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    Courageously Confront Your Fear of Speaking in Public

    The Led Zepplin song “Stairway to Heaven” makes me emotionally schizophrenic. It reminds me of the first time I ever purposely mustered up enough courage to manage a deep rooted fear. Back in middle school when we had our first dance, I really wanted to dance with a girl named Kristen. I had been so excited at the prospect of slow dancing with her that I could not wait for Friday night to arrive. However, after my mother dropped me off (far away from anyone’s view of course), I entered the disco ball lit cafeteria and I froze with fear. What if Kristen didn’t want to dance with me? What if I stepped on her toes? On the other hand, what if she did want to dance? What if she did like me? I was struck by the fear of all the things that could go wrong, as well as all the things that could go right! My fear was almost paralyzing. I'm not sure if it was the hormones or just plain insanity, but I did ask her to dance, and she said “yes”…whew. That experience not only ignited my desire to attend more dances, but it also led to my life-long desire to understand fear, particularly public-speaking anxiety. Throughout my career, I have been fascinated both with the study of fear and the courage required to overcome it. Here, I provide some practical guidance on how simple courageous acts can help people manage their fear of speaking in public. Courage has many facets and phases. We most often see courage as a one-act wonder – the firefighters who run into a burning building, the lone protestor who stands before an oncoming tank. However, these acts of courage represent only a small percentage of all of the courageous behaviors performed each day. More often, courage is about persistence in the face of fear and resistance. I deeply respect my students and consulting clients who are willing to challenge their fear of speaking in public -- a fear that haunts over 85% of Americans and is rated “the #1 fear people have.” Even attempting to battle speaking anxiety is truly admirable. It’s important to remember that speaking anxiety is not binary. There is no on-off switch. People don’t report feeling extremely nervous, perform some magical behavior, and then never feel nervous again. As with addressing any other fear, managing speaking anxiety can be a long, arduous process. There are often set backs and dead ends before real progress is made. In the book, Switch, Dan and Chip Heath (authors of the must read Made to Stick) argue that successful change can only occur if you create an expectation of failure at the beginning of the process. Let me be clear – the Heath brothers are not suggesting that you should expect to fail to achieve your goal. Rather, you should expect that failures will occur along the way to reaching your goal. To my mind, truly courageous people are those who experience countless failures and continue to persist, trying new techniques, combining techniques, re-thinking situations, etc. Courageous speakers recognize that trial and error are simply part of the process. Courage not only allows us to continually confront our fear of public-speaking, but recent research suggests that acting courageously actually reduces your fear. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science found that when people act courageously in the face of fear, they dampen their anxiety response. So when confronted with a speech, you can volunteer to go first or challenge yourself to present in a new way. These simple acts of courage will reduce your anxiety levels and bolster your confidence. Courage is implicated in another anxiety management technique. Too often, speakers focus on what they need to say, regardless of the audience. The better, more compelling approach is to focus on what the audience needs to hear. While speaking can be great talk therapy for the speaker, a huge opportunity is missed if speakers fail to give their audience the right information. Yet, it takes great courage to move away from being self-focused to audience-focused. It is hard and uncomfortable, while in the grip of fear, to say “I am here for you. I want you – my audience – to get something of value from me.” We can accomplish this courageous audience-centric shift in three ways. First, we take the time to understand our audience, their needs, and their expectations prior to constructing our presentations. Second, we connect our content to our audience by using relevant, understandable evidence. Third, we take questions when we are done speaking to allow our audience to validate their understanding or correct any confusion. Clinical practice and academic research have repeatedly shown that marshaling courage is one of the most powerful tools for managing speaking anxiety. Much like I did when I got up the nerve to ask a classmate to dance, I challenge you to muster your courage to confront and address your public speaking fears.

