How I managed to turn public speaking anxiety into a fun research project

If you had told me a few years ago, that I’ll be speaking in front of people (no matter the size of the audience), my reaction would probably be hyperventilating into a paper bag. Haunted by a few childhood traumas of performing and failing, I never thought of myself as a public speaker. I rather saw myself as someone who stumbles through words managing to glue them together on paper, while sounding like a random thought-spitter in public.

Nevertheless, I knew for a while what drives me - supporting others in their growth and development (so cheesy, I know!). I never wanted my personal limitations to jeopardize my dreams, and I knew my public speaking anxiety would bite me in the ass sooner or later.

It happened much sooner than I had expected. At the beginning of my journey, I met someone who offered me a possibility to give workshops about a topic I deeply care about. The moment I heard about it, I felt a lump in my throat, while my tummy was experiencing a boxing match of anxiety vs excitement, and the score was yet very much unclear.

So I thought - I have a few months to prepare myself. What approach can I take to take the plunge and deliver the workshops? (sweeping the audience off their feet was not a worry for me at that time; I just wanted to make sure I don’t freak out too much to perform). I asked an experienced public speaker about their tricks, I googled for public speaking anxiety, and somehow it occurred to me.

I’m going to experiment with different approaches and see which one works best.

And so I did. I was lucky enough, that I was beginning to work full-time at a start-up, which required a lot of low-stakes public speaking. I mapped out a variety of things I could try from the intel I gathered, and with each public speaking gig, I dared to experiment with one.

1. Alcohol. First thing I tried was based on the advice of an experienced public speaker. She told me that when she started, she would take a few sips of red wine to get through the first moments of awkwardness. Obviously, I adapted the method, and instead of a few sips I ended up having two quick glasses of wine before a small 10mins presentation that I was giving (working at a start-up made this much easier, Friday evening presentation = Friday evening drinks!). While I poured words out of myself, I realized that unfortunately, the nervousness didn’t go away as effectively as I was hoping, but my flamboyance and jokiness went up a notch. Not sure people noticed though, as my speech got a bit more slurred. I haven’t tried it since then, but next time I would definitely stick to the initial advice - a few sips only. However, I felt excited. I was so focused on the experiment itself, that the overall public speaking experience was much smoother. I wanted to dig deeper.

2. Power poses. If you had accidentally opened a bathroom door at a start-up I was working at before my presentation, you probably would have bumped into me doing a weird amount of power poses. Power poses are postures you can adapt to look, and therefore feel powerful. With my feet apart, hands on my hips, and my chin tilted upward I felt an incredible amount of power over the toilet door that I was boldly staring at. Surprisingly enough, this feeling carried on when I left the toilet and entered the presentation room. It wasn’t long-lasting - I had my nervous moments coming in a bit later - but I knew power poses were something I wanted to keep in my toolbox (even though now it seems that research was biased - oh the power of placebo!).

3. Meditation. Before a bigger presentation I was giving, I was freaking out. This one was outside of my start-up, and even though it was supposed to be a safe space, I was spiraling. I couldn’t sleep at night, imagining all of the different scenarios in which I would fail. The person I was with, couldn’t help but notice my circled eyes and disheveled look. She suggested guided meditation, and I couldn’t have been more grateful for that. In three minutes I felt more present and peaceful, and - while still stressed - I knew I would manage to keep the workshop going.

These were only some of the things I experimented with. I also tried throwing a question at the audience in the beginning to soothe my nerves (actually pretty helpful to get a feeling for the audience before!), tried the ‘fake it till you make it’ approach, disabling negative chatter from my brain (really helpful especially before the presentation itself - my nerves only started at the beginning), and taking a run around the building before the presentation (gets very sweaty).

And while I’m still continuing with the experiments (hopefully one day will find a way to get rid of the first minutes' anxiety), there were two main things I learned throughout:

When you focus on the experiment itself, you have much less space to worry about your delivery. You give yourself the freedom to fail, as it’s normal with experiments that you don’t find your solution overnight, and you have a lot of failures before that moment of ‘eureca!’ happens. It took a while for Edison after all. You also become much more creative with the things to try out, and you do a lot of research on what works for others, which gives you great intel to play with.

Public speaking is not the only area where this approach works. It could be transferred to a wide array of life areas, making facing the things you fear or struggle with much easier to deal with. Actually, this article is part of the experiment I’m doing on self-confidence. Stay tuned for more!

What do you think of this approach? Do you also do something similar? Let me know in the comments!

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