We have all been there – standing before a large crowd of people, making an attempt to present a new report at work or an essay at school…
But then it happens: you forget what you were about to say; you glance out upon the crowd (whether five people or five hundred) and suddenly, you are overwhelmed with nerves! And on that note, picturing everybody in their underwear does not work. I have tried this technique and I have seen others try it, as well, and it actually makes things worse! You are already outside of your comfort zone, and now everybody’s naked…yeah, that’s a technique we should all use (sarcastically-speaking).
It Made Sense Once…
Let’s take a look at history. In prehistoric times (primarily the Ice Age, when the human race quite literally began) it was necessary for our survival to maintain cooperation. In other words, at one point in time, we found that being around other cavemen was essential to survival. One cannot hunt a Wooly Mammoth with but a single spear; you need dozens! But with this sense of cooperation comes an odd twist: during the times of the caveman, speaking out against the group was a calling for punishment, abandonment, and even death!
How does this relate to public speaking? When you are speaking before a crowd of people, the part of the brain that fuels fear (which is the hindbrain, as stated in the above paragraph) activates. This is because our ancestors were not allowed to do something like that. Speaking without being spoken to first was cause for disavowment from the group, meaning that caveman would be kicked out of the pack and thus, survival would be almost impossible.
So when you are standing before a crowd and speaking publicly, whether it is for a school essay or a new job report, the hindbrain (particularly a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction) activates, releasing excessive amounts of noradrenaline. This is because our bodies are suddenly aware that it is going against the mechanisms of the hindbrain. Odd but true: public speaking goes against survival, and this is proof that the human brain still acts on a very basic level, despite thousands of years of evolution.
How To Overcome It!
Roughly speaking, you cannot avoid the fear you feel when you present before a group of people; it is hardwired inside all of us to feel nervous, uncomfortable, or both when we are speaking publicly, though it is not because of who we are as individuals. Some people are more equipped for public speaking, but this is not because their brains work differently. Rather, these are people who have gone through what is called behavioral reinforcement. The more you speak in public, and especially in the presence of an award for doing so (i.e. applause, laughter…maybe even money), the less likely you are to freeze up (flight reaction) or grow uncomfortable (fight reaction).
So how do you overcome it? Accept nervousness! It is a natural response the body undergoes in order to protect us. The best advice is to avoid telling yourself that you will not be nervous this time; that actually will make it ten times worse because you are triggering the hindbrain, which cannot be told to deactivate. However, it can be taught! The more you speak in public without punishment or upheaval from those you are presenting to, the more the hindbrain will recognize that perhaps public speaking is not something to “warn us” about.
In conclusion, the best thing you can do is practice and accept the fact that no matter how confident you are in what you are presenting or speaking about, nervousness is a given. It is a mechanism of survival, but it can be trained. If you truly wish to get over that nervous feeling, gather a group of family and/or friends (even 2-3 people will be sufficient) and practice your public speech. When you finish presenting, have each member (and tell them prior to speaking) applaud, laugh when appropriate, and rate you on a scale of 1-10 (and make sure they know that they need to always make it a “10”). This conditions the part of the brain that believes public speaking is dangerous, to lower its level of reaction. In other words, trick your instincts into associating public speaking with reward.
If you want to learn more about the hindbrain and how our brains are evolving to prevent things such as fear of public speaking, read my post on evolution, and how the brain is evolving from front to back, perhaps even negating hindbrain activity! Click here to read more.