered, which it often is when people step on stage, the brain is seeking one specific end result, and it’s not a successful speech, it’s surviving. If that means you freeze and stammer, or speak 10x faster than humanly possible, and it gets done, your brain chalks it up to a win. So, simply doing something frightful isn’t going to help achieve the ideal end result.
Likewise, mindfulness practices alone, have a significant disconnect with physical end results in more significant events of anxiety and fear. Preparing through breathing techniques or mindfulness skills can help a lot, but muscle memory and state-dependent learning are still core physiological processes that need to be addressed. External triggers can provide additional cues and support the mindfulness practices you use.
What does this look like?
Glad you asked!
I recently, made my mature debut into professional society by speaking at a conference full of executives with backgrounds in topics I know very little about. Not only was I speaking in front of people that could very well directly influence my future, I wasn’t positive the content I was presenting had a direct connection to the overall conference. I had my first case of legitimate nerves about presenting in a long time. But, then I did it! And throughout the rest of the conference heard glowing reviews beyond the requisite “good job.” I attribute my kick-ass level of success to the following blend of tools-
That’s right. If you haven’t seen the TedTalk on power posing or even the brief rundown given by Amelia on Grey’s Anatomy, go watch one of those. Or both. Pretty much, it comes down to if you puff up your chest and stand like a superhero (or another stance that makes you big) your body releases more testosterone and other wonderful brain chemicals to prepare for battle. Whatever that battle may be-public speaking, a meeting with your boss that you’ve been dreading, a test, etc. (Side note for all you smarties out there-I know that a replication study was done with different findings, but there were significant methodological and cultural differences which could very well account for the alternative findings.)
Before leaving for the speaking location, I combined the breathing outside the box skill with a power pose, and walked out feeling 10x more confident than before.
I don’t mean literally shiny (though, I guess that could work...Whedon fans you know what this means)
Have something on or near you that is a bit of a distraction. A true statement piece of clothing, a pair of cool glasses, something that is noticeable that you love. That way, you know people will be checking out that thing (not you) and you know you can own it like no one’s business. It’s dual purpose, a bit of a distraction for the audience and a huge confidence booster for you. This time around, I wore a tomato red dress that fit like it was made for me, so I felt fab, and I had bright pink and purple hair, which definitely attracts attention. I did not look like your average conference speaker. There was a lot of black, grey, and beige on stage throughout the event. I knew I was keeping people on their toes. (Bonuses for the use of this tactic-generating curiosity naturally primes people to remember the information you present. Also, doing something unexpected triggers an emotional and chemical reaction in the brain that facilitates the development of memories. By usurping expectations, you’re helping your audience have a better learning experience.)
3.You do you.
In the days leading up to my time slot to present, I watched a lot of other presentations. I could not believe how stiff and cold everyone was. Please please please don’t think I’m being critical of the speakers themselves, I know how difficult these speeches are and how hard people work to be prepared. I am being critical of the culture and cultural expectations of boring beige or black and white talks -- but me, I prefer shiny and colorful. It didn’t help that the conference topic wasn’t particularly the most engaging, or that the audience and industry had different ideas of what a presentation should look like which did not match my previous experiences. It was clear that they expected and we conditioned into one particular style, and I was taught and preferred another.
However, I didn’t let these differences intimidate me or influence the way I was going to present. In fact, it furthered my resolve to go out there and do my thing because I knew, at the very least, they would be engaged if only because the change in tone and the addition of some color. It was that resolve that allowed me to stand on stage with a coworker and banter about being a stereotypical Portland millennial, and joke about Tinder in front of a group of people, who I now realize, has likely never even downloaded or even heard of it. So ya, that joke tanked, all I got were a few pity chuckles, BUT I was able to move on to rock the rest of the talk because I was being authentic.
Just remember -- so much of people’s fear of public speaking comes from fear of rejection by the audience. But in reality, anyone who gets up behind that podium is miles ahead of those in the audience because many of them wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. Also, a majority of the audience wants the speaker to be successful! Personally, I get more of a confidence boost from the knowledge that the majority of the audience wouldn’t even get up there.
So, the next time a public speaking opportunity comes up (be it in the office, at a community group, anything) take it. And know that by saying yes, you’re already kicking so much ass!