We’ve all heard that speaking in front of a group is the greatest fear for many people…even more so than death.  So, one has to wonder – what is possibly so scary about speaking that you’d rather die than stand up and present?

Here’s the reason why. We are all wired for human connection – it is built in to our brains for survival. If there is any threat to being disconnected from one’s group, tribe, audience, or posse, then a switch goes off in our brains to make sure we stay connected, and stay alive. Back when we were being chased by saber tooth tigers, if we were banished from our tribe, we could pretty much write off any chance of sticking around for very long.

Even though we’ve evolved and we’re now only being chased by deadlines and emails, our lizard brain is still wired to fire us up and sound the sirens when there’s a chance we could be ostracized. Speaking in front of a group is a regular buffet of possible negative social outcomes. We could be laughed at, ignored, ridiculed, fired, patronized, or just stared at stoically with no flicker of acknowledgement that we exist.

THESE are the fears that are lit up when we think about speaking publicly. And although we actually survive these outcomes – and many times grow and improve after a disappointing run at the pulpit, our brains still respond as though there’s a beast nipping at our heels.

So, the million dollar question is – how do we change this?

The problem is that when we’re thinking about standing up and introducing ourselves at that all-important networking meeting, all we’re focused on is our fear and if we’ll freeze or forget what to say. So, our brains basically shut off. Instead, try one or more of these five techniques:

  1. Think about what you’re actually going to say. Think of the words in your mind and picture yourself saying them – forget about the people that are there…what would you actually say? (For you fellow geeks, here’s the neuroscience: the key way to shut off the reptilian fear response is to activate our pre-frontal cortex, which controls our thinking. That is accomplished by speaking words. And deep breathing to counter the stress response…)
  2. Focus on being of service. Think about how you could actually help these people solve their problems and improve their lives. What pain are they experiencing and what could you offer to provide some relief? Taking yourself out of the picture removes the pressure and the fear.
  3. Notice your fear and claim it. “Yes, I am deathly afraid of speaking in front of the neighborhood “Rally For Bunco Night” meeting tonight.” Then acknowledge that your fear is being driven by some outdated, medieval belief of survival that no longer exists. “No, I will not keel over and cease breathing if they don’t like what I have to say. I am nervous, but the worst that can happen is I don’t get the outcome I hoped for and I learn something.”
  4. Change the visual. This is the picture and belief that is lodged in your brain stem…jiggle it loose and replace it with a new, more positive and realistic one. Close your eyes and actually picture yourself speaking at the event (this is what famous athletes and musicians do before a performance). So, picture the Bunco moms and their kids are watching you with excited, interested faces and you’re speaking with complete ease and passion around your topic (maybe it’s proposing that bloody marys be served on Bunco night). Everyone is nodding and hanging on your every word – they love you! At the end there’s a round of applause as everyone sets down their mimosas and marvels at how they never knew they had such a dynamic, interesting neighbor.
  5. Take action. The key to building confidence is taking action. The surest way you can get over your fear of speaking is if you actually stand up and start speaking…ums, uhs, and all. The more you do it, the better you get. The better you get, the more confidence you have. And the more confidence you have, your beliefs around speaking start to shift. Fear…? What fear?

Moving forward, any time you have to speak – retrain your brain to think and feel differently about the event. So, start practicing, formulating your words, and visualizing success. And as a final one-two, be sure to always have a pre-speaking ritual that includes stretching and a physical warm-up. This can get you revved up enough to turn the tables so you feel like YOU’RE the saber tooth tiger.

[photo compliments of Cameron Hypnotics]

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