Does the prospect of speaking in front of a live audience make you nervous? If you're human, the likely answer is yes. In surveys, people routinely report public speaking as their number-one fear--ahead of their fear of death.
Chris White, who leads the Center for Positive Organizations at The University of Michigan, struggled with similar feelings. "Many of us can relate to this stomach-clenching, heart-pounding, throat-choking anxiety," he says. "This is a problem for someone teaching MBAs and executives as part of his day job!"
But White used his leadership smarts to overcome this problem by reformulating his goals for every speech. It's a process that he says will work for nearly any challenge that makes you feel overly pressured or nervous. Here's his approach:
1. Stop hoping that your speech will be a smash hit.
"I knew both from my past experience of clamming up in front of groups, and from research, that having a performance orientation--'this next talk has to be a home run!'-- is often counterproductive," White says. "As my stress level increased, my presentation skills would decline."
White fought this phenomenon by reframing his ambitions for each presentation. Instead of trying to make every one a home run, he thought of each as an opportunity to learn and improve for next time. "Each talk became a 'practice swing' in which some things would go well and others could be adjusted," he says.
Perhaps counterintuitively, this mental exercise actually improved his presentation skills by loosening the grip of stagefright. "Don't swing for the fences," he advises now. "Take a lot of practice swings."
2. Make learning one of your goals.
"Research shows that having both performance goals and learning goals is often a better way to get you to your destination," White says. You can harness this effect for public speaking and for many other kinds of tasks as well. "When setting an intention, create multiple kinds of goals: performance goals, contribution goals, and learning goals," he says. "Among the goals, keep the learning orientation front and center in your mind as you take action."
3. Consider the ultimate purpose of your talk.
This may seem to conflict with White's suggestion to put more emphasis on learning and less on performance outcome. The difference is that, rather than focusing on your own success or failure, you consider the broader purpose of your talk. Are you trying to build awareness for your brand or product? Address a social problem that deserves greater attention? Inspire investors to invest or students to learn?
"When fueled by a sense of purpose and a desire to help others, our intrinsic motivation grows--and, accordingly, so does our productivity," White explains. Studies have compared the productivity of those who heard from a beneficiary of their work, and those who have not, he adds. "Unsurprisingly, those who felt a strong sense of contribution dramatically outperformed those who had not--even when following the exact same work process."
4. Notice if you're putting undue pressure on yourself--and stop it!
"Obsessing about the performance outcome is not always the best way to go," White notes. No matter how important the speech you're making actually is, taking that pressure off yourself will only help. "In my case, reassigning the speech's meaning from 'hit a home run!' to 'take a good practice swing' really helped lower self-imposed anxiety," White says. "It opened up new possibilities for learning and improvement every time."
5. Good or bad, get feedback about each speech.
"To especially boost learning--as well as performance--create opportunities for self-reflection and feedback from others along the way," White says. "As 70 percent of leadership development happens through experience rather than in the classroom or from books, using a process to catch every drop of insight from what we do could be more beneficial than taking another course. These days, however well or badly I feel a talk has been perceived, I try to do the same personal preparation and debrief."
6. Find fellow travelers.
To find others who were working on similar stage fright issues, White began taking acting courses in his spare time. "This gave me supplemental practice outside of the workplace, and a structure to practice getting out of my comfort zone in front of people," he says.
Even better, it gave White a new way to think about the question of good and bad performance. "The acting class format routinizes feedback on things that go well--and things that don't!--such that when little things go wrong, they are looked at in the proper perspective," he says. "Additionally, it created a gentle and fun, yet strong, accountability mechanism to keep me on track for at least the ten weeks of each course. I felt accountable to my scene partners... and had a big showcase on the calendar to focus my efforts if I felt tempted to slack off!"
There are many kinds of fellow travelers for various tasks, he adds. "It could be a training buddy, an acting group, a mentor or coach. It makes the journey more fun, and keeps you accountable along the way!"
7. Take the long view.
Seeing each speech as one point along a continuum of constant improvement will give you a much better attitude toward its success, or lack thereof. "No matter how big the talk, or how well it goes, there are always things that go well, and things that can be adjusted," White says. "These days, my comfort with public speaking has increased, and so too my performance. And it will keep doing so--I have many practice swings ahead of me!"