Whether it is in front of a large crowd, or a small but important audience (a sales pitch, presenting to a classroom of students or peers), there are times in our life when our ability to perform well in front of others can have a big impact. The ability to stay calm and focused under the pressure of the spotlight is a great skill to have. Let’s look at how training your mind can improve your public speaking.
Fear and nerves can negatively impact our presentation or even lead to avoidance or failure; which in turn can have a devastating effect on our self-esteem, confidence and future persistence, limiting our lives and ability to succeed in our passions and careers.
The good news is, it IS possible to overcome this performance anxiety. The following tips can apply to performers of all walks of life – aspiring politicians, teachers, lecturers, sales reps, executives, musicians, sports people, actors, students, lawyers and more. (Of course, if you are looking for a more personalized approach, please feel free to book an appointment with me.)
No matter what your field of public performance, the skills and knowledge necessary for success are fundamentally the same.
The most familiar psychological factor we encounter when preparing for public speaking or performance is nerves.
We stress, worry, get emotionally overwhelmed and assume the worst in preparation for public performance. This leads to unnecessary anxiety, or simply avoiding the situation and giving up.
If we can push past this mental horror-show, we usually find after such events that we are joyful, confident and full of vitalizing energy!
Unfortunately some people find it almost impossible to see past this mental projection and nerves, and do not get a chance to experience the rush of success. These opportunities can be groundbreaking for our careers and lives. In the same way, giving up or connecting them with fear and stress can be devastating for our confidence and motivation in the future.
Confidence in Public Speaking
We often wonder how some people can just get up and access smooth seamless charismatic performance without any trouble. Many people assume you either have it – or you don’t.
But the ability to push past nerves and perform in front of others is not an inbuilt genetic trait. Yes, some people find it easier than others due to personality characteristics, but the majority of this ability is acquired through practice and developing certain mental skills. This process of practice and skill development is accessible to anyone, even the most shy or nervous person.
Below are a few factors worth considering in your approach to public performance, and tips to help you better manage the stressors and challenges involved.
- Our Identity
One of the reasons we struggle so much with public performance is that, without knowing it, we invest who we are in the outcomes of what we do.
When there are many people watching us and the performance means a lot to us, we invest more of our self-image and therefore experience more stress, because the cost of failure is similar to an identity crisis. Not just our performance, but our very selves seem to be on the line. If we can consciously take some identity investment out of the public performance, we can offset a great deal of stress.
Similar to identity investment – and intimately connected – is the judgment of others.
When a performance is being judged, our self-image is being judged, including our appearance. Social judgment in any context can be a source of stress, especially when it is around something we are passionate, talented and invested in. The more people, or the more important the audience and performance is perceived to be, the more we experience stress from other’s judgments.
We generally engage in “mind reading”, assuming we know what others are thinking about us – and when we are anxious, our mind reading thoughts are generally negative. This social judgment can act as a threat to us, similar to a physical threat, and can lead to even more anxiety – a vicious cycle.
We can make efforts to engage less in negative mind reading, to reduce the threat and anxiety we experience.
Threat (real or imagined) is linked to an ancient part of our brains responsible for our security and safety. It is not an intelligent part of the brain, rather it occurs quickly and automatically to keep us safe from harm. The fight or flight response to danger is the commonly known function of this safety centre, preparing our minds and body to run or fight physical threats. Not so long ago in human history this was important, as we had to protect ourselves and our families from many more real dangers than we do today.
Unfortunately this system is activated in the modern world when we have perceived threat – or in other words, threat to our social status, our future success, or our financial stability etc. Most people are not aware that this system is affecting them, but there are physical hints and mental flags that help us to recognize it is operating.
This ancient security system unfortunately tunes our mind and body for a specific and limited group of behaviours, and generally public performance and public speaking is not one of them.
