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Does Public Speaking Make You Nervous?

What you can do to minimize the anxiety

I remember reading somewhere that people prefer dental work to public speaking. After a few months of dental work which included root canal, I can’t say I agree with that. But what if you think that public speaking is the worst thing in the world but you have to do it anyway? There are things you can do to minimize the anxiety and trepidation associated with public speaking. You can begin by reframing your thoughts.

One of the things that might be helpful is to think about the fact that most people are largely unaware of someone else’s actual state of anxiety and discomfort when presenting before an audience. We are all in our own worlds made up of our own thoughts. According to the research done by the psychologist Elaine Aron, it is only about 20 percent of the population that has some keen awareness or “high sensitivity” to the nuances of other people. That means that the other 80 percent is not that cued in to noticing that you are nervous. Nor do most people particularly care. People are more concerned with content than whether the person is nervous saying it. Think about it: When we listen to politicians, in our eagerness to hear what they have to say, or in our outrage to what we've heard, do we really care about whether they are nervous? We all come from our own reference point and nobody really knows what is going on with someone else (unless they actually tell you.) So if you think that everyone can tell that you are nervous, there is a really good chance that they have no idea.

And here are some things that might help lower the anxiety associated with public speaking.

1. Do your homework and plan what you want to say. As obvious as that might seem, “I'll wing it" doesn't always work. Think before you speak. Case in point, political speechs that leave us wondering why clearly no thought was given to some outrageous thing that was said. Knowing what it is that you want to say goes a long way in lowering anxiety.

2. Write down what you are going to say. Just knowing that you've written down on paper what it is you plan to say lowers your anxiety. A thoughtful toast at a wedding read from a napkin, for example, is always well received and no one cares that it wasn't memorized. I suggest note cards printed or written in a really large font that you can see comfortably at a distance. (So you don't have to squint or fumble for reading glasses.) If you have to fall back on reading, so be it—it is not the worst thing in the world. Teleprompters were made for a reason.

3. Give yourself permission to be imperfect. Of course you want to do a great job, but expecting to never mess up is not realistic. Sometimes we're not on our game and you need to give yourself a break. By being kind to yourself, you lower the anxiety that contributes to messing up.

4. And finally, do something nice for yourself after you've finished. In a behavioral way, positive reinforcement sets the stage for future successes.

More from Maria Baratta Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
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More from Maria Baratta Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
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