Whenever I tell someone that I teach public speaking and write for a presentation design company, I usually get some variety of the same question. How do I conquer my fear of public speaking?
Public speaking continues to be at or near the top of nearly every list of things people fear. The problem is, there is no one method for overcoming that fear that works for everyone. As with anything, we all have different styles of learning and different methods work for different people. For the sake of my work, I try to keep up on the current trends for battling presentation anxiety. One of the techniques some people seem to be having success with in recent years is mindfulness. Before you jump ship, I’m not asking you to try full-blown Buddhist meditation, but there are ways to adapt this ancient practice to help reduce your fear of public speaking. Granted, it can feel strange at first, but if you haven’t tried it yet and still struggle with presentation anxiety, it might be worth a shot.
What Is It?
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has been a leading proponent of the mindfulness movement. The GGSC explains it this way: “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”
Basically, mindfulness is paying attention to our thoughts and feelings in the present moment. This can be particularly helpful when it comes to public speaking because people tend to have strong, preexisting feelings towards it. They either love it or hate it, or they feel like they are good at it or bad at it. Mindfulness allows the speaker to move beyond these ingrained feelings toward speaking and examine how he feels this time, about this speech, and in this present scenario. Dr. Richard Davidson reminds us, “Our brains are always being shaped, wittingly or unwittingly . . . Mindfulness is a way of taking responsibility for your own mind.”
So much of public speaking fear centers around the negative thoughts we’ve been entertaining for too long. It becomes a chicken and the egg scenario—which came first, the speech or the fear? With mindfulness, we stop letting past negative thoughts dictate our current situation. It allows us to walk into a presentation with a fresh perspective and newfound control over our thought process.
What Do You Do?
To try mindfulness, you don’t need any formal training. It can be as involved or as a casual as you want. Here are three different ways you could use it.
Say your boss emails and asks you to take the lead on a presentation coming up next month. When you read the email, you might take a few moments just to tap into your immediate feelings. How do you feel about the presentation? Do you notice any changes in your body (quick heart rate, shallow breathing, etc.)? Why do you think you are feeling the way you do? As you begin to process your thoughts and emotions, breathe deeply and recognize, but don’t judge your thoughts or feelings. Just examine them. Then, let it go for a little while. When you are ready to make a decision, you are able to factor in your thoughts and feelings because you’ve taken time to explore them fully.
Beyond that you might try practicing deeper mindfulness before a presentation. This could help calm your body responses to the stress response nearly everyone experiences before speaking in front of an audience. A simple method to try is a body scan. Use this exercise before you present to bring your breathing into rhythm and calm your nerves.
Or if that all seems too extreme or out of character for you, try just taking deep breaths while listening to this song. Called “Weightless,” the song was created by the collaboration of Marconi Union musicians and sound therapists to lower stress hormones. Researchers at Mindlab International then measured the brain activity, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate of participants who completed activities while listening to the song. They found that it can reduce anxiety by 65%.
Mindfulness isn’t for everyone. If all you take away from this is a resolve to breathe more deeply before you present, great! That will do wonders for your nervousness. But for those who have tried about everything they can to reduce their fear of public speaking without any results, mindfulness is another method you can try.
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