The great modern fear
Imagine the feeling that makes your hair stand on end, your palms become sweaty, your heart start to pound and your legs turn to jelly. That feeling of fear.
Fear is a survival mechanism designed to keep us safe and far from danger. It stopped our ancestors from walking into a bear cave or a lion’s den.
However, in modern times fear has also begun to manifest itself in situations that wouldn’t be classified as “life or death” yet people treat them as if they were.
Ask somebody to stand up and talk in front of a large group and the majority of people will experience symptoms of fear.
Public speaking is not a life or death situation, but to many it invokes panic, stress and fear as though it were. People are afraid of being judged, making a fool of themselves and being discovered a “fraud”.
There are many approaches, tips and techniques for overcoming the fear of public speaking.
The most well known is probably the advice to “imagine your audience in their underwear”, but let me tell you from personal experience it’s not something that I would ever recommend.
Fear can manifest itself with varying degrees of severity; from a slight increase in heart rate to complete incapacitation of the body.
Overcoming a fear of public speaking requires you to take control of the situation rather than allowing the situation to control you.
Be mindful: poses and body language
Social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, gave a TED talk in 2012 called “Your body language shapes who you are”.
The study of how body language impacts the view that others have of us is already an established field.
However, Cuddy, an associate professor and researcher at Harvard Business School, took the research of body language in a new direction, questioning how our body positions can impact our thoughts and views of ourselves.
She started by identifying high power and low power poses — poses that we exhibit when we are feeling either very powerful, or, in the latter instance, weak. These power poses are not limited to the human race, they also appear in the animal kingdom.
A bear will raise its arms and stand on its hind legs to demonstrate might. In the same way, a sportsperson will punch both fists into the air upon victory.
In both instances the bear and the victorious sportsperson are feeling powerful and they open their bodies up.
When we feel weak and vulnerable we will often “withdraw”, making ourselves smaller, pulling our legs up or wrapping our arms around our bodies.
Animals do the same when they feel threatened; a tortoise will withdraw into the safety of its shell while a submissive member of a wolf pack will lower its tail and head in the presence of the pack leader.
Cuddy wanted to discover if these natural physical responses to feelings of power could work in reverse.
Could adopting power poses make us feel more powerful (and therefore confident) even if we were initially feeling nervous and anxious?
Be like wonder woman
What she discovered was amazing, by holding a power pose for two minutes we can “trick” our bodies into believing we are powerful.
Two-minute power poses cause changes in our cortisone and testosterone levels, increases our tolerance for risk, and prepares us better for stress.
We can actually use our body language to change how we feel about something, we can “fake it till we make it”.
So, the next time you are about to face something that scares you, adopt a power pose for two minutes and your body will experience powerful energy.
A simple pose that you can do almost anywhere without looking out of place is the “Wonder Woman” — stand with your legs shoulder width apart, hands on your hips, chest out and head up.
No shortcut: Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
You have to face your fears. There is no easy way to overcome a fear of public speaking.
You cannot stand in a room practising power poses and hope to overcome your fear of public speaking. You have to step outside of your comfort zone and practise speaking!
You have to practise both the content of your talk and the act of speaking in front of an audience.
Don’t just sit and memorise your text. Stand up, walk around and use the same hand gestures and voice intonations that you plan to use during your talk.
Re-enact your talk as many times as you can. When it comes to the actual event, everything is already ingrained and you can focus on enjoying the event rather than worrying over what you are going to say.
Once you have become comfortable with the content, you need to become comfortable with speaking in front of an audience.
On target: Incremental progression
Take things slowly and target incremental progression.
You could start by standing up in front of just one person in the comfort of your home. Once this becomes comfortable increase the pressure a little bit by speaking in front of five people.
The more you practise, the more your body adjusts to the “threat” and the more comfortable you will become.
Each time this happens, increase pressure again; increase the number of people that you are speaking in front of, move from your house to a small meeting room, from friends to strangers.
Keep up this incremental exposure and slowly but surely you will be able to address large crowds in lecture halls.
Remember to use power poses to help you get your mind and body into a confident state.
Fear can be good
Don’t worry if you still feel nervous about public speaking even after you have been practising power poses, rehearsing your talk, and speaking in front of a large audience.
Some nerves are good, they keep you sharp and alert. The key is not to let your nerves overwhelm you.
Power poses and practice will help you condition your body for the nerves and you will be able to acknowledge them without allowing them to dominate.
Who knows, with a bit more practice and some strong power poses you may even begin to enjoy public speaking.
Tan Shu Hiong loves to help people and organisations create impact via unconventional thinking. By blending innovation skills, critical thinking and design thinking, he helps people solve problems through thedotconnect.com. If you would like to get in touch, drop him a line or two in the comment box below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more How To articles, click here.
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 21 February 2015