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Beat Public Speaking Anxiety with the "As If" Technique

Public speaking doesn't have to be as stressful as it is for most people.

It’s remarkable that so many people really hate (and I do mean hate!) speaking in public. According to numerous surveys public speaking anxiety is one of the most common fears that people experience. A lot of folks would rather chew off their own arm than give a speech in public. Yet, all of us are asked, at one time or another, to do public speaking. As a college professor I constantly talk in front of others (and do so for a living) but regardless of your job or situation in life (even if you don’t work at all) you’ll have to give speeches of some sort. For example, you’ll sure to be called upon to give a toast at a wedding, birthday, or anniversary celebration. You’ll likely be asked to give a eulogy at a funeral or explain your work to a group of colleagues. You just can't get through life without some public speaking demands and so if you are fearful of speaking in front of others you might as well learn a few good coping strategies.

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This week I’m asking my psychology students here at Santa Clara University to give “elevator speeches” in class. These are brief presentations that you might be asked to do when you are talking to someone in an elevator. For example, here in Silicon Valley where I live and work, some of my friends and neighbors who work (or have worked) at Apple would say that if they found themselves in an elevator with Steve Jobs he would typically ask them what they were doing for him today and they would have to give a brief presentation in the elevator of what they were working on and how it would benefit both him and Apple. 

In my class, each student is asked to give a five-minute speech on a behavioral health care topic of their choice as if they were on an elevator at a conference and someone asked them about their professional research or practice interests and work. So, they are asked to give a fairly high stakes and spontaneous 5 minute talk to a small group of peers. Although a public speaking course is not a requirement within our university core curriculum I think that it should be. Everyone should learn to be a better speaker in my view and this is one of the many efforts that I try to make with my students to help them. When I ask students how many of them are pretty fearful of speaking in public typically a third to a half of the class will sheepishly raise their hand. So, giving students an opportunity to practice using helpful and evidence based strategies in a safe environment is important. 

How can you be a better speaker and appear more comfortable and confident? How can you give a better elevator speech? There are no simple answers and too many excellent strategies for this brief blog post but one thing to keep in mind is the “as if” approach.

Think of someone who can act as a good model of a confident and comfortable speaker. Perhaps it is someone that you know well or someone you have watched give talks. Now, pretend that you are an actor/actress and behave “as if” you are that skilled person when you present your speech. Research, as well as best clinical practices, has demonstrated that if you can behave in a particular way (e.g., confident, comfortable) then your feelings will follow your behavior. For example, force a smile or laugh and you’ll likely feel a little better. Force a frown and you’ll likely feel a little worse. In a nutshell, if you can act like a comfortable and confident speaker (even if you don’t feel that way) you’ll find that you’ll start to feel comfortable and confident over time. Add other helpful public speaking strategies such as good deep breathing techniques, physical exercise before a speech, focus your attention on a friendly face in the room, and practice your speech a lot and you'll do and feel better for sure. 

 Try the “as if” strategy when you give a presentation and see how it works for you. Find a good public speaking role model and act as if you are that model. See what happens.

So, what do you think?

Please check out my web site at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante.

Copyright 2013,  Thomas G, Plante, Ph.D., ABPP 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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