Mind Trick: How to Reframe Your Public Speaking Anxiety
By John Millen
Alison Wood Brooks is a talented singer who has logged hundreds of hours in front of audiences. She understands that stage fright can keep people from performing at their best.
She is also a psychologist and professor at Harvard Business School who knows that similar anxiety plagues leaders in all fields of public performance.
That’s why she’s conducted research to find solutions, which led her to discover a psychological remedy we can use to control our nerves and build our confidence – reframing from anxiety to excitement.
It turns out that we experience many of the same body and mind symptoms whether we are anxious or excited. Dr. Amy Cuddy, Brooks’ colleague at Harvard, describes this research in her excellent book, Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges:
…Anxiety is what psychologists describe as a high-arousal emotion…when we’re anxious we occupy a heightened state of physiological vigilance. We’re hyperalert. Our hearts race, we break out in a sweat, our cortisol may spike.
…It’s virtually impossible for most people to shut off that kind of automatic arousal, to abruptly de-escalate it.
This is where Dr. Brooks began her research, wondering whether we can reinterpret rather than try to de-escalate our anxiety.
In a series of experiments, Brooks had people perform in situations that would produce stage fright: a singing contest, public speaking competition and a challenging math exam.
She randomly had people tell themselves three separate things prior to their performance: (1) to stay calm, (2) to get excited, or (3) nothing. When I ask people about this in my training, they typically guess that the "stay calm" group would perform best. But not so.
As Dr. Cuddy writes:
…subjects who took a moment to reframe their anxiety as excitement outperformed the others. When you’re excited, Brooks explained, "it primes an opportunity mindset, so you think of all the good things that can happen. You’re more likely to make decisions and take actions that will make [good results] likely to occur.
Brooks also believes that reinterpreting your feelings as excitement will have long-term value: "…the positive effects are likely to compound over time. The more you reframe your anxiety as excitement, the happier and more successful you become."
Dr. Brooks has successfully used this technique herself:
Reframing anxiety as excitement has helped me with singing and playing music in front of crowds, presenting my research, pitching my entrepreneurial ideas, teaching undergraduates, MBAs and executive students and interacting with my Harvard colleagues every day."
Presenting and training almost every week, I seldom experience anxiety. But a couple of years ago I was ready to speak at an event near the PGA Headquarters in Ponte Vedra, Florida.
Due to certain circumstances, I found myself anxious the night before taking the stage in front of 400 people. I did my usual breathing exercises, but then I also stood in front of the mirror and told myself how excited I was to have this great opportunity. I did the same reframing in the morning before my talk and I felt completely at ease.
I’ve taught this technique to hundreds of clients over the years and get a lot of positive feedback.
So, give it a try. Next time you’re facing a talk or situation (like a Zoom meeting) that produces anxious feelings, remind yourself that your body is sending clear signals that you’re getting excited!
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Photo: Dr. Brooks photo Harvard Business School