The Real Source of Public Speaking Anxiety

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Public speaking anxiety is by far the greatest issue we are asked to help professionals with every week at Mindful Presenter.

Several times in the last few weeks I have heard professional speakers and coaches claim that the reason they believe that people suffer from stage fright or public speaking anxiety is because they have low self-esteem or that their self- esteem was eroded during a previous performance.

Whilst that may be true for some I don’t think it’s at all reasonable to generalise, especially when in my experience it’s really not the case.

It’s my belief that the truth is far simpler and it relates to a very basic and primitive human trait we each have evolved to experience, and that is:

The need to look good

That’s it I’m afraid, it’s as simple as that.

You don’t need to rush off to see a psychologist or endure therapy for years, you just need to recognize and accept that we all have an innate need to look good, ( some more than others of course).

We all have the same basic set of human needs and it’s the ones we as individuals choose to focus on in any given moment or situation that will affect the way we think, feel and perform.

When it comes to speaking in public I believe that we all have three basic needs which are enough to make anyone nervous:

Certainty – knowing that we are going to be fine and that nothing bad is going to happen to us

Reputation – the need to protect and even enhance our personal standing and reputation

Connection – we all need to ‘belong’ and connecting is our way of feeling that

We could try to complicate matters and dress these up as self- esteem issues but I really don’t believe its necessary or appropriate.

If it were true then all speakers would suffer from low self-esteem and we know that’s ridiculous.

I very rarely come across any speaker regardless of their status or experience who doesn’t have some form of anxiety prior to speaking in public, including yours truly and I’ve been doing it and teaching it for years.

The difference is in knowing how to manage your nerves and getting those butterflies flying in formation to help rather than hinder you.

Every now and then I will meet someone who tells me they aren’t at all nervous and frankly I don’t believe them. I’d even go as far as to suggest that if we were to hook them up to a polygraph test I could prove there is a little more to it than they are letting on.

We are all hardwired to care about our reputation and to look good

That means that when we stand in front of a group of people we are trying to influence in some way our reputation and character  can often be perceived as being at risk. Whether we like it or not people judge people and we all instinctively know that.

I’ve never yet met a speaker who doesn’t want to look good or doesn’t care about his or her presentation performance and it’s precisely that caring that elevates our anxiety. In fact, we could go even further to argue that the higher your self-esteem the more anxious you may feel as the more you care about protecting it.

I was at a wedding at the weekend at a friend of my wife’s and I hadn’t actually met the groom before. During a conversation with him after the speeches he confided in me that he was excruciatingly nervous about making his speech and he thought he’d never get through it.

Despite his perceived anxiety, he gave one of the best, funniest and most touching speeches I and I’m sure the rest of his guests had heard.

Was he suffering from low self-esteem? – NO

Did he want to look good on his wedding day in front of his wife and everyone he cares about? – OF COURSE

Was it fine for him to feel anxious about speaking on his big day? – YOU BET

Was there a lot at stake in his eyes? – NATURALLY

The bottom line is that when we speak in front of a group of people, (whether we know them or not) the reason most of us get nervous is just because we care.

We aren’t nervous because we were ridiculed in the classroom when we were 6 years old or because speaking at last year’s conference we forgot our words for a moment.

Most of us just care and want to look good

In the same way some of us have serious challenges in controlling our weight, not being anxious about spiders, flying, or whether our suitcase will be the last one off the baggage reclaim carousel, some of us get a little more anxious than others when we speak in public.

Sometimes it’s just in our genes or its something we’ve learned along the way

The good news is that just as you can learn to control your weight, love flying and make friends with spiders you can learn to dramatically reduce your public speaking anxiety and speak with confidence, passion and purpose.

So relax in the knowledge that it’s completely natural to feel nervous to some degree when speaking in public and if you feel that anxiety is excessive and interferes with your performance there is plenty you can do.

Check out the Mindful Presenter blog posts for lots of useful free advice.

You don’t need therapy but you may benefit from the guidance of a Mindful Presenter

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