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“I’d Rather Die Than Give a Talk”
If you feel anxious before giving a talk, you’re not alone. The feelings you have are similar to the warning signals your ancestors’ bodies gave them before they were about to take an action that might condemn them to ridicule, exile and therefore, away from the tribe, death.
What do you feel as the roller coaster crests? Terrified? Exhilarated? Would it surprise you to know that whether you’re terrified or exhilarated, that the feelings in your body are remarkably similar, and often the same? The biggest difference is the label you use for the feeling.
I’ve given a lot of public talks, and no matter how relaxed, confident and in control I appear to be on a stage, I have butterflies in my stomach, a racing heart and a dry mouth before I take the stage. I used to call that anxiety, or nervousness, somewhere in the dim and distant past, but then I learned that using a different label can completely change your behaviour despite the bodily feelings being identical.
The next time you have to speak in front of others, visualise yourself being in command of the situation, and tell yourself that you’re excited. Smile, don’t grimace while you go through this exercise.
You’ve survived the talk, and you feel the high of surviving a rollercoaster. That doesn’t mean you gave a good talk, but at least you overcame your fear and turned it to work in your favour, to fuel your talk. You might have been babbling like a fool, but that’s normal the first few times.
So once you’ve learned to re-label, and now that you can confidently take the stage, small or large, you can now move on to technique. That’s the easy part and you don’t need me to teach you that. I’ll just say that there are a lot of people who because they can talk in public, think they’re good speakers, just because they feel a little giddy at having survived the stage. I used to feel like that after a near crash on my Ducati 999, but that didn’t make a good rider…
So what comes next? Practice, of course. Practice improves your talks and starts you on a virtuous feedback loop of good talks, good experiences and good feedback. The most important thing is not that you feel good when you leave the stage, but that you left the audience with something good. I’m not going to say if I can do it, anyone can do it, because I’m pretty good now, and have prepared and given an hour long talk to a bunch of professors in a foreign country with half an hour of notice, and that took me decades of practice, but some of you have the potential, if you’re willing to put in the work, of being way better than me in less time than it took me.
It all starts the same way: Change how you label your feelings. If you catch yourself thinking or worse, saying that you’re nervous or anxious, just flip immediately to “I’m excited” or whatever your favourite colloquial expression is! Then you’ll feel amazing, and you can take it from there.
In today’s world, the ability to present well is a valuable skill that will help you enormously. If you avoided it before because you’d “rather die than give a talk”, now you have a solution.