When we feel shaky, have butterflies in the stomach, see the world as a scary place or our lives as a mess, get hot or cold flashes, etc. this is a sign we are in danger. But are we? If we can learn to identify the safety system’s activity and see it for what it is, we can reduce its effect on us and beat the vicious cycle of performance anxiety!
All too often, our future seems to be on the line when we are preparing and executing public performance. Of course we have no idea what our future holds or how life will turn out and never can know this part of life exactly.
But when something is important to us and we have lofty goals and a great deal of time and energy invested, we tend to have a detailed imagined path that we are destined to achieve if we apply the appropriate effort.
Focusing on the impact of a single public performance on our imagined future, can add significantly to stress and anxiety and lead to overcomplicating the performance and feeling overwhelmed.
It is important to reduce the focus on the negative impact of failure on our perceived future. As you can imagine, a future focus can increase the threat to our identity, and the perception and impact of social judgment. Yes, these concepts are all interdependent!
Mastering Public Speaking and Presentation
If we can manage the influence of social judgment on our identity, and the threat to our future self of such social judgment during public performance, the anxiety and nerves we experience will be reduced.
We can do this by preparing for public performance, and improving our ability to plan for these physical and mental challenges. This is a two-part process of education and skill building.
- Education – I believe the first step to improving our public speaking and performance, is to educate ourselves on what fear, anxiety and nerves really are. If we know what’s going on (why we feel what we feel), we are much better at stepping back from these experiences, rather than buying into them as devastating, catastrophising truths that inevitably lead to avoidance or failure. Anxiety and fear can be channeled to help us. According to science and anecdotal evidence, even the best performers experience these feelings, they just know them in a different way and learn to manage instead of run from them.
- Skill Building – We can build skills in both preparing and executing public performance.
The Importance of Preparation
There are a number of skills that can help us to prepare for success when it comes to public speaking and presentation, including:
- Imagery of Success – Building a clear image of what it will be like to succeed under pressure.
- Breaking Preparation into Small Chunks – Goal setting and breaking down the overwhelming, into the manageable.
- Graded Exposure – Exposing yourself to small amounts of fear, and building towards the big event.
- Hardest Training/Replicating Pressure – getting comfortable being uncomfortable! Making prep harder than the event so it seems easy on the day, and practising heaps!
- Anticipating Challenges & Problem Solving Ahead of Time – Brainstorm all the things that could go wrong. and try to account for them by anticipating how you will respond and adapt.
- Positive Self-Talk & Building a Pre-Performance Routine – Positive self-talk and a positive routine before you perform, offset the negatives.
- Managing Stress through Lifestyle Choices – Eating, sleeping, exercising and meditation regularly, helps to balance emotions and become resilient to stress while we prepare for public performance.
- Seeking Social Support – Some people tend to withdraw from the very people who can help them, when they are stressed.
Presenting at your Best!
These are skills that can help us on the day:
- Relaxation Skills – Practising skills such as controlled breathing, calming imagery, muscle relaxation.
- Trust & Utilize your Positive Self-Talk & Routine – It’s important to put into use what you have practised, and trust it will work.
- Confidence Building Reminders – Visual, musical, verbal, or imagined reminders of success can help you feel ready.
- Channel the Fear & Anxiety – Fear and anxiety will be present, and you will draw on them and channel them.
- Act Confident, Ready & Calm – Even when you’re not feeling it, your body language sends messages to your mind as well as other people.
- Stay Focused on the Controllables – When we are under pressure the mind tends to focus on threatening information that we have little or no control over; it’s a skill to stay focused on the controllables.
- Mindfulness – Mindfulness is a great skill to stay grounded in the present moment, allowing us to step back from anxiety and negative thinking, and calm the mind and body for performance.
As a qualified Sport and Performance Psychologist and member of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), experienced in working with corporate professionals, musicians and athletes, I have a wealth of experience in coaching individuals and groups in a variety of settings.
Please contact me about booking a session, for a personalized approach to help you become much more confident in public speaking and presentation.