At the start of a coaching pathway or training programme on public speaking, I ask participants to share with me their learning objectives. Some professionals tell me that they want to elevate their delivery, refine their techniques or perhaps learn how to master presenting to large audiences. However, the most common challenge that I hear repeatedly is overcoming public speaking anxiety.
As a public speaking coach, I am constantly on the lookout for different and new techniques of how one can overcome this challenge. Over the past year, I have taken an increased interest in neuroscience, as learnings from this field can be highly beneficial in circumstances when we feel agitated. The human mind is truly fascinating and worth discovering more about.
A highly curious aspect of this research shows that when we are happily excited, as well as when we are nervous, we have a number of physiological responses that happen automatically. The interesting aspect is that, there is no difference between the physiological response to something that we are eagerly excited about and something that we are nervously dreading. This means that we can learn how to use our system to our advantage. If we can conceptualise that the anxiety or stress response is the same as the excitement response, we can then feel different. We can reframe the physiological response, so that we interpret the situation differently. By paying attention to how we label what we are experiencing, we can better manage our anxiety. So, for instance, when you are preparing for a big-stakes presentation, instead of saying, ‘I’m so nervous!’ you can say ‘I’m so excited for this!’. It is about shifting our perception of the physiological symptoms that we are having.
Professor Andrew Huberman, a specialist in neurobiology at Stanford University, focuses on understanding the brain mechanisms controlling anxiety, cognition and performance under stress. He states that, when we are in a state of alertness, our body response – whether it is excitement or nervousness – is automatic, and there are direct control points through which we can control the autonomic nervous system. This means that we can dial down the level of alertness or increase the level of calmness.
When we are in a state of alertness, whether because of excitement or fear, adrenaline gets released which creates agitation in our body and places the mind in a state of focus.. Since agitation was designed to physically move us, the toughest things for several people is to tolerate that level of adrenaline or alertness when they have to be still. The primary function of adrenaline was to move us from whatever position we are, into a new position, sometimes towards things, other times away from things, depending on whether we want the experience or want to avoid it. Neuroscience research has discovered that there is a brain circuit that controls the movement toward threats. Under conditions of anxiety or high levels of alertness, forward movement triggers the activation of a circuit deep in the brain that releases the neurochemical dopamine. This implies that forward movement, towards the goal, triggers the activation of chemicals in the brain and body that will make the pursuit of goal more likely and more pleasurable. Applying this to public speaking and presentations, it is about learning to take the stage and physically step forward.
The concept of “embodied cognition” states that movement itself aids thinking. So, move! Find an excuse to take a few steps to somewhere else. If it’s prior to your talk, go to the bathroom or check the arrangements on stage. If you are already presenting, move with ease and flow towards your audience. In this way, you will dissolve some of your nervous energy.
Under conditions where our mind is not where we want it to be, we can use our body to control the mind. Professor Huberman, who is also a vision scientist, shares a self-induced real-time relaxation that involves eye-movement. EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, simply involves moving the eyes from side to side (not up or down), which triggers suppression of the amygdala, the alertness centre in the brain. This lateral eye movement, which can only take thirty to sixty seconds, is effective for situations like public speaking. Though this technique may sound odd, I encourage you to try it out.
Another real time-control technique is breathing, where we emphasise the exhaling. The exhale emphasised breathing leads to more rapid activation of the calming arm of the nervous system. Here is how you can make this work. Inhale deeply through the nose and just before you hold, inhale a little more air. Hold for a few seconds and then exert a long exhale. When we get stressed, our lungs start to collapse and flatten out. The double inhale brings maximal air into our lungs and when we exhale in an elongated manner, we offload the maximum amount of carbon dioxide. So if you ever find that your heart is pounding and you want to calm down, try the double inhale and then exhale slowly. Studies show that within just one to three of those cycles, our nervous system starts to shift more towards calmness.
I encourage you to try out some of these recommended techniques to reduce your speaking anxiety when it surfaces. The more you identify what works best for you, the better equipped you will be to achieve your goal of communicating confidently and effectively.
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