Speaking in front of a large audience is often ranked as one of the most nerve-racking things we can do in our careers. As a result, there are numerous guides and tips published online detailing how you can speak more confidently. Indeed, I even saw a course advertised recently that claimed to prepare you perfectly for the high priesthood of public speaking – a TED talk.
Of course, there are some for whom public speaking is something that appears to come naturally, and they can entertain and inform in equal measure, keeping their rapt audience in the palm of their hands throughout. Is there anything these confident souls can teach us about the process, to help us overcome our own nerves and speak with confidence and clarity?
Well, a new study suggests that there very well might be. The researchers set out to explore the pep talks we give ourselves before doing something heavy. Is there anything different in how great speakers gee themselves up versus their more anxious peers?
The researchers recruited a few hundred students from a public speaking course after they had already gone through the rigours of delivering a couple of public presentations as part of their course, and were shortly to give a third. The students were quizzed on their approach to public speaking, and whether they’d given themselves pep talks in the days leading up to the event, and whether this influenced their pre-talk anxiety levels.
Interestingly, it emerged that the female students were more anxious about the talks than their male peers. Taking this difference to one side however, the researchers believe that the pep talks delivered by the students before their talks were responsible for around 20 percent of the differences in anxiety levels.
Your own personal coach
For instance, the more confident speakers revealed that their own pep talks were almost overwhelmingly positive in nature. They wouldn’t chastise themselves for poor preparation or worry about how people had reacted to their past presentations. Their pep talks would instead focus on reinforcing their sense of self, saying for instance how well they had prepared.
It was akin to having your own personal coach there to take the focus away from yourself and to be positive in how you address yourself and your preparation.
Now, suffice to say, the study should come with a small pinch of salt as it rests upon our ability to accurately recall the full extent of our personal pep talks. There have been numerous doubts raised about self-reporting in other studies, so it is worth bearing this in mind.
It might also be possible that it’s the anxiety that triggers a particular kind of pep talk rather than the pep talk delivering a certain level of anxiety. Nevertheless, the researchers believe their findings could be useful in helping people to overcome their nerves before a big speech.
"As we know that high public-speaking-anxiety individuals engage in higher levels of self-critical and social-assessing self-talk than low anxiety individuals," the researchers conclude, "instructors can intervene in the early phases of the speech preparation process by helping these students to attend to, recognise, and adjust the frequency and nature of their self-talk."
How do you tackle your own nerves before a big presentation?