      Speaking Authentically Makes All the Difference

      The post below is an article that I co-wrote with my friend, mentor, and fellow author Jeremey Donovan. Jeremey just released a new book Speaker, Leader, Champion to follow up his very successful How to Deliver a TED Talk. You can also learn a lot from him at SpeakingSherpa.com. Picture this…Yet another executive parades across the stage at your all company meeting to wax on about the state of the business. If you are anything like us, you clap politely at the end of your boss’s boss’s boss’s overly scripted presentation and then turn your attention to thoughts of a free lunch as the smell of catered food and Sterno catches your nose. We were at one such event recently, when something happened that we have never experienced before. When the fourth speaker left the stage, one brave soul stood up and started clapping. Moments later, a few more people rose. As the entire audience erupted in a standing ovation, the speaker, blushing with embarrassment and pride, came back on the stage to take a humble bow. Unlike the other speakers that day, she was real. What did she do differently to connect with the audience? In other words… What did she do to be an authentic speaker? This question is an intriguing one. Authenticity is very hard to define and even more elusive to enact, but you know it when we see it. More importantly, you experience its power as an audience member. To better understand how to become a more authentic speaker, we are going to use two different perspectives – business and academic – to identify and demonstrate specific actions and approaches speakers can take to be more authentic. The Business Perspective The first difference between our authentic speaker and the other presenters was that she wore genuine interest for her message and for her audience on her sleeve. As people climb the executive ranks, they often follow one of two paths as speakers. The vast majority adopt a stiff, conservative persona devoid of emotion. Their style is almost too polished. The remaining minority amp themselves up to unbridled passion. Both have forgotten that you should be the same person onstage as you are offstage. The executive that day showed true charisma by expressing her controlled passion for her team’s work. She spoke to her audience as equals traveling the same road. The second difference was that she allowed herself to be vulnerable. That day, every executive who preceded her stood authoritatively behind a lectern as they and stepped through sterile, fact-filled presentations. The speaker who connected used no slides and left the lectern behind. Instead, she came out to the edge of the stage and shared a story about the journey her team was on. It was a journey of both success and failure with many opportunities and challenges ahead. The Academic Perspective Unlike the speakers presenting before her, our authentic speaker projected warmth and immediacy - behaviors that not only differentiated her from her presenting peers, but also connected her to her audience in an honest and genuine way. Recent academic research has shown value of communicating in a warm and embracing manner. Warmth can be thought of as operationalized empathy. It is a combination of understanding your audience’s needs and displaying that understanding through your actions. As our authentic speaker demonstrated, warm presenters acknowledge their audience’s needs by verbally echoing them. She also maintained an engaged posture, leaning forward and moving towards people who asked questions. Researchers, such as popular TED presenter and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy, have shown that warmth is a key trait of successful leaders. Similar to warmth, immediacy is a term coined in the late 1960’s by psychology professor Albert Meharabian to represent the many verbal and nonverbal behaviors people express to build emotional connection. Nervous and novice leaders, such as the three we saw present before our authentic speaker, tend to retreat physically and emotionally when presenting. They step back away from the audience while drawing their arms across their chests and hunching over. They hide behind a lectern. Their language is more formal. Contrast this to leaders who communicate in an immediate fashion by holding an open, balanced posture and using language that is conversational. Research has shown that leaders and teachers who communicate in an immediate way are more effective and better liked. Putting it together Both the business and academic perspectives show us that authenticity is a powerful tool for helping you succeed at work. It boils down to being genuinely interested in and empathic with your audience while remaining emotionally and physically open and engaged. You do not need to learn how to be an authentic speaker. Rather, you simply need to shed the armor of supposed “executive presence” that many put on before they take the stage. Authenticity in business presentations is about getting out of your head and doing what comes naturally. Jock Elliott had it right at the end of his 2011 World Championship speech, “Reach out now in your minds and hearts and touch them. Feel their warmth. Feel their friendship.” Executives who speak eye-to-eye with their audiences, who show their genuine interest and their vulnerability, earn to right to lead. And, if the stars align just right, they will also earn your standing ovation.

        6 Tips for Making Presentations Memorable and Impactful

        The two greatest fears my students and clients share with me are that they will forget what to say and that the audience won’t remember what was spoken. These fears are certainly understandable, and they create much angst among nervous and novice presenters. In this webinar and white paper, I suggest six techniques and practices you can invoke to make your presentations more memorable for both you and your audience, no matter your presentation environment or topic. When combined together, these tools will lead to confident, compelling, and connected presentations.


          The Art of the Graceful Recovery

          Drawing a blank when you’re standing before an audience can have dramatic and traumatic implications. Consider politicians and how memory gaffes can damage their credibility. For example, Texas Governor Rick Perry suffered a long memory lapse during an early November 2011 nationally televised debate among U.S. Republican presidential candidates. Perry’s painfully awkward stumble provided endless fodder for political observers, media pundits — and stand-up comedians. So what can you do if you forget parts of your presentation? First, try not to be too hard on yourself. Often, speakers blurt out comments that reduce their credibility: “Sheesh, how could I forget?” “I’m so nervous” or “I can’t believe how stupid I am!” If you must overtly acknowledge your forgetfulness, simply apologize and collect your thoughts. One of my students once addressed her forgetfulness in a clever way that portrayed a potentially negative occurrence as a byproduct of a positive trait: “You’ll have to excuse me, but I am so passionate about my topic that I sometimes get ahead of myself. Allow me to review my previous point.” Most audiences are very forgiving, and some may actually be thankful for the pause because it allows them time to process what you’ve presented. To help get yourself back on track, focus on what you’ve just said. Too often, people who blank out try to figure out what they need to say next. But you are more likely to continue smoothly if you reorient yourself by looking to what you said previously. The following techniques can help you get past a memory block: 1. Paraphrase your previous content. Pausing to say, “So just to step back for a moment, I’ve already covered how X and Y are relevant…” gives you a moment to remember point Z, and even frame it as a point you’ve been building toward. 2. Ask your audience a question — maybe even a rhetorical one: “What seems to be the most important point so far?” Asking a rhetorical question not only provides you with a chance to collect your thoughts, but it also boosts your confidence because you know the answer, and launching into that answer will likely get you back in the flow. 3. Review your overall speaking purpose: “So we can see that [insert your core message] is really important.” This option works well when you are struggling to remember your place at big transition points because it allows you to return to the overall importance of your message. Mistakes happen. It’s a simple fact of life. But when you’re in front of a roomful of people and you’re trying to think of your next point, but all you can picture is … nothing, the key to a graceful recovery is to step back for a moment and regain your bearings.

