Nervous Speakers: Stay in the Present

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You probably know the Jerry Seinfeld bit, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death… This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” But why is that?

I see two, often overlapping paradigms. For many speakers, the worst anxiety comes before they speak. Once they start, it’s not so bad, but the anticipation can be debilitating. For others, they are terrified that they will “mess up” because they are either scared their mind will go blank or it actually does go blank.

In my estimation, both these issues relate to the idea of staying present. One of the best tools for reducing anxiety is grounding oneself in the present. For serious anxiety, simply looking around and naming what we see, counting chairs in a room, feelings our feet in our shoes or our rear in our chair…all of these can bring us back to the present. In the present, nothing is wrong or dangerous. We are safe. It’s all the projecting into the future that’s the problem.

Anxious speakers are probably not grounded in the present. Those who anticipate are thinking of all the “bad” things that could happen rather than staying present to the preparation process. They start to flash ahead, picturing themselves in the room and experiencing the physical sensations of anxiety…even though they are safely at their desk or at the dinner table with family.

The people who are fearful they will blank out, or who do blank out, are not thinking about what they’re speaking about. They are not present to experience a connection with their audience, and they are certainly not feeling their feet on the ground. They are likely focusing only on some false image of reality, rather than what is really happening. Which is that they have (hopefully) material that is carefully planned and rehearsed, they have an audience they can attend to, feel out and connect with, and they have their breath to feel and be conscious of.

If you get nervous in anticipation of speaking or while you speak, think about how present you are when you are anxious. It is well known that we can’t actually think of two things at the same time. So if you are thinking about any of the “real” stuff mentioned above, you will probably not be thinking about all the terrible things which might befall you. Staying in the present takes focus and determination. But you can practice it in your daily life. Then you’ll have the skill to use when you face an anxiety-provoking situation.

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