It’s no secret that public speaking is stressful for most people. Helping people cope with that stress is something I spend a good deal of my professional life working on, through blog posts, books, speaking, and one-on-one coaching.
In Power Cues, I talk about the importance of self-talk, self-training, visualization, and other such forms of active rearranging of your brain in order to better handle the stress of public speaking. Just like an Olympic skier, you can visualize your high-stress event going well and thereby reduce both the stress and the odds that something will go wrong.
But for some people, productive playing around with the brain is too woo-woo. They can’t literally see the processes, so working on something like positive mental imaging is a leap too far. I was pleased to see a study, then, published in the mainstream science journal Nature, that found, in very straightforward, non-woo-woo terms, that you can in fact use positive memories to drive out stressful ones. The scientists first created a positive memory (in laboratory mice), suppressed it, then stressed the mice, causing them to become depressed, then lifted their depression by re-activating the positive memory. If that sounds like a lot of work for the mice to go through, think of yourself and the crazy amounts of stress you go through getting ready to speak, speaking, and then coming down (and maybe second-guessing yourself) afterwards.
If you’re surprised to learn that scientists can instill memories, suppress them, and then reactivate them, welcome to the world of brain science 2018. The level of control we can maintain over the brain (at least in the lab) is far ahead of the public understanding, which is still stuck somewhere around Mr. Spock’s mind meld or Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “These are not the ‘droids you’re looking for.”
And the point for public speakers is that you can take the fear response you’re experiencing now, replace it with a deliberately created happy memory (of speaking going well) and thereby reduce, if not eliminate, a good deal of stress.
The key is in finding where that fear response came from in the first place. The closer you can get to its origin, the more effective your effort to replace it will be. Did you have a bad experience giving an oral report in school? Is it primarily the fear of exposure, of standing in front of a large group of people, all eyes on you? Or is the fear of going blank – forgetting what you planned to say, and either freezing up or saying something stupid in your effort to keep talking?
It’s important to understand the source of the fear, so that you can go about replacing it with a targeted happy alternative. The brain creates memories, both positive and negative, and then scans the horizon (and the future) for similar activities coming up so that it can prepare the mind and body for what’s ahead. What you want is the brain to think, “Happy day! A speech coming up! That’s like that other time I was the hit of the conference!” Rather than, “Oh no, that’s like the time in the 6th grade when I forgot my speech and everyone laughed at me.”
Put the effort in to identifying the specific aspect of public speaking that’s freaking you out. Then create a positive alternative. Make that alternative like a little movie, as detailed as possible, and then play it over and over in your head until it chases out the fear.
Then you’re ready to speak. And enjoy it.