Public Speaking

Retrain Your Brain to Feel Confident About Public Speaking

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Picture yourself sitting in an audience, listening to a presentation at a conference. The speaker on the low platform at the front of the room suddenly grabs a mic and says to the crowd, “To prove my point, I am going to need a volunteer.” He begins walking in your general direction.

How do you feel right now?

Some of you are thinking, “I feel great and I hope he picks me!” But perhaps you are one (of the majority) who is not feeling great. Does even imagining this scenario make you start sweating a little? Maybe when you have found yourself in this kind of position, you have applied the age-old "must check my phone and be fully focused on the most important message of my life" trick. 

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Anything to avoid being put on the spot in public. If there was someone in the crowd asking for volunteers to leave right then to go get root canals, you would be the first one out of your seat. Anything to avoid Satan and his microphone!

The experience simulator

If your reaction to the idea of public speaking is fear and loathing, you are reacting according to what Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert calls the “experience simulator,” a function of your prefrontal cortex. This is the area of our brains where we play out versions of what might happen next in any given set of circumstances.

For a few lucky people, the experience simulator presents a positive scenario with an optimistic outlook. “Oh yes! I am going to grab that mic and I am going to look good.” But for most people, the experience simulator presents a train wreck with the corresponding message of “Oh no … he is going to pick me! I won’t know what to say! I am going to look like an idiot! I will never live this down!”

That’s the thing about the experience simulator: for most people, it is a worst-case scenario machine, churning out intense, movie-worthy "possibilities" at a ferocious rate. In other words, your own brain can be your own worst enemy.

Retraining your experience simulator

Public speaking worst-case scenarios that your brain can serve up include but are not limited to the following fears: stumbling over words, going completely blank, being laughed at by an audience, tripping, falling, passing out, wetting oneself, or most realistically of all, the fear of all of these things happening simultaneously. In reality, only the first of these possibilities is even remotely likely.

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Yes, you might stumble on your words. Put the brakes on your brain right there. When was the last time you saw a speaker pass out or lose bladder control on stage? Be honest and reasonable and do not let your mind wander into possibilities that will simply not happen.

With your imagination in check, begin to retrain your experience simulator by focusing only on positive outcomes: the applause, the smiles, the encouragement, and most importantly, the impact your speaking will have on people’s lives. You have a message to share that will bless people around you. You are doing the world no favors by not sharing it.

Trust that people will hear your heart, even if you stumble on your words. Focus all of your thinking about speaking on your audience vs. on yourself. This retraining and re-focusing will radically change how you feel about public speaking.

In his (excellent) book, Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert points out that the brain has a difficult time distinguishing reality from synthetic reality. In short, we can create synthetic positive scenarios in our brain by retraining our experience simulator. It all begins by keeping worst-case scenarios out and putting thoughts and images of positive outcomes in. Get inside your own head!

When you have a public-speaking opportunity (or when that speaker from the stage is heading straight towards you in order to make his point), focus your mind on the good you can bring to an audience and let that picture dominate your thoughts.

Grow your confidence, and you will change people’s world.

Related: The Deadliest Presentation Mistakes Anyone Can Avoid