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Deal with pre-talk anxiety
v. May 17, 2022
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Deal with pre-talk anxiety
Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg & Tania Luna (v. May 16, 2022)
You can be nervous and still do a great talk
Pretty much all speakers feel some level of anxiety. Being a good speaker simply means that you know how to handle it.
Here are three tips for being only moderately nervous while also delivering a stellar talk.
1. Tackle the factors you can control
Anxiety doesn’t have one single cause; it comes from a mix of different ‘worry factors’, shown here.
Some things are not fully within your control, e.g. your body’s reactions (more on that in a bit). But importantly, most of the worry factors are things you can control, or at least prepare for.
To reduce anxiety, first figure out which sources of worry you can address, and then do that. For each factor you feel prepared for, your worry level will go down – literally you’ll have ‘one less thing to worry about’.
We’ll soon share guides on the controllable factors. Subscribe to get notified when they come out:
•How to end on time
•Master the Q&A
•Practice Your Talk Effectively
•Avoid Epic Failure (on preparation)
2. Reframe your body’s reaction
You did all the prep work – but your body is still freaking out. Now what?
Most people try to calm themselves down. The problem is, your body knows something’s afoot, and it won’t be fooled by your comforting lies.
Research into public speaking offers a better way: Reframe how you think about your body’s reaction, seeing your nervous energy as excitement.
Before your talk, literally say “I am excited” out loud. In one study, psychologist Alison Wood Brooks found that people gave much better talks if they did this.
You can also remind yourself, ‘my body is getting ready to deliver a top performance’. If you are into cars, think of your body as a Formula 1 car, revving its engines by the starting line.
Anxiety isn’t bad. You actually want some level of edgy energy as you deliver. It makes you and your topic come alive.
3. Love it when the wild thing happens
You fear loss of control, but loss of control has already happened. Ride the wave.
- Unknown (probably a surfer dude)
The previous advice has been about control: of your reactions and your environment.
But ultimately, complete control is an illusion. Give enough talks, and something unexpected – some wild, surprising thing – will happen.
In those cases, your best option may not be to control the situation, but instead to lean into it. We call this ‘loving when the wild thing happens’. You can get to a point where you actively enjoy it when something weird or unpredictable happens.
It helps to think of your role differently. Don’t see a talk as an exam, with you as the expert. See a talk as a way to explore ideas together with the audience. You navigate the moment with them, co-creating something that has never existed before. That can't happen when everything goes exactly as planned.
When viewed that way, it gets easier to relax and engage fully with people – and dance with the wild thing.
We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they're not.
- Tania Luna & LeeAnn Renninger, “Surprise”
In sum, to handle pre-talk anxiety:
Anxiety-o-meter: The insight behind this comes from Optimal arousal theory, a body of research that highlights how being ‘fired up’ makes performance better (up to a point). See Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). "The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation". Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. 18 (5): 459–482.
“I am excited” study: See the study by Alison Wood Brooks: Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement
Worry as a good thing. Researchers consider worry to be a helpful thing in general. In the context of speaking, it’s your brain’s way of A) motivating you to prepare, and B) getting you ready to deliver well.
Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg is an author and speaker. His books have been published in 17 languages. He likes to think about things.
Tania Luna is the author of “Surprise” and “The Leader Lab”. Her TED talk has been seen by 2 million people.
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