            The Future of Public Speaking Anxiety Management Has Arrived

            The future of speaking anxiety management is here!  Technology affords a useful and practical way to manage concerns over presenting.  In what follows, I will discuss how the quantify-self movement and virtual reality (VR) can help you feel more confident when presenting.

            The quantify-self movement has been gaining momentum in recent years as mobile technology has evolved.  This movement creates a sense of agency in people by providing them with measures of their daily life, such as calories burned, quality of sleep, number of steps taken, etc.  The sensors and resulting data can be very instructive and impactful in helping you both monitor and change your behavior.  When these monitoring and data elements are combined with more traditional biofeedback procedures (e.g., sequential muscle relaxation and/or deep breathing), you can really begin to affect daily change in your behaviors and attitudes.  People today are optimizing their levitra health by routinely monitoring their exercise exertion with the likes of Fit Bits or their heat rate with Basis watches. This approach and methodology can surely benefit nervous speakers.  It might look something like this:  You learn to identify what happens in your body physiologically when you get nervous. What is the first physical sign of anxiety that you experience? For example, does your heart rate, your respiration, or your sweating increase?  You learn to measure these trigger responses using your favorite quantify-self device.  When you notice the trigger, you can use relaxation techniques to short-circuit or stop the anxiety response.  The technology not only allows you to hone in on your initial trigger so you can nip the full anxiety response in the bud, but further, it allows you the opportunity to tune how you cope with it by providing you with real-time data.  In other words, you can see if three deep breaths actually slows you heart rate as it begins to ramp up.  Or, you can determine if your contracting and releasing of your muscles reduces your sweating. This technology affords individualized control at a reasonable cost with not too much effort. Virtual reality offers a tremendous opportunity to help people manage all types of phobias.  Virtual reality is the immersive simulation of a natural environment.  Typically, you interact with a virtual world by wearing a visor onto which the virtual world is projected.  Additionally, you may wear sensors on your arms, legs, and/or hands to allow you to interact in the world.  The computers that power the virtual environment are so fast that they can respond to your movements in real-time.  For example, if you turn your head to look to one side, your world-view will change as if you were really turning. By exposing you to a phobic situation virtually, you can work through your anxiety without experiencing a real threat.  I was fortunate enough to interview Laura Franch who is a post-doctoral student at Stanford University’s Communications program.  She is conducting ground-breaking research that explores how a virtual environment can help people manage speaking anxiety.  Her preliminary research looks to be indicating that a big way to reduce speaking anxiety is to reduce objective self-awareness.  That is, the less we focus on ourselves, the less nervous we become.  In research only possible in a virtual environment, she was able to simulate speaking in front of a live audience where a presenter not only saw his or her virtual audience while speaking, but also saw him or herself in a mirror behind the audience.  She varied the face on the person that the presenter saw in the mirror.  Sometimes it was the presenter’s actual face, and other times, it was a face the presenter chose to see prior to presenting.  When speakers saw themselves, they rated their anxiety as higher than when they saw the face of another person talking even though the body movements were the same. Beyond illuminating potential causes of anxiety (i.e., self-awareness), the use of virtual reality therapy could be revolutionary.  Rather than closing your eyes to visualize what a potential speaking might be like, you can actually simulate it.  The power of visualization has been documented for over three decades…imagine what simulation in the real environment can do. To my mind, quantify-self technologies and virtual reality will revolutionize how we speaking anxiety in the future.  

