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Why We Experience Public Speaking Anxiety & How to Overcome It

Understanding Your Public Speaking Anxiety 

When we feel those familiar feelings of nervousness and anxiety start to creep in before a public-speaking event we’re faced with the very real threat of having these feelings negatively affect how we perform. And during an event like a work presentation, this is less than desirable (who wants to mess up in front of their boss?). 

But it’s important to remember that you’re not alone in this experience, the majority of individuals (nearly 70% of the world’s population to be exact!) suffer from a fear of public speaking. It even has a fancy scientific name – glossophobia. 

What is Glossophobia?

Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking. Although public speaking can’t physically harm us, it can cause feelings of stress, anxiety, as well as debilitating nerves. All feelings that, if left unmanaged, have the capacity to derail our career success and cause us to avoid seizing professional opportunities. 

F3 Response System (“Fight, Flight or Freeze”)

You may be wondering, what exactly is happening to my body when I experience these feelings of nervousness and anxiety? Have you ever heard of your “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response? Or the more scientific terms – you F3 Response System? This is our body’s way of telling us that we are under a perceived attack, threat or danger. Our mental, emotional and physical state changes. 

While this mechanism is helpful if we encounter real danger (like a bear), it’s not helpful in situations where the real danger is absent (like in a boardroom or on a conference call). In the latter situation, the F3 system can actually have negative impacts on our behaviour and performance at work. 

Recognizing When Anxiety is Helpful v.s. Hurtful 

That’s why recognizing when your Anxiety is helpful and when it’s hurtful can assist you in better learning to manage your F3 response and other feelings when it comes to public speaking. This is why it’s important to distinguish between harmful feelings and when you’ve reached your peak performance state. 

Peak performance state is the balance between productivity and anxiety that we should strive for. Anxiety can work as motivation but once we cross that threshold (like in the diagram below) our anxiety can become disruptive and cause us to become distracted and lose focus. 

Dealing With Negative Self-Talk & Avoidance Behaviour 

While your body’s natural response to stressful situations like a presentation is often the reason behind your nervousness and anxiety, there are other contributing factors that stem from habit that can get us into some trouble when it comes to how effective we are in public speaking. 

If we tell ourselves that we suck at speaking, chances are we’ll be less likely to volunteer to present at the next team meeting. If we make a mistake during a call and beat ourselves up about it for days, we are less likely to want to pick up the phone and make another one. How we speak to ourselves has a direct impact on our confidence and our behaviour1.

Negative self-talk can also cause us to engage in unproductive thinking patterns that include:

  • Catastrophizing 
    • Believing and seeing the worst in situations and people (including yourself) 
  • Personalizing 
    • Blaming yourself for negative events, experiences, or situations that occur
  • Discounting the Positive
    • Failing to celebrate your achievements and dismissing positive events as “luck” while ignoring how you contributed to the outcome 

Those who experience the highest amount of nervousness and anxiety tend to consistently engage in negative self-talk and often overestimate the consequences of a mistake or poor performance. Allowing yourself to consistently engage in negative self-talk can lead to what we call Avoidance Behaviour. 

What is Avoidance Behaviour? 

According to Anxiety Canada, avoidance behaviour is when you avoid situations that evoke feelings of fear and anxiety and is “one of many survival mechanisms designed to protect us from danger.”

It’s your subconscious telling you to avoid a potentially harmful situation. That’s why we avoid or procrastinate things that make us feel fearful (skydiving), cause us discomfort (dentist) and/or make us feel anxious (public speaking). 

Although we all engage in it at some point or another (like procrastinating that root canal) avoidance behaviour becomes problematic when it starts to negatively impact our personal relationships or career growth, like cancelling a big job interview or declining to present at a workplace meeting.

