An acquaintance told me a story recently about a public speaking experience that paralyzed her mentally for five years.
As the valedictorian of her high school class, she had prepared a speech called “The Power of the Mind.” She was not looking forward to the speech, as she was an experienced interpreter and speaker. She began her speech confidently, with a strong opening.
Shortly after the speech, he asked himself, “What if I pass out?” She didn’t make sense, since she wasn’t afraid of public speaking, but she began to wonder if she would be able to finish the speech. As this thought took hold of her, he began to see spots in front of her eyes. She began to feel dizzy. She grabbed onto the lectern with all her might to keep from collapsing.
Finally, he controlled himself, took a deep breath, and was able to finish the speech. She hadn’t delivered it as she expected, but she was able to do it without falling.
For the next five years, every time he had to give a presentation, he would panic and this fear, which was literally created from his own mind, took over.
Most of our fears and anxieties about public speaking are based on thoughts that have little or no basis in reality. Sometimes a person has had negative experiences in real life that trigger those fears. But it’s just as likely that a person who fears public speaking has never had a bad public speaking experience.
I had a similar experience, where I created fear and anxiety in my mind, but it wasn’t about public speaking. Here is another example of this incredible power our minds have to create and control fear.
In 1990, I was hit head-on by a car while riding my scooter. He was not wearing a helmet; my head and the front of the car met in the middle of a busy intersection. I was lucky nothing was broken and I didn’t have a more serious head injury. Recovery was slow and soon after the accident I started having panic attacks.
I couldn’t sit in a crowded restaurant. She couldn’t tolerate the middle seat at the movies. Elevators made me anxious, and my biggest fear was sitting inside a plane for ten hours, not being able to get out. With a trip to Europe already planned, this was going to happen whether I liked it or not.
I was referred to a therapist who specialized in post-traumatic stress disorder. He taught me breathing, visualization and relaxation techniques. I started to find myself reversing panic attacks. If she felt it coming, she could close her eyes, visualize a calming scene, take a deep breath, and beat the anxiety. It was a powerful tool.
However, I realized that I could also CREATE a panic attack, just by thinking about the trigger. So now, I could sit in the middle seat at the theater, but I’d start to worry, “what if I have a panic attack?” By letting the idea settle in my mind, I could create the panic attack out of nowhere. I now had the tools to combat the attack and I also had the tools to create one from scratch.
To this day, I feel most comfortable in an aisle seat. I know I can handle a claustrophobic trigger, but I still avoid putting myself there, knowing what my brain is capable of. At the same time, when I have no other choice, I know my brain can handle that too. I recently attended a Cirque du Soleil road show. Anyone who has been to one of these shows knows how tight the audience is. The big top is crowded, dark, hot and literally defines claustrophobia! I sat during the performance, in a middle seat! – and had a great time, never once feeling fear (or allowing it to) take over.
If our mind is powerful enough to create fear out of “nothing”, it is also powerful enough to reframe our thoughts to propel us forward in a positive way. Many books have been written about the power of positive thinking; the best known is Norman Vincent Peale’s, first published more than 50 years ago. Recent medical research shows, for example, that a positive expectation of a medication has real, measurable physical effects (not just the psychological “placebo effect”) on our health.
How does this apply to you as a public speaker? You You can control the amount of fear and anxiety you experience when speaking in public. You they have the power to turn negative and fearful thoughts into positive ones. How do you do it?
1. The first step is be aware of your negative thoughts. Many of these thoughts are subconscious, but becoming aware of them and bringing them into the conscious mind is an important step. Once you are aware of these thoughts, you can replace them with positive thoughts. You could tell yourself, “I’m a great speaker. People want to hear what I have to say. I’m going to have a great time. I’m excited to share my experience.” You choose the words that work for you; the important thing is to tell yourself. This is the first step to believing in your positive thoughts.
2. The next step is visualize yourself being successful in public speaking. Using your imagination, close your eyes and visualize yourself on the spot, speaking to an attentive audience. They are smiling and nodding. They are fascinated with what you have to say! Visualize yourself standing confidently, smiling, and giving your presentation clearly, concisely, and with passion and enthusiasm. Imagine the audience clapping at the end (why not have a standing ovation while you’re at it?). Imagine people looking up to you afterwards, expressing gratitude and appreciation for what you just taught them.
3. Finally, you will want physically prepare for your presentation. On the way to the venue, warm up your voice by singing your favorite music. Breath deeply. Once you get there, stretch and massage your back, neck, shoulders, chest, jaw, and face. Continue to breathe deeply to get oxygen to your brain and muscles, improve blood flow, and reduce tension that can make your voice weak or tremble.
If you have a severe, paralyzing fear, it may help to see a therapist to start, but most people who fear public speaking aren’t paralyzed or phobic. These simple tools may be all you need to start changing your perceptions. It won’t happen overnight, but if you commit to changing your negative thought patterns, you have the power to do so.
After five years, my acquaintance finally took control of his fears of public speaking, and you can too!