What causes public speaking anxiety?

 
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You practice your presentation over and over again, and all goes well. But once it’s time for the real thing, anxiety strikes. All of a sudden, you notice how everyone in the audience is staring at you. Your mind goes blank—what were you going to talk about again? Your hands start shaking, you loose control over your voice, and you feel like the audience can clearly tell how nervous you are. You rush through your presentation to get it over with as quickly as possible. 

Why can we become such nervous wrecks in front of an audience? What happens with our body? And how do you get a grip on your nerves?

WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR BODY

Standing and speaking in front of an audience is a stressful situation, and our body is designed to automatically respond to such stressful situations. The more stressful public speaking is to you, the harder it is to control this automatic response. 

The first part of the automatic response is that our sympathetic nervous system goes into action mode. As a result, we get an adrenaline rush, and our heart rate increases to increase blood flow to our brain and muscles, preparing ourselves in case we have to run away from whatever danger we’re facing. This is why you may feel like your heart is pounding so hard against your chest and why you may suddenly feel very warm when you’re standing in front of an audience. 

 

| MUSCLE TENSION

Another noticeable consequence of our body’s automatic response is that our muscles tighten. To be more specific, our muscles tighten around our chest and throat, which makes you feel like it’s a bit difficult to breathe. And because we have muscles around our vocal chords as well, our vocal chords are affected by that muscle tension. 

Our vocal chords are affected by muscle tension.

Normally, you feel like you have control over your voice because the muscles around your vocal chords can loosen and tighten easily. However, when there’s more tension in the muscles around your vocal chords, your voice will feel unstable, and your vocal chords might even produce a higher pitch.

But these physical signs aren’t the only factor in public speaking anxiety. Our mind is also a big contributor in fear of public speaking. 

 

| WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR MIND

When you feel that response of your sympathetic nervous system, it’s so prominent that it’s hard to ignore. In fact, we assume that because it’s so obvious to us, it must also be obvious to other people who are watching us. And that’s where you’re wrong.

We think that what’s happening inside can easily be seen from the outside.

Gilovich, Medvec, and Savitsky (2000) noticed that people tend to be so focused on themselves and their own behavior, that they assume that others are just as focused on them. Our own awkward stumbling, stammering and stuttering may seem so shameful and gawky to us that we assume others will see us the same way. 

On top of that, there’s also the ‘illusion of transparency’--we think that what’s happening inside can easily be seen from the outside. According to Gilovich, Medvec, and Savitsky, “Public speakers think their anxiety is more noticeable to listeners than it really is”.

 

| PEOPLE DON'T SEE HOW NERVOUS YOU ARE

This ‘illusion of transparency’ has been shown in numerous study. In one study, for example, Goberman, Hughes, and Haydock (2011) asked a group of participants to give a speech to others and then rate their own anxiety levels. Another group of participants was asked to listen to the participants who gave a speech and rate what they thought the anxiety level of the speaker was. 

The results showed that speakers perceived themselves as more anxious, more tense, and less confident than the listeners actually thought. In other words, speakers feel tense, anxious, and not confident, and therefore mistakenly assume that others see them like that as well. They overestimate to what extent others can see their nerves, anxiety, and lack of confidence. 

Speakers overestimate to what extent others can see their nerves.

The speakers even thought they talked faster, louder, and had a less stable voice than the listeners indicated. That’s in indication that, when it comes to public speaking anxiety, we might just be our own worst critic.

And so a vicious circle begins. We feel tense about public speaking, and we assume that others can clearly see our nerves, which makes us even more nervous, which makes us even more nervous and self-conscious. How do you stop the vicious circle?

 

| WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT

Shi, Brinthaupt, and McCree (2015) found some promising results in a study on public speaking anxiety. They looked at the relationship between public speaking anxiety and using different forms of self-talk. They distinguished between various forms of self-talk: self-criticism (“Something bad has happened to me”), self-reinforcement (“I’m proud of something I’ve done”), self-management (“I need to figure out what I should do or say”), and social-assessment (“I try to anticipate what someone will say and how I’ll respond to him or her”). 

The more people used self-reinforcing self-talk, the less anxiety they experienced.

They found that the more self-critical and social-assessing self-talk people used, the more anxiety they felt. They also found that the more people used self-reinforcing self-talk, the less anxiety they experienced. 

Although this was a correlational study, it does indicate in which direction you can look for a solution of the vicious circle of public speaking anxiety: self-reinforcing self-talk! In other words, try to come up with a set of phrases that make you feel good about yourself. Say these phrases to yourself when you have a speaking opportunity.

Top tip: Feel uncomfortable with using self-talk? A good trick is to imagine talking to a very kind and compassionate friend. What would that friend say to you? This compassionate friend is sort of a counterweight to what psychologists call 'your inner critic'.

 

I hope that reading this article has brought you some insights about your own nerves, and maybe I even managed to reassure you a bit. People are not paying as much attention to you as you think they are, and they are certainly not as critical as you are to yourself.


Please share this article with anyone you think could also benefit from it. I wish you lots of confidence for your next speaking opportunity!

 
Tünde van Hoek