Why Is Public Speaking So Stressful?

An estimated 74% of people suffer from speech anxiety. While that might not be a crippling, full-blown fear, it’s safe to say that most of us get nervous or feel some form or pressure when we have to speak in public. But why? What is it that makes public speaking such a stressful experience for so many people?

According to the book Brain Rules, “the perfect storm of . . . stress appears to be a combination of two [things]: a) a great deal is expected of you and b) you have no control over whether you will perform well.” These two factors seem to align with how many people feel about public speaking. But should they? Let’s break these down a bit further.

A Great Deal is Expected of You

Whenever you stand up to speak in front of an audience, there are definite expectations. If you are presenting for work, you might feel added pressure. You might even fall into the slippery slope of what could happen if the presentation doesn’t go well. It ends up sounding something like the popular kids book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you don’t clearly explain the new project, you might not be chosen to participate in that project, if you aren’t participating in that project, your boss will be disappointed, and if your boss is disappointed with you… And the slippery slope goes on. But you have the power to interrupt it. In fact research shows that “after you have identified the negative thought (which often operates just below the level of everyday consciousness), you can reframe it by choosing to focus on positive words and images. The result: anxiety . . . decreases and the number of unconscious negative thoughts decline.”

If we allow slippery slope thinking to perpetuate, we’ll blow out of proportion how much is really riding on one presentation. It can help reduce the amount of stress we feel if we simply put things into perspective. As a type-A, perfectionist firstborn, I have always had a tendency to put too much pressure on myself. My mom used to use a question to help me get a more realistic grasp on things. She would ask me, “Will it matter 10 years from now?” Nearly always, the answer was “no.” The next time you have a big presentation, remember that the expectations you have of yourself are probably much greater than those that others have of you. Bringing things back into perspective will reduce the amount of stress you feel.

You Have No Control Over Whether You Will Perform Well

Experts use the term “locus of control” to explain whether you feel that you control your life or forces outside control you. Those of who have an internal locus, and greater feelings of control, tend to experience less stress. It appears that some of us are just wired for greater or lesser stress response. In fact, nurses say they can identify varied stress responses in one-day-old babies.

If we move into a speaking situation feeling like things are out of our control, of course we will feel an incredible amount of stress! But the good news is that our performance is under our control. We can’t be perfect, but we can practice and prepare and come pretty close. And when we feel confident about our abilities, our stress naturally reduces. Think about doing something you feel prepared for and good at, something you feel you have control over. Now, what if you could have those same feelings when you got up to speak?

You might initially think that is impossible, but I promise you, it’s not. I’ve watched hundreds of people find their voices, watching them move from simply surviving in front of an audience to truly thriving. Like any other skill, public speaking is a matter of learning theories, practicing, listening to feedback, and gaining experience. At Presentation Mentor, it’s literally our business to help you learn methods that can help you succeed when you present. We want to show you that you do, in fact, have control over how you perform.

So let’s look at the definition of stress again. If stress is caused when a great deal is expected of you, you can get off the slippery slope and put those expectations into perspective. If stress is also a result of having no control over whether you will perform well, you can remind yourself that public speaking is a skill at which you can improve.

Ready to get started? Register for our all-new, online presentation skills course now. You’ve got this.

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