Some people naturally love public speaking— for others it depends on the setting, and for others, it’s their worst nightmare as they feel self-conscious when public speaking.
Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum—and whether you’re speaking to a large crowd or preparing for a difficult one-on-one conversation—there are common challenges that we all face when speaking in “public.” But public doesn’t just mean speaking in front of a crowd.
Let’s take a look at what makes speaking in public challenging, and then look at 3 tips to improve your confidence and help stop your brain from sabotaging you in the moment.
What is “Public” Speaking?
- Public speaking can take many forms in the business world, such as:
- Speaking at a conference or Ted Talk
- Presenting at a panel or board meeting
- Taking part in a video conference
- Addressing your team or speaking during a team-meeting
- Having difficult or uncomfortable conversations
- Interviewing for a new position
- Being interviewed for a podcast or media/PR opportunity
Feeling Self-Conscious Makes Public Speaking Challenging
Feeling self-conscious is a natural reaction during public speaking—and for many people, it is the most debilitating. Why? Your amygdala, the almond-shaped fear center in your brain, lights up when you feel anxious, threatened, or afraid; it automatically shifts you into fight, flight, or freeze mode. There are generally 3 types of reactions to public speaking. Do any of these feel familiar?
- Willing but … : You felt excited to speak and were rehearsal ready. But now you’re speaking and all of a sudden realize you skipped an important piece of your speech—and suddenly can’t remember what you were going to say next; or you suddenly become hyper-aware that you are speaking and your mind goes blank, your heart starts to race, and you stumble to recover.
- Avoid: You are anxious about speaking and every time you try to work on your speech your voice fails; you’re either unable to memorize the words or you get lost in the words. You can’t sleep at night. You worry about the speech, begin to resent that you have to give it, and avoid practice.
- Freeze: You’re interviewing for a job where you know you’re the perfect fit when you get the classic question: “tell me about yourself.” Suddenly your mind freezes. Time slows down. You become aware of every gesture, sound, and the seconds ticking by as your self-critical brain kicks in, telling you, “I knew this would happen, you’re such an idiot and you’re blowing it. They’re never going to hire you.” You plead with your brain to STOP, and are completely distracted from the interview by your internal dialogue.
Self-consciousness cannot be controlled—because it’s an emotional state. When you’re flooded with emotion and tell yourself to STOP, you just make it worse—because now you’re not only self-conscious, but also beating yourself up for being self-conscious, which focuses your attention on yourself EVEN MORE. The more you berate yourself, the more hyper-aware you become of your every perceived flaw and weakness, and the deeper you sink into the metaphorical quicksand.
Training Your Brain to Feel Less Self-Conscious When Public Speaking
Most of us are in the habit of watching ourselves all day long and reflecting everything we see and experience back in relation to ourselves, so the ability to be in “observer mode”—to put our attention on someone or something else—is a weak muscle.
While you can’t force yourself to NOT to be self-conscious, you can train your brain to shift its attention from you to something less debilitating than your fears and anxieties. If your brain is focused on something else, you will be distracted from the emotional self-conscious state you’re experiencing—and so will your amygdala.
Try these 3 tips to train your brain to feel less self-consciousness when public speaking and to become more confident:
Observer Mode: Focus on Someone Else
Next time you’re in a conversation or listening in a staff meeting, notice where your focus is: are you thinking about yourself in relation to what the other person is saying? (As in, how will this affect my deliverables? Am I in trouble? What do they mean? I’m hungry…) If so, STOP, take a breath, and train your brain to move your attention onto someone else.
- Place your attention gently on the other person: Don’t try to read their mind, or predict what they’re about to say next, or jump ahead to how what they’re saying might affect you. Instead, notice their external presentation in a non-judgemental way.
- Note the other person’s physical changes (are they blinking? Smiling? Pausing? Shifting posture?, etc.); their vocal shifts (changes in volume or tone of voice); and behavioral shifts (they were laughing and joking, now they are very serious, etc.).
Your brain may fight entering Observer Mode at first. It will want to keep coming back to focusing on yourself until your ‘observation’ muscle gets stronger. With practice, it will—and this practice will ready you for the next step in transforming your public speaking: finding and being able to focus on your “why.”
Find Your Why: An Engaged Purpose
Engaging with your purpose is the pathway to confidence as a public speaker. Your ”why,” or purpose, is essential to shifting your brain’s attention off of yourself, and to having a greater impact on your audience.
Having a “why” can override feelings of fear and refocus your attention—this literally rewires the brain’s response pathway from fear, and ultimately will reduce self-consciousness and the fear response by being able to focus on why you are speaking. To find your “why,” ask yourself:
- Why am I giving this talk or having this conversation?
- Why is it important to me? Is there a greater good or motivation (project completion, team unity, helping others, etc.) that is behind it?
- What outcome do I want?
- What actions do I hope to inspire in my audience?
Move from “have to” to “want to:” Knowing your “why” turns a speech or presentation from something you “have to” do into something you want to do.
Engaged speaking: Speaking from your “why” instead of strictly from your script or text helps you connect with your audience in a much deeper way that will ultimately help keep your brain’s attention off of yourself, and deliver a greater impact to your audience.
Closing the Confidence Gap: Practice
To change any habit—even self-consciousness!—takes bravery, patience, and practice. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” he says you need 10,000 hours of practice before you can master any skill. As adult professionals, the pressure for perfection can set us up for failure before we even begin. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!
When you have setbacks, remember to just keep shifting your attention off of yourself. Be kind to yourself; you can create new neuro-pathways that change your patterns of response and will reduce self-consciousness. Improving your public speaking takes time.
How to practice:
- Practice observer mode on a daily basis during regular conversations to help your brain create new patterns of response and reduce your self-consciousness.
- Think about the “why” of your everyday tasks. Notice: do you feel more engaged when you identify a purpose before you speak?
- When you encounter a challenge, focusing on the other party and the bigger “why” of the situation can help you switch into a better mindset to address it.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself as you practice—being self-critical doesn’t help. When you find yourself being self-conscious, use it as an opportunity to practice observer mode, and shift your attention off of yourself.
Remember that when you speak in public, your attention will wander at times—and you will get self-conscious. This is natural. When it happens, notice it; don’t judge it; let it go; and shift your attention back to your “why” and the people you’re connecting with. With practice, you will notice yourself becoming more self-confident in public, the people to whom you’re speaking having greater engagement, and you will have a lot more fun while you are doing it!
Hilary Hinckle is the founder of redefineradical, an executive and team behavioral coaching consultancy. She has 30+ years of experience as a Master Acting Teacher at New York University and in the non-profit management sector. She is a founder of New York’s Tony Award-winning Atlantic Theater, where she was managing director. She is a behavioral expert who has trained hundreds of actors and teams to perform exceptional work under exceptional pressure.