In the workplace, avoidant behaviour when it comes to public speaking may include: 

  • Declining to present at the next team meeting 
  • Failing to speak up on a conference call
  • Avoiding interaction with senior management 
  • Not asking any questions after a client presentation 
  • Declining the opportunity to participate on a discussion panel 
  • Failing to assert your opinion when challenged

If you feel like you struggle with avoidance behaviour you can learn more about it and check out some more tips and tricks to overcome it here

5 Ways to Overcome Your Public Speaking Anxiety 

Luckily, there are ways to overcome our public speaking anxiety – but it’s going to require motivation and a whole lot of practice. Ready? Here are 6 tips we like to use when it comes to our public speaking anxiety: 

1. Establish a Growth Mindset 

A growth mindset is a way of thinking that acknowledges skill-building takes time (yes, public speaking is a skill!) and that it’s ok to make mistakes as we learn and grow. This way of thinking empowers us to try new things, innovate, make lots of mistakes and fail along the way. Someone with a growth mindset knows they will be far from perfect at first but are willing to make a lot of mistakes and fail along the way without it impacting their perception of self-worth and abilities. 

2. Engage in Realistic Self-Talk 

Realistic self-talk means being compassionate, pragmatic, and solution-oriented about your abilities. It means catching yourself engaging in overly negative thinking (negative self-talk)  patterns, taking a step back and questioning these thoughts, asking yourself, “is thinking that I’m going to be perceived as incompetent over a mistake during a presentation a realistic outcome?”, “would I tell that to my best friend?”. In all likelihood, the answer is ‘no,’ in which case you can shelve those thoughts and replace them with more positive and realistic thinking.

3. Identify Your Triggers

Taking a moment to reflect and identify situations that make us feel uncomfortable and trigger feelings of nervousness and anxiety is an important first step. We can then use the newfound knowledge about ourselves to shift our negative feelings into more positive ones like excitement for the opportunity or anticipation of a potential reward (like praise from your boss!) that may follow. 

4. Learn Breathing Techniques 

Your palms are sweaty, your heart is racing, and you can’t seem to slow down your breathing. How can you speak if you’re literally running out of breath?! Argh – frustrating, indeed. For those of us who experience feelings of nervousness and anxiety during presentations, meetings or even casual social situations, this is a familiar (and rather inconvenient) sensation. 

A simple solution to this is the 4-7-8 breathing technique. In summary, to practice this technique all you have to do is: 

1. Inhale from your diaphragm for 4 seconds

2. Hold your breath for 7 seconds

3. Exhale (again, using your diaphragm) for 8 seconds

Use this technique when you start feeling stressed or anxious as a way to calm your nerves. It will help get more oxygen to your brain and muscles, which should address those pesky symptoms of lightheadedness and breathlessness. 

Practice 

What better way to get more comfortable with yourself and your feelings when it comes to public speaking than practice? Consistent practice, whether with a co-worker or with yourself can help you feel more prepared for a public speaking opportunity and get you feeling more confident than you’ve ever felt. Who here is ready to learn and practice communicating like a leader?

Give Yourself The Time To Improve 

As much as we wish it was possible, overcoming public speaking anxiety isn’t going to happen overnight. You don’t suddenly become a professional musician after a week of practicing the piano, right? Public speaking is much the same. It’s a skill that over time you’ll become more comfortable and confident in. Patience and practice are key! 

Try out the methods above the next time you feel those nerves and anxiety creeping in, and eventually, the more you use them, the easier it’ll become.

References 

Fritscher, Lisa. “Do You Have Glossophobia-Fear of Public Speaking?” Verywell Mind. Verywell Mind, July 16, 2021. https://www.verywellmind.com/glossophobia-2671860#:~:text=Glossophobia%20is%20a%20subset%20of,tasks%20in%20front%20of%20others. 

“Public Speaking Anxiety.” National Social Anxiety Center, December 7, 2020. https://nationalsocialanxietycenter.com/social-anxiety/public-speaking-anxiety/

“Challenging Your Negative Thinking.” Psychology Tools, 2.020. 2. “Helpful Thinking.” Anxiety Canada, August 26, 2019. https://www.anxietycanada.com/articles/helpful-thinking/.  

“Avoidance.” Anxiety Canada, March 5, 2019. https://www.anxietycanada.com/articles/avoidance/.

 

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