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Stage Fright

Teach Your Brain to Succeed at and Enjoy Public Speaking

Transform your fear of public speaking into confident anticipation.

Key points

  • Anxiety before public speaking is normal, and doesn't necessarily predict a poor outcome.
  • Train your brain to be less anxious before speaking, by revisiting past successes in your mind.
  • Visualizing a successful future speech can reduce anxiety and enhance your performance.
  • Calm yourself before a speech by orienting your mind toward positive values, benefits, and probable success.
Geralt / Pixabay
Geralt / Pixabay

My first big speech was almost exactly 20 years ago. I’d been writing a column for a national magazine, and they invited me to give a presentation at a large wellness conference.

A couple of years before that, I left my ER residency because of burnout, depression, and trauma-related symptoms. I wanted to help people worldwide improve their mental and physical health and started dreaming of being a writer, author, and speaker. This was a key opportunity to step out onto that path.

I said yes, and the angst set in. I worried about the speech every day, for months. My fretful hands kept snapping pencils and breaking pens.

What if I made a fool of myself? What if I discovered that I wasn’t any good at speaking? Worse yet, what if no one came to the presentation? I almost fainted at the last thought.

It turned out that my chosen topic, “The Mind-Body Connection,” drew a huge crowd. There weren’t enough seats, so people lined the walls and sat on the ground in front. The publisher who had invited me told me that people were even listening outside, through the doors.

It wasn’t a great speech, though they did laugh at my one carefully planned joke. I remember marveling at the people on the ground. They were writing down things that I said, which meant they found it useful. I knew then that I could do this.

The anxiety didn’t go away, though. Ten years later, before traveling to yet another speech, I had a mini-meltdown. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” I told a friend. “I can’t take all the stress leading up to the speeches. It wrecks my quality of life.” My friend gave me a lecture, and I went to give the speech. As usual, it went well and I deeply enjoyed the experience. My pre-event nerves had nothing to do with the outcome.

Today, I mostly look forward to speeches, even the really big ones that would terrify almost anyone.

My secret? I’ve wired my brain to believe that even the scariest, high-pressure event will go well and that I will thoroughly enjoy it. The anxiety still flares sometimes, but I know what to do when it does.

Here are some of my most effective pre-speech brain-training strategies:

1. Remind your brain of positive past experiences. Can you think of a circumstance when you spoke in front of others, and it went well? This could be a formal speech, a meeting, or even someone’s birthday party. Close your eyes, and revisit the moment. Use as many of your senses as you can. This will help your brain connect with and retain the truth of this positive memory. Feel how it felt to stand in front of an appreciative group. See their smiling faces and other details. Remember any smells that may have been characteristic of the space. Hear the sound of your voice, and their laughter or applause at the end. Soak it all in, with your eyes still closed. Take a deep breath, remembering how good it felt. Really savor it. In my experience, re-visualization of past positive events reminds me (and my anxious brain) that the odds are high that the next event will go well, too.

2. Imagine the presentation as a joyful, rewarding success. Do the same type of visualization for any event you're feeling apprehensive about or really want to succeed at. Feel yourself on stage or at the podium. Feel and see the outfit that you’re wearing. Feel the lights warming your upturned smiling face. Feel your smile and your joy at connecting with the crowd. Hear them responding to you, laughing at your joke. Hear their applause. See their smiling, nodding faces. Imagine what this space smells like, too. Again, feel how good it feels to be an effective communicator, to enjoy standing up and sharing something important with people.

Your brain can’t always tell the difference between visualization and reality, so to your mind it will be like this “success” has already happened. When the actual event comes along in real life, your brain is already trained to expect to succeed, enjoy it, and do your best.

3. Write down your reasons for doing the presentation, along with the benefits. Remind yourself why this public speaking occasion is good for you and your life. Why were you asked to do it? What positive impact might you have? How does this opportunity align with your values and your goals for your life?

Remind yourself regularly of these aspects. Your positive motivations and the potential benefits can overshadow any anxiety-based regrets you may have about agreeing to speak.

4. Remind yourself that nerves enhance performance. To a certain degree, it’s good to be nervous. It’s well-established that our highest performance only happens with a certain amount of nervous system arousal. Virtually everyone feels nervous before stepping on stage or getting up in front of a group of people. Remind yourself that those nerves and adrenaline give you an edge that can sharpen your mind and body, making your delivery more powerful and effective. I swear it can make jokes funnier, too.

5. After it goes well, remember how anxious you were. Despite my long history of being anxious before public speaking, the speeches virtually always go well—so well that I now make most of my living as a full-time educator. I have tons of proof that my pesky nerves almost never predict a negative outcome.

Collect memories and examples of times when you were really nervous, but everything went just fine. When you’re tempted to twist yourself up in knots pre-presentation, remind yourself of those experiences.

Your anxiety doesn’t predict the future. You’re going to be just fine. Odds are, you’ll even be great.

© Copyright 2023 Susan Biali Haas, MD

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