Friday, May 22, 2009

Why is Public Speaking So Stressful?

Standing in front of an audience is a stressful experience, even for seasoned speakers. An experienced speaker may not feel nervous, but there is stress nonetheless. For novice speakers and particularly for people with stage fright, the stress can be enormous--causing physical symptoms (shivering, stuttering, dry mouth, quavering voice, shaky hands, tunnel-vision, fainting, nausea, vomiting, etc.). This stress also causes changes in the brain, so that you may not be able to think as clearly as when you are just having a conversation.

There must be something in our ancestral behavior patterns that tells us to flee when a lot of people are looking at us—or perhaps it’s just an overwhelming sense of self-consciousness (imagining how we look to others and what they will think if we screw up). The symptoms we experience (pounding heart, sweating, shaking, etc.) are the same as when we feel physical danger. These physical reactions are very difficult to ignore.

Some people are successful at overcoming performance anxiety by consciously avoiding thinking about themselves, e.g., by focusing on something else (however, I don’t recommend the common suggestion that a nervous speaker imagine the audience naked—it doesn’t work). If your physical reaction is primarily shivering or shaky hands, it’s important to stay warm prior to your talk (which is difficult in most icebox conference rooms). I find that if I keep my hands warm (keeping them in my pockets or even sitting on them), any shakiness is minimized and my nervousness automatically diminishes. I always have a sweater or jacket with me.

Fearful speakers who've been advised not to read their talks may try to memorize their entire talk, which is a mistake. I heard a post-doc give a presentation recently, and it was clear that she had it memorized because the delivery sounded exactly as if she were reading. The effect was the same—it was difficult to maintain focus on what she was saying. Some people can read in a conversational style while frequently looking up at the audience and succeed in giving a good talk---but these are rare (and I think this takes a lot of practice).

Another reason not to memorize: if your brain locks up, it’s much more difficult to recover. Instead, incorporate into your slides reminders of the points you wish to make (you can be creative and use photographs or other graphics that simultaneously serve to inform your audience). You can also use the animation function in PowerPoint to introduce elements (arrows, highlights, etc.) that jog your memory and help the audience focus. Only memorize the general point you wish to make, not the exact words. If you are very confident, you can memorize your opening and closing statements (to avoid rambling), but practice describing your points in different ways in case you forget the exact words.

I do recommend memorizing your sequence of slides and knowing what, in general you wish to say—in the event the projector fails. Back in the days of slide projectors, I witnessed the amazing presentation of a colleague whose presentation was almost derailed by a klutzy moderator. When a slide got stuck, the moderator removed the cap on the slide carousel and turned it upside down, dumping all the slides (over a hundred) onto the floor. The speaker proceeded to give one of the most entertaining talks I’ve ever heard.

I think the only way to truly overcome performance anxiety is lots of practice, which leads to confidence—and ultimately a lack of fear of performing in front of others.

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