Be Kind to Yourself: Managing your self-talk and fear stories to reduce speaking anxiety
We are really mean to ourselves. There are things we do to ourselves that we could never imagine doing to others. Nowhere is this more evident than prior to giving a presentation. The negative self-talk we invoke and the fear stories we tell ourselves set us up for failure. What follows are some easy-to-implement techniques that will help you be kinder to yourself and reduce the anxiety you likely feel when presenting in front of others.
Like most people, you likely have a critical inner voice that shouts at you when you are under pressure and stress. Prior to delivering a presentation, you might have self-talk that says “I am going to mess this up,” “I should have prepared more,” or “I am going to fail.” This negative self-talk often leads to negative outcomes because it serves to make you even more nervous and stressed. The technique for reversing this vicious cycle is to use self-talk to instruct or motivate, rather than accentuate anxiety and invite poor performance.
By replacing negative comments with positive affirmations, you can reduce your anxiety and improve your performance. Rather than saying, “I’m going to mess this up,” you instead motivate yourself by saying, “This is a great opportunity to share my experience with my audience.” Or, you provide specific guidance to yourself by saying something like “I will smile and connect with my audience to demonstrate my conviction.” Note that these affirmations are not unbelievably positive. It’s not saying, “This is going to be the best speech ever!” They are simply acknowledging the reality that you have a great opportunity to convey your ideas and passion. When you think that you have a great opportunity, that makes you feel positive, which, in turn, makes you more relaxed. The more relaxed you are, the more likely you are to give a good presentation. You’re using self-fulfilling prophecy to obtain a positive outcome, not a negative one.
Before you even prepare a presentation, you should create positive affirmations that are relevant and meaningful to you. Then, before you speak, you can consciously say one of these affirmations. Affirmations should not be long sayings or contain too many concepts. Research on sports performance has found that simple, one-word mantras (e.g., focus, calm, fun) confer benefits because they eliminate overthinking and reduce negative self-fulfilling prophecies. If you are struggling to come up with useful affirmations, you can focus on values that are important to you, such as education (e.g., “I will teach people something of value during my talk.”), fairness (e.g., “It’s my turn to share my thoughts.”), etc.
In her insightful TED talk watched by almost 1.5 million people, writer Karen Thompson Walker persuasively makes the argument that fear is actually an expression of creative imagination. When you fear something, you internally write narratives or stories about your fear. Anxious presenters are experts at creating very scary stories. A nervous speaker might create the story of her presentation going horrifically bad and ending up with her boss laughing at her talk. Like all good stories, fear stories have a beginning, middle, and end and include lots of vivid detail and emotion. These qualities are what make these stories so powerful. For me, the main insight of Thompson Walker’s talk is that you need to approach your fear stories as a critical reader (she refers to Nabokov’s notion of “reader as scientist”) who appreciates the story from a distance and sees it for what it is — a fiction authored for a purpose. Our presentation fear stories are designed to protect us from the threat of negative outcomes. In this light, you have the ability to “close the book” on your fear because you see the story for what it is – a vivid fiction – which then allows you to write a new, more positive narrative.
The ability to distance yourself from your fear story is similar to a useful mindfulness practice. When you are feeling negative or nervous about speaking, say to yourself, “This is me feeling nervous about speaking.” This kind of assertion takes you out of the nervousness and instead allows you to observe yourself being nervous. To be outside yourself affords you the opportunity to calm down. You can gain a sense of control. Further, by thinking of a positive emotion—such as calmness or happiness—once you have distanced yourself from your negative feelings, you will more quickly reduce your feelings of anxiety.
Taken together, combating your negative self talk via positive affirmations and challenging your fear stories through distancing techniques like mindfulness, you treat yourself more kindly and set yourself up for greater speaking success.