What Is Public Speaking Anxiety?
Two days ago, I gave a talk at a scientific conference at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. I presented my work as a popular scientist, followed by a discussion of ego-depletion and the practical utility of human cognitive science.
While I have always viewed myself as a fairly good public speaker, I also used to diligently prepare my talks so that I could deliver them in a compelling way. Yet I realized one day that my meticulous preparation was only partially a matter of communicating my ideas effectively; the other part was to forestall anxiety.
As preparation produces confidence, my scripting, memorizing, and rehearsing entire talks—sometimes even word by word—helped me to deliver it in a well-structured, trenchant manner, without any uhms, pauses, or insubstantial rambling.
However, the drawbacks of my preparation efforts were numerous:
- Well-prepared talks hindered my skill development, because I learned only to recite text, not to spontaneously communicate ideas.
- Well-prepared talks sometimes sucked the life out of my presentations, making my delivery appear robotic and lacking in presence of mind.
- Well-prepared talks led to inflexibility, interfering with my response to spontaneous happenings and the real-time feedback coming from the audience and requiring me to have ample time in advance to prepare, which would kill my sleep when I had to give presentations at short notice.
Importantly, although meticulous preparation eliminated my general public speaking anxiety, it did very little for my anxiety of improvised self-expression. As you can see, I distinguish between two types of public speaking anxiety:
- the fear of opening one’s mouth in front of a public audience, even if just reciting memorized text or relying on PowerPoint slides;
- the fear of spontaneously expressing one’s mind without preparation in front of a public audience, grounded in a lack of improvisation and communication skills.
While the first type of anxiety hardly ever affected me after middle school, the second type was something I had yet to deal with. This is why, for my conference talk, I gave myself the challenge of not putting much effort into preparation.
Before the conference, I had not even considered the topic I would cover. On the day before my talk, however, I recorded a trial talk on my phone—totally improvised—and noticed how readily I would wander off on tangents, rambling excessively about minor matters. Thus, I had to at least somewhat structure my talk, which was strictly time-limited, in preparation.
As it was time to present, I knew my opening lines plus some keywords to structure my improvised speaking. Thinking back on it, this mix of preparation and improvisation was probably the best choice in my situation. It was not an extreme challenge, but a reasonable step to confront my fear of spontaneous public speaking.
Still, I felt like my talk was the worst one I had given in years: I did not feel robustly confident, I failed to mention some important points, and at some parts, I even felt confused about my own line of reasoning. This shows that I was not perfectly relaxed, that my mind was not cool, and that, positively speaking, there was some anxiety I had exposed myself to.
To my surprise, though, several professors walked up to me after the talk, congratulating me and professing that they, in fact, liked it very much. Now I wonder whether they just had low expectations (after all, they are all practicing scientists and I was invited as kind of an outsider), whether they were only being nice (because scientists are generally very nice and supportive), or whether my talk was not that bad after all (my anxiety might have skewed my self-perception).
How to Deal With Public Speaking Anxiety
Mindcoolness means to have a cool mind. So how come that I, who have talked and written quite a bit about bodymind mastery and emotional self-control, still get anxious when confronted with a public audience and the task of giving an unscripted talk?
Well, it is all just a matter of proficiency. Healthy social anxiety is but an indicator of an unfamiliar situation one cannot yet deal with skillfully. I know how to give a scripted talk, so I do not feel anxious doing it. But I lacked the skill of speaking spontaneously, so I also lacked the corresponding confidence. What did I do about it?
Let me first say that positive psychology, emotion regulation strategies, and bodymind exercises like weightlifting, mindfulness meditation, and deep breathing, which I write about a lot, certainly helped me to increase my baseline confidence. Yet to develop task-specific confidence, there is no way around practicing the task itself. The only true way to become more confident with public speaking is, well, to speak in public.
While indirect routes may help a little bit, they are too easily misused as excuses to avoid the frightening challenge. Working out and meditating are awesome activities in and of itself, but they can distract us from what we truly want to do by creating a comfort zone of personal improvement. The enhanced confidence that comes from an improved bodymind does not usually fully translate into other areas of life.
To really develop task-specific confidence, we must take the direct route and develop task-specific skills. And to develop task-specific skills, we must practice the task, even and especially if this means exposing ourselves to fear and discomfort. Which is what I did with improvised public speaking.
I found that random tips, tricks, and techniques to alleviate public speaking anxiety are largely worthless. Even the practical advice I have given in earlier blog posts is very limited in its effectiveness and may create false expectations.
What I learned from the talk I gave two days ago is this: Come to terms with the possibility that your performance will suck, and then do it anyway. By hoping for a good outcome, you are fearing a bad one. Conversely, by accepting whatever the outcome may be, you are detaching yourself emotionally—stoically—from the situation.
I found this attitude of acceptance extremely helpful when I exposed myself to the (for me) novel situation of unscripted public speaking. Just like everything you can do in life—be it fucking or fighting or flying an airplane—public speaking, too, is a skill. If you have never done it before, you will suck at it initially. So suck it up: Accept your current lack of skill and take action regardless. Start developing the skill. It will be frightening, yes, but fear is good, not matter how bad it feels. Afterwards, you can always remember how you faced the fear, how your breath is still with you, and how your next attempt will already suck infinitely less.
If you have never given a public speech before, prepare it well (to overcome fear #1). If you want to learn more improvised speaking, prepare gradually less (to overcome fear #2). In any case, fully accept your current stage of development: wherever you are at is where you are supposed to be.
What else could you do? Think positive thoughts? They are just more stuff to think about. Delude yourself? Then you will only fall harder—down to the bottom of reality—and probably quit. And if you quit, we have nothing more to talk about.
- To Control Your Emotions, Control Your Attention
- To Control Your Emotions, Understand and Label Them (Affect Labeling)
- How to Disengage Your Mind from Anxiety
- How to Get Out of Your Head in Two Simple Steps
- To Cool Your Mind, Think About Your Brain
- Is Suppressing Emotions Bad For You? (Jocko Willink Vs. Science)