Silencing The Inner-Critic before it silences you: Tried and true cognitive strategies to overcome speech anxiety

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“There are two types of speakers.  Those who get nervous and those who are liars.”  Mark Twain

In our last post, we explored a major obstacle to communicating your personal brand with confidence: speech anxiety.  In the second of this three-part post, we take a look at some cognitive approaches you can use to help alleviate your brand obstructing anxiety.

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The inner-critic plays a huge part in speech anxiety. This is that “critical inner voice” consisting of negative and unhelpful thinking styles that can fuel anxiety. In the case of public speaking, the critic will often demand perfection, convince you that you will be negatively evaluated or viewed as a fraud by your audience.

A powerful tool for silencing the inner-critic is something called cognitive restructuring, one of the most effective techniques for reducing anxiety. In a nutshell, it involves identifying and changing unhelpful thinking patterns in order to change your anxious feelings.

The first step is perhaps the hardest: catching the critic. This involves identifying unhelpful, irrational beliefs about public speaking that are at times lightening fast.   These irrational thoughts (also called cognitive distortions) are typically rigid, illogical, unrealistic and obstructive. Try “setting a trap” for the critic by visualizing your ultimate fears or worst-case scenarios about public speaking, and then making a list of all your worries and negative thoughts. Once this is done, it’s time to do a little detective work by identifying what irrational beliefs lurk behind your thinking about public speaking.

The next step is to challenge your irrational beliefs by questioning their accuracy and practicing more rational, accurate ways of thinking. Start to chip away at what makes a thought irrational (look out for words which imply rigid rules and demands, such as “should”, “ought” or “must”) and dispute them like a lawyer, while presenting truthful, positive statements as alternatives. These healthy beliefs are logical, realistic, flexible and helpful.

To help with this, I’ve included the below list of irrational public speaking beliefs and “truths” adapted from speech anxiety specialist Dr. Karen Dwyer:

  • Peephole thinking: you focus on one negative detail (like you would peep through a peephole in a door), to the exclusion of all other information. E.g., you may receive many positive comments about a speech, but you focus on the one small point you forgot or the mistake you once made. The Truth: Directing your attention to positive messages and to presenting your message will help you reach your speaking goals. Although you can learn from constructive suggestions, you need not focus on past mistakes, shortcomings, fears or the negative criticism that others once gave you. Doing so is self-defeating.
  • Psychic Reading: you anticipate the worst outcome and try to predict what others are thinking. E.g., you say to yourself, “I will never give a good speech, no one will like what I have to say, and I know I will forget something or make a mistake.” You might notice an audience member yawning, who in reality has worked all night or crammed for an exam, but as a psychic reader, you falsely presume they are bored and uninterested. The Truth: You cannot predict the future or read another’s mind. If someone yawns, she may be sleepy. If you prepare your speech outline, you will have notes to guide you. If you forget a point, you can refer to your notes and keep going.
  • Microscopic Viewing: You look at a speech as an enormous, even gargantuan event, as if it were a tiny insect enlarged to gigantic proportions under the view of a microscope. The Truth: Giving a speech occupies only a very short time in your life-span. Worrying about giving a speech exaggerates its importance.
  • Emotional Reasoning: you rely on feelings to determine the facts. E.g., “I feel myself getting nervous, that’s a sign that it will be a terrible speech”.  The Truth: A little activation is normal and a sign that you are alive. Everyone experiences activation. It can get you “psyched up” and add to your enthusiasm. It should not determine your thoughts. It is not a sign that you have lost control.
  • All-or-nothing thinking: you believe it is a perfect speech or else a bad speech. You think that if you make a mistake your entire speech will be a disaster or failure. E.g., “If I forget something or make a mistake, it will be a catastrophe.” The Truth: Even the most experienced speakers make mistakes or overlook points. Your message can be effective, even if it is not perfect. No one is perfect.
  • Performance Demanding: you believe you must become something other than yourself to be an effective speaker. E.g., “I must have perfect, formal, flawless, eloquent delivery. I can’t be myself. Others are rating me as if I’m in an Olympic competition.” The Truth: Public speaking relies on communication skills that you use in everyday conversation. Your focus will be on helping the audience understand your message. You can be yourself and use your natural delivery skills. Even the most experienced speakers are NOT perfect. Your speech can be effective and help others, even if it is not perfect.
  • Personalizing: You take everything personally. E.g., While speaking, you notice two people laughing and you conclude it’s about you because you look like a fool. If someone excessively criticizes you, it may be a function of his/her personality or attitude, but you take it personally for years to come. The Truth: You cannot base your opinion of yourself on what others do or say. Some will like you and your topic and be interested, and others may not. Just make the effort to prepare  and offer what you can. You have the right to express your ideas and be who you are. Your evaluation of yourself does not depend on he critical words or behaviours of others.
  • Perfectionizing: You believe you must look perfect and never make a mistake in order to be acceptable. E.g., “No one should ever see me sweat, stumble, shake, or blush. If I cannot look really good or give a perfect speech, I will be an embarrassment.” The Truth: No one will ever be perfect in this life. We are all fallible humans who make mistakes. You can unconditionally accept yourself. Your audience cannot feel your heartbeat and will not notice the nervousness you feel. They are simply listening for helpful ideas.

It’s important to create your own list of rational coping statements to eventually replace the irrational worries related to public speaking. Every time you catch yourself feeling anxious about public speaking, look for what the inner-critic is telling you, and immediately start to challenge negative beliefs and replace them with your positive statements. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with some consistent practice, you’ll let the critic  start to fade into the distance and allow some room for that confident voice to come out.

In our next post, we’ll share some behavioural strategies and tricks to help with public speech anxiety, so stay tuned…


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