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A simple strategy to reduce your fear of public speaking or any kind of performance anxiety

nervous presenter

It’s past your bedtime. Your stomach is in knots because tomorrow you’re presenting your numbers to the senior leadership team and you’re stressing about everything from whether you’ve the right opener, to what happens if you forget your lines.

Sound familiar? Fear of public speaking, or ‘glossophobia’ is one of the most common workplace anxieties. But it’s possible for even the most fearful speaker to deliver a presentation effectively and even come to enjoy the opportunity of standing before an audience.

The starting point is to employ a key cognitive strategy — and it’s one that may be of particular importance to women (and it works for any number of high-stress scenarios). While there’s no evidence to suggest women are more anxious about public speaking than men, the ability of a female leader to communicate her ideas effectively will accelerate career progression. A report by Catalyst found that publicly celebrating and acknowledging successes has more impact on women’s compensation, career advancement and overall workplace satisfaction than directly negotiating for higher compensation. In other words, learning how to speak up and speak out confidently and authentically is a key career skill, and those moments when you’re asked to formally present offer key opportunities to do just that.

 

Try this cognitive reframing exercise

Most of what drives your fear of public speaking is the thought of being judged and not being seen as valued, right? These thoughts often play out as what psychologists call ‘Thinking Traps’ which are thoughts you tell yourself to be true without any real facts behind them. 

Note the thoughts you have around public speaking and see if you can identify the kind of thinking trap(s) you may be falling into.

 

Statement

Type of Thinking Trap

“I’ve never been good at public speaking.”

‘All or nothing’ thinking

“I’m so nervous I will stumble and forget my words.”

Fortune telling

“If tomorrow’s presentation doesn’t go well it will be the end of my career.”

Catastrophizing

“If it goes well it’ll just be luck.”

Discounting the positives

“I’m failing at this, so I must be a failure.”

Emotional Reasoning

“I sound ridiculous when presenting.”

Labelling

“He’s yawning; I must be boring them.”

Mental Filler

“They are going to think I’m useless.”

Mind reading

“They’ll never ask me to speak again.”

Over-generalisation

“I should have done better.”

Should/Must mindsets

 

The next step is to rate your emotional response to your statement(s). In the context of your statement, ask yourself how strongly you are feeling the following emotions on a scale of 0–100%: anxious/nervous, frustrated, irritated, ashamed, angry, sad, embarrassed, hateful.

Now you’re going to dispute your Thinking Trap, using a simple reframing exercise. Ask yourself these questions.

  1. Do I know for certain that ___________? 
  2. Am I 100% sure that ____________? 
  3. What evidence do I have that __________?
  4. What evidence do I have that ___________ is not true? 
  5. What is the worst that could happen? 
  6. How bad is that? 
  7. Do I have a crystal ball? 
  8. Is there another explanation for __________? 
  9. Does _______ have to lead to or equal ___________?
  10. Is there another point of view? 
  11. Does __________ really mean that I am (a) ___________? 
  12. Is this a helpful thought for me?

Now you will need to spend some time creating some Performance Enhancing Thoughts (PETS). Ask yourself, what other, more rational thought(s) will help me stay focused on the task that would enhance my performance? Once you have identified those rational thoughts, repeat the emotional scale exercise and notice the difference.

Important note — this is not a technique to practise toxic positivity. By doing this exercise, you are teaching yourself to see public speaking as a non-threatening event that you can learn to handle and see yourself as a confident speaker-in-progress.

The ultimate shift you want to make in your mind is that public speaking is not about being evaluated; rather it’s about delivering value to your audience. Ultimately if you see public speaking as an opportunity to deliver a meaningful message that will positively impact the working lives of the audience, then your focus is on the message rather than your performance.

After your presentation, take the time to pause and practise deep breathing to regulate your nervous system and reduce your stress levels. If you did slip-up and find yourself ruminating on mistakes you made, you can go back to the reframing exercise to work through any negative thoughts you’re having.

It’s ok to feel uncomfortable about anything that didn’t go according to plan — as Dr Susan David says, ‘Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life’. BUT, negativity bias means that your mind will make the negative thoughts stick to you like Velcro and let the positive thoughts slide off like Teflon. You need to reverse this pattern so that you can also make space to enjoy the moment. After your presentation, make a point of celebrating your achievement. You faced your fears and deserve the pat on the back. In doing so, you’ll train your brain to focus on the positives, creating all-important neural pathways in the process.