Advice: Restructuring Public Speaking Fears

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Cognitive restructuring means changing your thoughts.  It’s hard!  Changing my negative thoughts into positive ones remains a huge struggle for me, and I only hope to grow stronger in this area.

For most people, public speaking is an area where we must practice cognitive restructuring.  On the first day of each new course, my students face the same doubts, and their negative self talk reinforces their fears.  These are the five most common negative thoughts I hear from students, and here’s how to change those thoughts:

“No one is going to be able to understand me because I have an accent!”

I have an accent.  Even though I’m from Florida, I was born and raised in the county that bordered both Alabama and Georgia.  My Southern accent is extremely heavy.  As a presentation instructor, I’ve heard all kinds of accents.  My students have come from Europe, the Caribbean Islands, the Middle East, Asia, Central America, and Africa.  Though their accents were distinct, one thing remained consistent: we could understand all of them.  We all vary in the pronunciation of certain words, so as long as the language is the same (in this case, of course, English), nothing prevents an audience from understanding the presenter.  In fact, an accent can help hook your audience in your introduction, as it’s novel, fresh, and engaging.  An audience really only hears the accent for the first portion of the speech.  Then, if the speech’s content is strong (which it should be!), the focus goes from the accent to the message itself.

Instead of the negative self talk, use cognitive restructuring to tell yourself this: “My audience wants to hear what I have to say, and they’ll focus on my content as soon as the novelty of my accent wears off.”

“I’m going to go blank!”

For the classroom setting, when a speech involves a grade, this fear is a big one.  It shouldn’t be!  If you’ve prepared your material and thoroughly researched your topic, the fear should subside.  If not, take down some brief notes (one or two words per line).  Next step: practice, practice, and practice some more.  You should practice your speech at least three to five times.

Say this out loud before your speech: “I am prepared.  I’ve researched my topic, I have notes taken down, and I’ve practiced many times.  If I forget to say something minor, it’s not the end of the world because my audience won’t know… after all, they haven’t read my script.”

“I say ‘um’ too much!”  

Shame on most of you public speaking teachers out there!  Why oh why have you terrified my sweet students about their use of ‘um’ and ‘uh’ ?  As you read this blog post, some evil public speaking teacher somewhere is counting off one point for every “uh” a student says in his speech.  Unreasonable.  Nonfluencies are common in public speaking.  You can listen to any of Barack Obama’s speeches and hear the use of “um” or “uh,” and it doesn’t take away from the meaning of the presentation.  In fact, some argue Obama does it purposefully.  For the most part, nonfluencies go unnoticed unless they are pronounced.  If you say “um” seven times in a 10 minute speech, chances are not a single soul in the audience noticed.  If you say “um” 777 times in a 10 minute speech, we have a problem.

“I have a slight stutter.”  “My left eye twitches!”  “I have leg cramps, so I can’t walk around.”  “I say rely on the word ‘like’ in my speeches.”  “My hands shake a little bit.”

Most of us have some sort of delivery signature.  Mine is using “y’all” too frequently and moving my hands like an airplane flight attendant.  Don’t worry about it!  Again, instead of the negative self talk, repeat this: “No one else will notice my minor delivery issues unless they are pronounced.”

“I can’t handle the tension of giving a speech!”

Yes, you can.  Think about the worst part of a presentation… It isn’t the speech itself; it’s all that time you spend dreading, worrying, and engaging in the negative self talk expressed above.  If you can stop your mind from the negativity, you can cope with the tension in a positive fashion.  You could listen to your favorite music, do a few warm-up exercises, or watch something funny to take your mind off of the act of speaking.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that you have to put your speech into perspective.  At most, your speech will take a few minutes out of your life, and the average person’s life contains 34,790,757 minutes.  If you don’t do so well with your speech, it’s just one small part of your life.  If you dwell on it, other minutes will be wasted.  Coping with anxiety and fear is a wonderful skill and life lesson to learn, so take this as an opportunity for growth and self-improvement.

Here is what I would suggest thinking instead of focusing on the tension you feel: “This speech will only take a few minutes, and it will be over soon.”

“What if I look stupid?”

I can tell you this: we all look stupid.  We all trip and fall, knock over things, discover a booger hanging out of our nose, and say the wrong thing at the wrong time.  It’s human nature!  Dwelling on the embarrassing moments won’t do a thing for you, but learning how to cope with those awkward events will make you a much more healthy human being.

Don’t believe me?  Check out this prime example:

Instead of all of that negative self talk about looking foolish, remind yourself of this:

“Yeah.  I look stupid.  But so does everyone else.”

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