Respond as if you mean to go on

By Steve McCabe (HOD Speakers)

If, like me, you joined Toastmasters to rid yourself of a public speaking phobia that curses you every time someone mentions the word, ‘presentation’, you’re in good company. The fear of public speaking is in the top three of most common global phobias, worldwide.

Here, I’d like to give a brief review of how anxiety attacks can ‘make us stupid’, whenever we’re pushed out of our comfort zone. I will also offer some ideas that can add to the hugely valuable Toastmasters benefits you’re accruing. We’ll also look at the biochemical changes in our body that leads us to behave in a way we all recognise.

One fact that is widely recognised is that a fear of public speaking is a form of social anxiety; a fear of being judged negatively in public. It is a phobia that afflicts many, including the most prolific stage actors and musicians. What we also know is that, social anxiety and public speaking in particular, is frequently a consequence of a significant emotional event that happened perhaps many years ago, perhaps as a young child, or perhaps a more recent one; an event that looking back now, may seem as trivial as classmates laughing as we stumble through our reciting of the times-tables standing at the front of the class. We’re not born shy and we are not born phobic. Look at the young child, how he or she fails and fails again without fear.

It’s the events and environment we experience as we grow up that shape us, many of us responding differently to similar experiences, helping to build belief systems that in many cases, hinder rather than help you.

We also know that 95% of our behaviour is driven unconsciously. Without any conscious thought, we change gears as we drive our car, we sit down on a chair that from previous learning, we know will support our weight. This is significant because when we fall into a state of panic at the prospect of an upcoming presentation, our unconscious mind compares this future speaking event with your memory. If your unconscious recalls links to an earlier adverse event, bingo, you develop the flight or fight response.

Then there is the question of beliefs we hold about ourselves. If we expect to fail at an interview or in a game of tennis, guess what? We do. We fulfil the prophecy our beliefs have set us.

The beliefs we hold about ourselves, are either empowering or limiting. The positive beliefs are welcomed, but those causing you distress, are the limiting beliefs. We begin to build our belief system again from an early stage and it’s easy to see how, no matter how competent a speaker you are, holding beliefs that set you up to fail in your presentation is not going to help you do well. Result? You’ve become emotionally hijacked.

Medically speaking, however, the feelings brought about by anxiety are absolutely necessary. It is the inappropriate anxiety that is unwanted. In the days when our prehistoric ancestors were threatened by the peril of a ravenous sabre-toothed tiger prowling outside the cave, our bodies rightly put us into ‘flight or fright or freeze’ mode; we needed that sudden adrenaline surge to either run for the hills or take arms (as if you’d ever stand a chance with a sabre-toothed tiger and a branch) and fight off the blighter.

Let me give an example. Fast forward to today and your colleague asks if you’ll cover for him or her while they take a well-earned holiday. ‘Sure, what’s the deal?’, you ask. ‘Oh, it’s just an update’ to the management team,’ they tell you, ‘a forty-minute presentation on our current performance.’

Sound familiar? Result: you enter fight or flight, you begin to imagine all the ways you will fail and be exposed as the poor presenter you believe you are.

So, here we are at Toastmasters. Our supportive clubs helping us build the positive beliefs we hold about ourselves, helped enormously by the constructive feedback and encouragement.

One proven technique that may also help shortly before you stand up to present is called anchoring. Essentially, it’s a way of recalling a positive, empowering state you’ve experienced previously.

By positive state, I mean a time when you experienced a positive outcome: perhaps a presentation that went very well or a time when you attracted positive recognition or acclaim.

Here’s what to do. Create your anchor using either the smell of an essential oil that you find relaxing or perhaps, listening to your favourite music track. Once you’ve drawn into yourself all that positive energy and empowerment at recalling that wonderful experience, apply an anchor. Once you’ve recalled a positive experience that rates at least eight out of ten, ten being the most positive it could be, apply pressure to one of the knuckles on your hands. Alternatively, you could smell your favourite essential oil you’ve added to your handkerchief. This action, repeated several times, will ‘anchor’ the positivity to the act of pressing your knuckle or smelling the handkerchief. It’s effectively building a neural network in your nervous system to train your body to respond to positivity and is a well-known technique both in sports performance and in business and is most famously demonstrated by Pavlov’s dogs in response to feeding time at the ringing of a bell.

Of course, Toastmasters is the core route to building your strengths and developing yourself to be the best version of you that you can be.

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