In their book, As We Speak: How to Make Your Point and Have It Stick, authors Peter Meyers and Shann Nix detail strategies and methods to help businesspeople become effective, persuasive communicators and speechmakers. This edited excerpt focuses on ways to overcome the common fear of public speaking and deliver your message clearly and confidently.
What determines how you feel are the things on which you choose to focus. Most of the time we don’t bother to choose. We just let the mind’s eye wander around. In this default setting, the brain will choose its focus primarily based on fear. Why? We are built to look for danger. Your brain is designed to keep you alive. For tens of thousands of years, the human brain has done a great job by looking for trouble.
We focus the mind’s eye through the questions we ask. When you ask a question, the brain immediately sets out to answer it. But when facing an audience, most people ask questions that cause them to focus on their fear, rather than their objective. Think about a typical question you might ask yourself: “Will they ask me hard questions?” The brain, primed to lean toward the negative, searches for an answer. Brain says, “Yes!” You start to get nervous. You’re panicky, starting to sweat. “Am I prepared enough?” Brain searching. . . answer is “no!”
Questions like “What’s missing?” and “Will I know the answers?” may seem like intelligent questions to ask yourself. But they’re actually sabotage questions. The answers can only produce a negative state.
So what’s the answer? Ask a different question. The way you control the focus of the brain is by changing the internal questions that you ask. Ask a question with a presupposition, an implicit assumption about the world, as revealed in a statement whose truth is taken for granted.
For example, the question “What’s great about this opportunity?” contains the presupposition that there is, in fact, something great in the opportunity that you haven’t noticed yet. What you want are questions with this kind of powerful presupposition. This will drive the brain to produce a better answer and produce a feeling of exhilaration rather than terror.
Asking the right questions before you go on is a very powerful way to manage your state. You are programming your brain purposefully, so that it will come up with answers that pull you forward, rather than hold you back.
The architecture of a good question is very specific. It contains a presupposition that forces you to think of new possibilities — in other words, don’t ask, “Will I succeed?” but, “How will I succeed?”
Be persistent with your brain. Once you get an answer, ask again. One to four weeks before the event is when explore everything that could go wrong in your talk. Ten minutes before you go out, you can’t be asking yourself, “Will it hurt if I fall?” You must turn your attention to your state, and ask yourself performance-enhancing questions only.
You may have felt fear when facing an audience in the past. Chances are that it was your beliefs, and not the audience itself, that tied your stomach in knots. Your beliefs about yourself as a speaker will determine how you show up. Human beings don’t just assemble facts. We constantly interpret the facts to tell a story and make sense of what’s happening around us. That’s how we learn. Beliefs create the meaning you bring to the things that happen. You wear your beliefs like glasses; you view everything through them. And here’s the thing about beliefs: They are always true for you. Whether or not anyone else would agree is irrelevant.
For example, if you believe that you couldn’t hold an audience’s attention because you are too new, too old, too young, a woman, a man, an introvert, etc., then that will be true for you.
If you perceive that you are in danger of being judged, attacked, or ridiculed, that perception is all that counts. The receptors in your brain respond the same way, whether or not the attack is real. If you’re walking into a room full of Ph.D.s and your fundamental belief is that you’re not really smart enough to speak on this subject, then you will unconsciously look for all the ways to confirm that belief. On the other hand, if you believe that you have a unique perspective on this situation, and this is an opportunity for you to provide insight, then everything from the way you enter the room, to the way you connect with the group, to the sound of your voice will be very different.
If you stand up in front of an audience and have a bad experience, you will tell yourself a story about it. The danger is the belief that comes out of that story. Is there any chance that you created a belief at that moment that has kept you from returning to the spotlight? Something like, “I’ve never been good at this, and I never will be?”
You can’t always control events in the world around you. But you can control your belief. And controlling the belief will change your physical state.