How to Control Performance Anxiety
Does the phrase “public speaking” immediately cause your stomach to twist and turn? You can take solace in knowing that you are definitely not alone.
Frequently cited statistics estimate performance anxiety to exist in about 75% of all people. A staggeringly high number when taking into account the lack of risk involved with the activity.
Regardless of whether or not we take this number with a grain of salt, what we do know is that the fear of speaking in public regularly outranks the fear of death. Prompting this iconic line from Jerry Seinfeld:
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld
It does a great job of highlighting the absurdity involved with some fears and phobias.
PS: The phobia associated with public speaking is known as glossophobia. Feeling anxious before or during a speaking engagement is not grounds to diagnose either glossophobia or social anxiety disorder. Therefore – unless clearly stated otherwise – my use of terms such as “social anxiety” and “fear of public speaking” is to be interpreted in a colloquial manner.
Before the presentation/public speaking
Don’t give yourself enough wiggle room to overthink or create negative expectations. Start by writing down all of the worries you have around social interactions and public speaking. Examine each of them in turn, you will find that very few warrant any worry.
You won’t be led to the guillotine for having too many digressions, and you won’t be ostracised for delivering a mediocre and nervous speech. People are far too busy minding their own business to also be minding yours.
For anyone in high school: Unless you do something truly remarkable, like juggling six flaming chainsaws or stripping naked during your performance, nobody will remember much one way or the other. Accept this for what it really is, an opportunity to become better at public speaking in an environment where there are nearly zero consequences.
As your expectations become more realistic, you should find that a lot of your worry and performance anxiety dissipates.
The more competence and experience you have around your subject matter, the more confident you are going to feel presenting it. This confidence is going to help you keep your nerves in check. Therefore, spend a good amount of time researching every nook and cranny of your subject before getting ready to present.
Some forms of public speaking are typically followed by a Q&A, most notably oral examinations. If this is the kind of presentation you are preparing for, do not cut any corners when researching. Knowing your subject matter inside and out is the most efficient way to rid yourself of Q&A related anxiety.
When crafting a speech you want to find the happy medium between too much and too little construction. If you hope to get every part of your speech memorised, down to the exact word count, then you are in for a rude awakening. This kind of approach – if you manage to remember anything – will only leave your presentation robotic and your audience severely unamused.
Focus on the occasional instructions from your GPS, and you arrive efficiently at your destination. Focus on nothing but the GPS and you end up upside down in the ditch. Much like the navigation device on your phone, outline your speech with main points and the order in which you want to hit them. Do not worry about exact phrasing; just know your path and the sights to see along the way. I promise the venture will be a more enjoyable one.
Granted you have done your research diligently beforehand, this is the best way to truly shine during your presentation. Once you get into the flow state affiliated with presenting all of your newly gathered knowledge, you will breeze through the presentation with next to no performance anxiety.
To become more confident in your subject and overall construction of your speech, practice a lot! As mentioned above, the objective is not to remember the whole speech word for word. The objective is to make the presentation second nature.
Friends and family can help you weed out anything that disrupts the overall flow of your presentation or weak arguments. Meanwhile, performing in front of a mirror or video camera is a great opportunity to work on your nonverbal language.
If you have examined your worries, you should have already faced and eliminated most of your negative expectations. Now comes the time to fill that empty space with some positive energy.
UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor is a master of visualizing his successes.
“If you can see it and you have the courage enough to speak it, it will happen” – Conor McGregor
His unwavering confidence is likely to be attributable to this skill.
You want to have this same unwavering confidence in yourself!
When you start visualizing nothing but success, you will leave your insecurities and your lack of confidence behind. This will set you on the path to not only destroy your fear of public speaking, but indeed most of the barriers you face in your life.
During the presentation/public speaking
- Shift focus away from yourself
During the presentation you want your focus to be on the audience. Not only will focusing on yourself increase performance anxiety by making you hyperaware of everything you are doing and saying. It will also make the audience feel uncomfortable, which in turn will make you uncomfortable.
Remember that the audience is here for the content you are providing; in this instant you are the teacher and lecturer.
Engage your audience by letting your eyes sweep across the room. (You do not need to lock eyes with people if this makes you uncomfortable, nobody will be the wiser if you look through or even behind them.)
The fact that feelings govern body language is commonly known. It is only in more recent times that we have started opening our eyes to the opposite effect. Your body language can and will drastically impact your emotions.
Crossing your arms will make you more likely to disagree and feel negativity, while smiling or whistling – even when sad or angry – will actually make you feel better.
I bet you can already see the potential effects this can have on your confidence and stage fright. By simply incorporating positive body language, and removing negative body language, you will be forcing a change in your emotions.
First of all, smile, smile, and SMILE even more. Open hands; show the audience your palms. Move around, not erratically, but calmly and with purpose. Gesturing is also a fantastic method of showing the audience your enthusiasm. An added bonus of gesturing is that it actually makes your thoughts more effective when it comes to communicating.
Keep this in mind while you watch Business Insider’s video of Dananjaya Hettiarachchi below.
Hettiarachchi was ranked the number one public speaker in the world in 2014. (Yes, I did not know that was a thing either).
Do not forget everything you learnt and practiced before stepping onto the stage. Remind yourself that you have covered all the bases and that you will crush this presentation. Nobody and nothing can keep you from delivering a great performance now!
You are standing on the shoulders of giants!
After the presentation/public speaking
Write down everything you are happy with, and then everything you are not happy with. Spend a few minutes contemplating what you can do going forward in order to continue improving.
“What went right?”
“Is this different from my earlier experiences?”
“What caused this change and what can I do to repeat it in the future?”
“Did anything go wrong?”
“What can I do to change this in the future?”
By answering these questions, you will be well on your way towards comfortably speaking in front of crowds.
Remember that having a good grasp of theory does not translate into having a good grasp of practice. I do not doubt that you will see improvement from the very first presentation if you implement these strategies, but becoming comfortable in front of other people takes repeat exposure. That is why I must warn against expecting to walk onto a stage feeling no anxiety. You will ALWAYS feel some performance anxiety, but you can learn to embrace it and grow stronger as a result of it.