What shuts you up: How anxiety can hold you back from becoming a competent and confident speaker.

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Whether you’re making a pitch, interviewing for a job, giving a toast or accepting an award, public speaking skills play a critical part in expressing your personal brand. This post explores what can prevent you from communicating your personal brand with confidence.


What do Winston Churchill, David Bowie, John F. Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Streisand, Margaret Thatcher, and Marilyn Monroe have in common? All of them reported experiencing anxiety about speaking or performing in public. And they are just a few of the bright and talented people who openly shared their struggle with social anxiety.

So if you experience speaking anxiety and think you are alone, the truth is that you have A LOT of company.  In fact, according to some studies, between 60 to 75% of our population has a fear of public speaking.

Like anything, to properly address speech anxiety, it is helpful to understand it. So what’s behind this very common anxiety? Let’s take a look at a few possible causes.

The Inner-critic. There’s some pretty solid research out there suggesting that those who are socially anxious are more critical of their own social behaviour than those who aren’t anxious. This could mean that your interpretation of your performance may be more a reflection of negative beliefs than of your actual performance. The inner-critic could convince you that you will be negatively evaluated, fall short of the expectations of your audience, and/or will show anxiety symptoms (e.g., blushing, trembling, sweating), regardless of reality.

Our Histories. This relates to good old behavioural psychology. Simply put, if, as a child, you were ridiculed, criticized or punished after speaking in public, you could have learned an anxiety response to speaking. From this, we would develop expectations of negative consequences for speaking.  Or you could have learned anxiety by seeing others model anxious behaviours regarding communication. Sounds simple, but research suggests it’s not just one life incident, but rather a complex interaction of genetics, the environment and life experiences.

Lack of Public Speaking Skills. It’s not uncommon for someone to feel some anxiety if they don’t know what to say or how to act in a certain situation. Similarly, if a speaker doesn’t know what to say or do during a presentation, anxiety will increase. Whether perceived or real, a lack of speaking skills can quickly undermine one’s self-confidence about giving speeches or presentations.

Performance Expectations. This includes misconceptions about what a presentation involves. An example would be if you view a presentation as a situation that demands you to have a perfect, polished, eloquent, and brilliant delivery. One small mistake becomes unforgivable in your mind. This also involves thinking about the audience as equally hypercritical and unforgiving. Such self-demands and misconceptions about performance and the audience can quickly backfire and cause significant anxiety. It also gives the inner- critic plenty of ammo!

Avoidance.  It would be quite difficult to avoid public communication if you want to get your name out there.  But let’s say you do. Not only are you likely to lose opportunities to share your brand, but you will almost certainly fuel anxiety. Avoiding any situation that is anxiety inducing will provide short-term gain (by getting you out of a situation) but long-term pain, as it generally increases anxiety.

The good news is that there are many techniques out there for decreasing speech anxiety and enhancing public speaking skills.  To start, you can find a few resources on our Golden Notebook blog to help you confidently speak up!


1 Comment

One thought on “What shuts you up: How anxiety can hold you back from becoming a competent and confident speaker.”

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