You possibly know this statistic but it bears repeating. 2500 Americans were asked what were they most afraid of and the most common response (40%) replied “Speaking before a group” (Wallechinsky and Wallace, 1977). Intensity of fear varies with individuals. Some of the people I work with get so nervous, that they don’t apply for better jobs that they are easily capable of doing. Why? Because they know the new position will require them to speak to groups. Others do get up and speak, but their fear makes them much less effective as communicators than they could be. The symptoms are common – trembling hands and knees, voice shaking or squeaking, memory vanishing making you appear either stupid or disorganised, and so on. The fear often causes speakers to over-prepare or to read from a script, rather than talk in a relaxed fashion with the people they are wanting to communicate with. The methodology I use to help people to relax and gain confidence, Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), looks at the fundamental cause of our anxiety. That is, what it is that we are saying to ourselves (self-talk) about the situation we are dealing with. Common self-talk goes along the lines of “I’ve got to be entertaining. It would be terrible to be boring” or “I must not make mistakes” or “I have to come across as credible.” Now some people are aware that this kind of conversation with themselves just pressures them into being more nervous so they resort to “positive thinking.” They say something positive to themselves such as “I am an entertaining speaker” or “I am well organised – I have a good memory” and so on. But there’s a fundamental problem with this approach. Deep down in their hearts, they know that it’s not true. Because if it were true, why are they having to try so hard to convince themselves of it. One of my teachers, Wayne Froggatt, calls these hollow, positive statements “fridge magnets” and I agree with him. The need to consciously think positively is launched by the real, subconscious negative or irrational beliefs that we have about ourselves or the situations we encounter. REBT teaches you to recognise and then counter or dispute the beliefs that lead to the way you talk to yourself. For example, if you are saying to yourself that you must not make any mistakes, REBT would have you look at whether that statement is supported by evidence. One of my recent clients had this belief that she must not make mistakes when speaking to her companys clients. As a result, she felt highly pressured, and consequently, was MORE likely to make the mistakes she was trying to avoid! When it came to speak, her voice choked up, she got head-aches, and her memory all but disappeared. When we looked at the truth of her belief we found that some of her colleagues had made pretty big mistakes during presentations, but that it hadn’t seemed to matter. No-one got fired – not even reprimanded! So there was evidence which in fact COUNTERED her self-talk. The statement that she must not mistakes was clearly untrue. As a result, she came to the conclusion that she would like to give a mistake-free presentation if possible, but that it was silly and unhelpful to DEMAND that she make no mistakes. When it came to her next presentation, instead of trying to be positive and convince herself of something that was possibly untrue (“I can speak without making mistakes”), she simply reminded herself that she did not have to be perfect. She reported to me that her nervousness reduced significantly and as a result she gave an enthusiastic and well-received presentation. Next time you get nervous giving a presentation, check what you are saying to yourself. Is there evidence to support it? If not, stop kidding yourself and making things worse.
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