Lisa: I’d like to start the episode by saying that I received an email from a listener:
I don’t know exactly when this started, but at some point before high school, I became terrified of doing any kind of public speaking. I didn’t overcome the fear at an earlier age, so it continued into college. I stayed away from any class where I thought I would have to give a presentation or participate in any sort of group discussion. Today, I often stay away from dinner parties or events where I think I might be required to speak in public. Sometimes, when I’m sitting in a classroom and I have a question, I review it in my mind 20 times before actually asking it, just to make sure I don’t sound stupid when I say it. I know this is completely emotional and I desperately want to stop feeling this constant anxiety. How can I come out of it?
Thank you. M
Although I’ve done two episodes on handling speaker’s anxiety, last year I read a book called Speaking Up Without Freaking Out by Matt Abrahams. I interviewed him on my other podcast, Smart Talk. I really like him and his book and felt like he covered a few ideas that I haven’t talked about in the past. So I invited him to be my very first interview podcast for QDT.
Lisa: Matt, welcome to the show! Matt, I know you told me a story about a 72-year-old woman who came to one of your seminars. Can you tell me the story again?
Matt: I vividly remember meeting a 72-year-old woman who came to one of my public speaking anxiety management workshops. She came up to me before we began and told me her story. When she was a young girl in high school, she had to give a presentation in front of her English class. When she finished, her professor told her that her speech was awful ... among the worst he had ever heard. This experience deeply affected her. She made life choices that would reduce the likelihood that she would ever have to speak in public. She told me that morning that before she dies, she wanted to be able to confidently deliver a presentation.
Lisa: I’m so glad she chose you to help her. I know you helped her achieve her goal! The good news is that there are many techniques and strategies that we know from research can really help. Matt, in your book, you talk about 50 different techniques; what I’d like to do is highlight the top five. The five that you have found to be the most effective.
Matt: Yes, my book does cover 50 techniques because each person is different. Some techniques work better for some people, while others work really well for others. Like you, I recommend that people try several techniques to see which ones are the most helpful for them. But if I had to pick the top five that I think, in general, are the most effective, I’d go with:
1) Greeting your anxiety (acknowledge that it is normal and natural)
2) Deep breathing
3) Taking a present orientation
4) Reframing speaking as a conversation
Greeting Your Anxiety
Lisa: I do agree that people tend to get nervous for different reasons and in different contexts. So trying out a few different techniques can really be helpful. So, let’s get started with the first one you mentioned: greeting your anxiety. Hello Anxiety—Nice to see you again! Well, maybe not so nice to see you again ...
Matt: Right. What’s important to remember is that when you experience negative physical arousal (e.g., your heart rate increases, you begin to sweat, your mouth is dry) just remind yourself that these reactions are normal and typical. They’re your body’s normal response to something that is displeasing.
Lisa: For me, when I get nervous, I tend to not breathe properly—I get out of breath, and my stomach starts to churn.
Matt: The trick is to avoid giving them greater significance. Just greet these natural responses by saying to yourself, “Here are those anxiety feelings again. Of course, I should feel them, I am about to give a presentation.”
Lisa: I’ve heard that referred to as mindfulness or diffusion. Observing what’s going on in the moment, recognizing it’s just a normal reaction. I like to think about it like a sports commentator, “Lisa, here are those feelings again, you’re not breathing fully and your stomach is in knots.” It pulls me out and makes me feel more in control.
Matt: Right, by observing your reaction it gives you a little space between you and your feelings and it allows you to ask, “Okay, now what do I do?" This technique enables you to ask yourself helpful questions rather than living in the anxiety. By using non-judgmental observation it allows you to remain in control and focus on your presentation.
Lisa: OK, let’s move onto the second one: deep breathing.
Matt: Yeah, well, we hear about this one all the time, don’t we? But for it to really help, it needs to be done properly. There’s a ton of scientific information about why this helps. Briefly, deep breathing provides more oxygen to the blood and calms the heart rate.
Lisa: But you say it has to be done right …
Matt: Yes. First, you want to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, to keep your vocal chords moist.
Lisa: Which is a good idea if you’re about to give a presentation!
Matt: Right! And I recommend breathing in for a count of seven. Hold your breath for seven, then breathe out for seven. If you can’t do it for seven, do it for five. But you also want to think about the counting. Concentrate on hearing the counting in your head. This calms the mental chatter. So you’re helping yourself metabolically and mentally with this exercise.
Lisa: Wow! I really wish we could go through all three that are left in detail. Can you give us a brief explanation, and maybe go into detail on one of them?