One of the most common questions I hear in my work as a public speaking and communication coach is: How do I overcome the fear of public speaking?
The secret is not to “overcome” or “eliminate” the fear of public speaking entirely. Instead, great public speakers have learned to turn their fear into power.
Harnessing our inner voice is the theme of Dr. Ethan Kross’s new book, Chatter. I recently caught up with the award-winning neuroscientist and psychology professor who directs the Emotion & Self Control Lab at the University of Michigan.
Kross offers specific mental tools to alleviate stress when the pressure is on.
First, we have to explain what Kross means by “chatter.” Chatter is the stream of negative thoughts that flood our brains when we’re preparing for a performance. It’s our relentless inner critic that—left unchecked—diverts energy and attention, making it nearly impossible to execute a task at a high level.
According to Kross, “Chatter undermines our performance at work, interferes with our ability to make good decisions, and negatively influences our relationships.”
The good news is that you can harness your inner voice to perform your best, especially when it comes to public speaking.
Here are three tools to turn your inner critic into an inner coach.
1. Use distanced self-talk
Kross’s research finds that when you’re trying to work through a difficult experience, using your name and the second-person “you” will focus your thinking. By doing so, you’ll spend less time ruminating over negative thoughts, which leads to improved performance under stress.
When you’re using your own name, imagine that you’re coaching a friend through a performance. For example,
“Okay, Carmine, you’ve got this. You’ve done this before, and your audience loved it. They’re going to be excited about your ideas.”
“We found in studies that when we ask people to coach themselves using their name rather than ‘I,’ they get into a coach mode rather than critic mode,” says Kross.
2. Reframe your experience as a challenge
“You possess the ability to change the way you think about an experience,” says Kross. Chatter—a negative loop— is often triggered when you interpret a situation as a threat. A threat implies that the situation is out of your control. Instead, reinterpret the situation as a challenge that you look forward to and one that you can handle.
A threat response elicits all of the physiological results that go along with the fear of public speaking: sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, shortness of breath.
A challenge response will still prepare your body for action. Although you’ll experience some of the same feelings, they won’t be as intense, and you’ll have a stronger mental attitude.
“You have the ability to make the choice,” says Kross. “Changing the narrative from threat to challenge can make a tremendous difference when it comes to our performance under stress.”
3. Reinterpret your body’s chatter response
The symptoms that come along with stress can compound the stress itself. For example, focusing on the upset stomach you might feel before a presentation only makes it worse.
“When this happens, remind yourself that your bodily response to stress is an adaptive evolutionary reaction that improves performance under high-stress conditions,” says Kross. “In other words, tell yourself that your sudden rapid breathing, pounding heartbeat, and sweaty palms are there not to sabotage you but to help you respond to a challenge.”
Tell yourself, “My heart is beating faster because I have something challenging in front of me. This is my body rising to the occasion.”
The voice in your head matters. The words we use when we talk to ourselves can either prevent us from performing our best or fuel our success. Harness your inner voice to improve your public speaking, an essential skill to reach your potential.
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