              Practice Small Talk To Help with Big Talks

              Enhancing interpersonal communication skills can greatly assist novice and nervous presenters. Specifically, small talk can serve as a perfect crucible for developing useful presentation skills. Small talk represents the casual communication we have with friends, colleagues, and family; it tends to be more spontaneous with lower stakes than our planned, more consequential communication. In practicing purposeful small talk, you develop skills such as connecting to those with whom you communicate as well as adjusting on the fly to their responses. The ability to connect and adjust will serve you well when presenting and managing Q&A. If nothing else, your confidence should increase as you become more comfortable with these skills. Like any skill, small talk can be practiced and techniques can be employed to help. I recently came across advice for effective small talk from Psychology Professor Bernardo Carducci who is the Director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. Dr. Carducci provides eight tips for improving small talk. I will highlight just three of his suggestions that apply directly to small talk, but provide value to presenters as well: 1. Dare to be dull. This is great advice for any speaker and comes directly from improvisation. Too often, speakers want every utterance to be deeply meaningful and impactful. This desire to be brilliant often makes you more nervous and involves a lot of internal evaluation, which takes away from your ability to connect to those with whom you are speaking. In small talk, a simple greeting or acknowledgement can suffice. 2. Have themes ready. A little pre-work can go a long way. Prior to communicating, have two or three key ideas that you want to convey. Further, have some concrete examples to support your themes. In small talk, have some positions or ideas about current events or upcoming activities. 3. Practice commencing. Initiating communication is hard. Rehearse your opening so that you are comfortable with how you will start. Be careful not to sound scripted, though. I suggest practicing your opening a few times being sure to use different wording each time. In small talk, a good way to initiate a conversation is via a greeting followed by your name or credentials. As with any skill, practice breads competence and confidence. By working on your small talk skills you not only improve your interpersonal communication, but your presentations as well.

                F-bomb your fear…and become more compelling along the way

                In recent years, academics have become quite interested in swearing. Researchers believe studying our the of obscenities can help them gain insight into everything from how we attract romantic partners to the origin of language itself. For our purposes, profanity can have at least two useful effects on presenters and their presentations. First, Dr. Richard Stevens of Keele Unvieristy in the UK has found that uttering naughty words readies your body for a challenging situation. In other words, when you curse, your body prepares itself for battle by doing things like increasing your focus and reducing your pain tolerance. A nervous or novice speaker might derive benefit from uttering some unpleasant words prior to taking the stage. Additionally, Dr. Catherine Caldwell-Harris of Boston University has found that a well-placed obscenity or two in a speech led the audience to see the presenter as more persuasive and passionate. The swearing served as a “wake up call” to any day-dreaming audience members as well as demonstrated the speaker’s conviction on the topic. Clearly, you need to choose you profanity and its deployment wisely. The obscenity should not offend or insult your audience, nor should it seem gratuitous. Cursing that serves to describe the severity of the problem, the scale of the opportunity, or the direness of the situation works best. Who knew that being foul-mouthed could make you more fearless!? So next time you have a need to give an engaging presentation that induces a little panic, consider dropping a well-placed cuss word prior to speaking and even in your speech itself.

                  When Presenting, Get Excited, Not Nervous!

                  Recent research from Harvard’s Business School demonstrates that being excited prior to a nerve-wracking task increases performance and confidence. Professor Alison Wood Brooks conducted a number of studies in which she found people who focused on being excited felt and did better on the task they were set to complete (e.g., solving challenging math problems or singing karaoke well). For our purposes, she also examined how this effect worked in a public speaking situation. Her study asked participants to prepare and then deliver a persuasive speech. To increase the likelihood of speaker anxiety, each participant was digitally recorded for review and evaluation by judges. Prior to speaking, participants were told to state out loud one of the following lines: “I am excited” or “I am calm.” When compared to their “calm” compatriots, “excited” speakers were rated by external evaluators as less nervous, more competent, and more persuasive. Since the physiological manifestations of anxiety and excitement are similar, such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, flushing, etc., Dr. Brooks believes reframing anxious arousal as excitement is a relatively easy way to trick ourselves into avoiding the negative effects of nervousness. Trying to calm down while nervous can help manage speaking anxiety, but it can be challenging to do in the moment and definitely requires a lot of cognitive effort. Specifically, Dr. Brooks suggests that nervous people tend to ruminate on their internal, anxiety feelings, which leads to a negative outlook on the speaking situation and reinforces the nervousness. With an attitude of excitement, speakers are likely to be other focused and see presenting as a positive opportunity, which in turn, should reduce their anxiety and increase their confidence and competence. To facilitate feeling excited about speaking, try the following three behaviors prior to presenting: 1. Say out loud “I am excited about this speaking opportunity.” 2. Identify some exciting possible positive outcomes that could result from your presentation, such as funding for a project you believe in, a job promotion, etc. 3. Visualize yourself being excited about giving your presentation starting a day or two before speaking. Clearly, reframing your presenting as an exciting opportunity is a great way to help you feel more confident and present more competently.