Over the years I've come to realize that my relationship to public speaking is one big approach/avoidance conflict. Since this is true of many people, and since approach/avoidance lies at the heart of many an emotional roadblock, let me share some tips with you.

1. If I didn't care about speaking, I would just avoid doing it, and that would be that. But I do care. The truth is that I want to be great at it. I have ideas I want to share, and while I think that books are the best and most beautiful medium (and I am starting to love blogging too!), I recognize that microphones are really important too. That's why I've done tons of speaking even though writing comes more naturally to me.

2. If deep down you feel the same way, admit it -- and be proactive about conquering your fear. Feeling like you’re taking charge may liberate you. As I've explained here, I recently launched my Year of Speaking Dangerously, in which I will train myself, in the style of a marathon runner, to become the best and bravest speaker I can be. You can have a YSD too. I would love to hear about your progress. We can egg each other on.

3. But maybe you don’t have an approach-avoidance conflict. Maybe you have no conflict at all, and really would just prefer to avoid public speaking altogether. In that case, try to structure your life so you don’t have to give speeches. If this means accepting a lower pay grade or declining a promotion, so be it. People always talk as if this is a craven capitulation to your fears and demons, but I disagree. There are more important things in life than advancing at the office. Einstein was a patent clerk, for Pete’s sake.

4. If you do want to conquer your conflict, though, you need to know that “approach” and “avoidance" are not abstractions or metaphors. They are physical systems in your body. Researchers have been talking about these systems for decades and are still trying to fully understand them. They travel under different names in the scientific literature. The approach system is sometimes called the “Behavioral Activation System (BAS), " or, more popularly, the "Go system.” The avoidance system is sometimes called the “Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS)" or, colloquially, the "Stop system.” Your Go system revs you up and makes you excited. Your Stop system slows you down and makes you cautious and vigilant. It is an evolutionarily ancient system; it helped your ancestors notice that what appeared to be a harmless rock was actually a tightly coiled snake.

5. Everyone has both a Stop System and a Go System. But many introverts seem to have extra-strength Stop systems that tend to act up as they contemplate doing scary things like speech-giving.

6. The best way to over-ride your Stop System on speech-making day is to stimulate your Go System. To do this, do something – anything – that makes you feel “up” and excited. Exercising could work, unless you have frizzy hair like mine, in which case the nice endorphins you generated with all your running about will be offset by the horror of having messed up your hair so dreadfully. (A lot of blow-drying went in to getting my hair that smooth for the photo in my profile!)

Other ideas: Try talking on the phone to a friend who makes you laugh just as you enter the room where you’re to give your speech. My hilarious friend Judith has never failed me in this regard.

Once you get inside, smile at people:

even if you feel like shrieking:

7. It also helps, almost more than I can say, to speak on topics you care about. The sheer excitement you feel for your subject can get your Go system – er – going. If your work compels you to speak on topics that leave you cold, consider a different line of work. (See my post on how to find work you love, here.)

In a post coming soon, I'll give you a quick way to tell the relative strength of your Stop and Go systems. Stay tuned!

How about you? Do you enjoy public speaking? What techniques have you used to calm your jitters? Or are you among the lucky few not to have any?

If you like this blog, you might like to pre-order my forthcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

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About the Author

Susan Cain

Susan Cain is the author of QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking and the co-founder of Quiet Revolution, a startup that aims to help businesses manage their introverted employees.

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