By Steli Efti, co-founder and CEO of Close
The rest of us must seek to overcome our fears of public speaking. And that's easier said than done.
I get paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak in front of thousands of people every year, but I started out as scared as anyone else. I just had the benefit of a great strategy for overcoming that fear.
The strategy is simple: Turn your nervousness into energy that fuels your speech. I know it sounds weird. But let me tell you the story of how I came to this realization and you'll start to see its power.
Turning Nervousness Into Energy
My fifth-grade teacher was named Mr. Gramarchek. He was absolutely terrifying. He made kids cry almost daily. So you can imagine my nervousness when it came time to recite a poem in front of the class.
But Mr. Gramarchek had given us one piece of advice for this assignment. He told us not to bury our nervousness--instead, we should use our nervous energy to recite the poem louder, with more energy, and with a sense of passion.
This blew my mind and I took his advice to heart. I was loud, energetic and animated. I let my nervousness fuel me instead of derail me.
Since I learned this lesson, I've put it to use in every speaking engagement where I've been nervous. After a while, you get used to it and don't have to think about it anymore. But if you start to feel your nerves amping up, focus on turning that energy into something useful.
Kristi Hedges, a CEO coach, tells the American Psychological Association that "Nervousness is just excitement directed inward." By directing it outward, you not only take the focus off of your anxiety, but tap into a new source of energy.
The Fancy Term: Anxiety Reappraisal
It turns out that Mr. Gramarchek isn't the only one who knows about this. A 2014 paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found the same thing.
People who were nervous about public speaking either told themselves "I am calm" or "I am excited" before they gave a speech. Those who turned their anxiety into excitement instead of calmness gave better speeches.
In the psychological literature, this is called "anxiety reappraisal." In short, it helps you see scary things as opportunities.
So, why didn't saying "I am calm" work? The author of the study, Alison Brooks, theorizes that trying to shift the valence (positive-negative) and the arousal (high-low) doesn't work as well. Nervousness is negative and high arousal, while calmness is positive and low arousal.
The crucial point is that excitement is positive and high arousal. You just shift how you think about the fear. You're excited!
How to Make It Happen
Okay, so we've established that turning your nervousness into energy is a good way to overcome the fear of public speaking and give a much better presentation. But how do you actually do that?
Here are a few ideas:
- Tell yourself you're excited. Repeat "I am excited" a few times to yourself. It can be out loud or silent. You might try saying it while looking at yourself in the mirror. It's also a good idea to smile while you're getting excited, even if you aren't feeling it yet.
- Picture yourself being excited. Some public speaking coaches tell you to visualize giving a great speech. But in my experience, you don't need to go that far. Just picture yourself getting up on stage with a lot of energy and passion. Picture what it will look like when you hit the stage and get stoked on what you're talking about.
- Don't fight your nerves. This is a tough one, but it's crucial. Your fear of public speaking has an evolutionary root (and might even be tied to your genes). It's unlikely to go away because you try to stay calm. Be mindful of your fear, but don't fight it. It's the tool you're going to use to knock this one out of the park.
You'll need to practice all of these things over time to overcome your fear of public speaking. It takes experience doing it and being comfortable with it.
Letting Nerves Fuel Your Success
Tell yourself you're excited instead of nervous. That's the entire secret to overcoming your fear of public speaking. Find the best strategy that helps you amp up your energy and stick with it.
Now go forth and speak!
Steli Efti is the co-founder and CEO of Close, an inside sales CRM for startups and SMBs.