Body language expert Mark Bowden, in his book “Winning Body Language” describes a man who came to him for help because he broke out in hives every time he presented. Mark urged him to accept his fear as the first step forward. Bowden says, “In just about all cases of stage fright, battling the fear is never the answer”.
When we are fearful of public speaking, the thing the thing we fear the most is the fear itself. Fear can turn to panic as we are terrified of the effect being fearful is going to have on us.
When we fight against fear we use two main weapons:
Critical self-talk. It goes something like this. “If you can’t do this you are a failure – no one else looks as nervous as you so for goodness sake just pull yourself together and stop being weak”.
You already feel like a failure and this type of self-talk only increases your feelings of inadequacy.
Forced positive thinking. “Come on, you can do this. Its going to be OK. Its just a speech. You will be fine.” Or perhaps you use affirmations like “I am a calm and confident presenter”.
Affirmations work for some people but the problem with forced positivity is that it’s hard to trick your own mind. When we are worried about presenting it feels dangerous and according to Bowden, we are hard wired to be pessimistic in the face of danger. At the first hint of panic you are likely to revert to critical self-talk with unhelpful thoughts such as “Oh no, I am panicking. I am not OK, and this is going to be really bad.”
Before you present
Try reframing your thinking in a way that is more neutral. “I get really nervous when I present but I am going to do it anyway. The worst that can happen is that people will notice I am nervous.” This is realistic and non-judgemental without forcing positivity.
While you are presenting
You may feel the panic starting to rise. Try letting it ride over you like a wave. If you fight it the panic will almost certainly take over. But if you let it wash over you it will start to lose its power.
If you can present to an audience despite feeling very nervous you have made a great start. If possible, do this in a safe environment, such as Toastmasters, where people wish you well. If things go well it will increase your confidence. And if they don’t go so well, you will collect evidence that nothing really bad happened. Fear-less courses also provide a safe and supportive environment for people with high levels of anxiety about public speaking.
Acknowledge your fear but don’t pay it too much attention!
Article written by Catherine Syme
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