Back in 2001, Gallup researchers found speaking in public was one of the things Americans fear the most, behind snakes, but ahead of heights, needles, and airline travel. And while the world of 2017 is a scary place in many ways, there’s little reason to suspect the popular fear of public speaking has dissipated. (That issue still routinely crops up among Fast Company’s most popular articles, at any rate.)
A quick Google search coughs up many ways of remedying this fear–from the old advice to imagine your audience in their underwear to “visualizing success” or just practicing in front of a mirror. Personally, though, I discourage all of these approaches because they’re useless, counterproductive, or laden with too many risky side effects. Here’s another (extremely simple) approach I’ve discovered that works much better.
Take Your Focus Off Yourself
For starters, you need to recognize that getting anxious about presenting is not a fear of public speaking, but of public humiliation. You’re worried about what people will think of you. Chances are, if you’re worried about speaking in front of a crowd, you’ll also be worried about singing, doing magic tricks, or throwing a baton on stage.
To be fair, there are effective tactics for mitigating your anxiety– practicing your speech, for example–but the most effective way, in my experience, to attack it head-on is to realize that presenting your point is separate from presenting yourself. Ultimately, the success of your presentation has little to do what people think of you. It doesn’t hinge on how white your teeth are, how ironed your blouse is, or even how smart, knowledgeable, or confident you seem. Instead, it has everything to do with the answer to this question: Did you successfully deliver your point?
And delivering your point means ensuring that the audience understood the main thesis on your speech, not whether you stumbled on your conclusion. As Fast Company contributor Annett Grant recently wrote, “The best way to stay in control is to look further ahead than you’re used to in an ordinary conversation, and the way to do that is to focus on your ideas, not your words. The more you focus on your words,” she explained, “the more likely you’ll end up crashing into higher and higher levels of anxiety. By focusing on your ideas, you allow your thoughts to flow.”
An audience can come away from your presentation thinking you were hysterical, honest, impressive, knowledgeable, self-assured, or charismatic, but if they don’t successfully receive your point, your mission goes unaccomplished. You weren’t there to advertise your qualities; you were there to sell an idea.
How You Look Is An Irrelevant Distraction
So whatever you do, stop rehearsing in front of a mirror or recording yourself on video and watching the playback. We’re already overtrained from life experience to look at our reflections and to focus predominantly, if not exclusively, on our appearance. Who looks at their reflection in a mirror or on tape and thinks, “Am I making my point effectively?” No one. There’s no chance for that thought to cross your mind.
Presenters who shift their internal focus away from themselves and onto their message can shed a lot of their anxiety. By definition, they are becoming less self-conscious. Yes, it sounds totally straightforward but can be tricky to pull off in the moment. By adopting this state of mind, you’re performing the function of a delivery specialist, not a public speaker, and your job is simply to move the package–your point–from your head to your listeners’ heads. Leave the performance and more dangerous stuff to singers, actors, magicians, and baton throwers.
Getting comfortable with this mind-set gets easier with experience. Just remember that those frantic butterflies aren’t in your stomach, they’re in your head. So if you suffer from public speaking anxiety, focus on the single most important job at hand: identifying, developing, and making your point–and that’s it.
If you deliver it, you succeed. If you don’t, you fail. It doesn’t get more complicated–and shouldn’t be more terrifying–than that.
This article has been updated to clarify the author’s point of view on the distinction between mitigating anxiety and addressing it directly, and the difference between presenting your point and presenting yourself.