There’s a ton of internet advice on how to overcome the fear of public speaking. Much of the advice is of the “what worked for me” kind. Or the advice is the first stage of trying to sell you a a hypnosis CD. So how do you decide what advice to follow? In this post series, I’ll be reviewing the 10 most recommended methods. Here’s the list (not in any particular order):

  1. Affirmations
  2. Visualization
  3. Hypnosis
  4. Relaxation techniques
  5. Neuro-Linguistic Programming
  6. The Lefkoe method
  7. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  8. Medication
  9. Just do it
  10. Toastmasters

If you think there are others that I should be looking at, let me know. My aim is to look for evidence of effectiveness on a more than anecdotal basis. In this post, I’ll start with affirmations and visualization.

1.  Positive Affirmations

A positive affirmation is a statement stated in the present-tense which describes how you’d like to be. Here’s an example from the ThinkSimpleNow blog on conquering your fear of public speaking.

“I am a fantastic speaker and I deliver engaging presentations.”

You repeat the affirmation to yourself and stick it somewhere where you’ll often be reminded of it. It’s easy to find people who attribute their success to affirmations:

Before a sales meeting once, I was repeating similar affirmations to myself as I got ready in the morning, and in the car as I drove to the meeting. I sold with flying colors. That’s when I really learned the power of affirmation.

An article in Psychology Today ; Self-Help: Shattering the Myths says about affirmations:

Psychologists say this technique may not be very helpful. Changing how we feel about ourselves is a lot more complicated, explains William Swann, Ph.D., of the University of Texas-Austin…Self-affirmations, even when endlessly repeated, don’t make much of a dent — and when they fail to work, they may leave us even more demoralized.

Self-esteem research by Robert Josephs and Chris Jacobs indicates that people with low self-esteem don’t accept positive feedback from themselves – it has to come from someone else. The research is reported in Psychology Today in an article on affirmations:

Jacobs says the study’s results cast doubt on the value of self-affirmations, a self-esteem building technique found in many self-help books and programs. For people with a poor self-image, it seems, repeating the phrase “I am credible” won’t make it so.

This to me, is the critical issue with affirmations. An important component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – a proven treatment method for depression and anxiety – is the believability of the new thought processes. Can affirmations really have an impact if you don’t believe what you’re saying?

2. Visualizations

There are two distinct types of visualization – one is supported by scientific research and one is not. But they’re often mixed up. The two types are:

a. Positive visualization, and

b. Mental rehearsal.

Positive visualization

In a positive visualization you imagine the results of giving a successful presentation. Here’s an example of a positive visualization:

You see yourself speaking to the audience. You’re doing a great job. The audience is leaning forward – they’re engaged, nodding and smiling at you. At the end of your presentation, they give you a resounding round of applause and people come up to you and complement you on how well you did.

I’ve been unable to find any scientific evidence that backs up the use of this type of visualization for effectively reducing your nerves or improving your performance. Here’s why I think that might be:

1. It’s not realistic – audiences are not always smiling and nodding. They’re not always fascinated by what you’ve got to say. Although this type of visualization may momentarily make you feel good, does it help your confidence when you’re faced with a more normal audience?

2. It has you experience the outcome of the presentation, rather than the process of delivering the presentation. Again that may make you feel good during the visualization, but it doesn’t deliver any other benefits.

Mental rehearsal

When you mentally rehearse your presentation, in contrast to the positive visualization above, you go through the whole process of giving the presentation – not just seeing the outcome. You see the audience reaction as you realistically think it will be. You imagine what might go wrong and rehearse how you will effectively cope with it. There is a large body of evidence that backs up the use of mental rehearsal (also called mental imagery, mental practice and coping rehearsal). Here’s a quote from the wikipedia entry on mental rehearsal:

Educational researchers have examined whether the experience of mental imagery affects the degree of learning. For example, imagining playing a 5-finger piano exercise (mental practice) resulted in a significant improvement in performance over no mental practice — though not as significant as that produced by physical practice and the authors of the study stated that “mental practice alone seems to be sufficient to promote the modulation of neural circuits involved in the early stages of motor skill learning.” (Pascual-Leone et al 1995).

This article on Imagining instructions: Mental practice in highly cognitive domains summarises much of the research. Mental rehearsal  is used widely by top athletes in many sports to improve their performance. It’s most effective at reducing your nerves when you use it to prepare for things not going well. Here’s a report of how Billie Jean King, a former top tennis player, prepares for a speech:

“She drives us crazy, absolutely crazy, planning for everything and anything to go wrong,” Kloss said. “She’ll say, ‘What about this? What about that? What if this happens?’ By the time Billie gets on stage or on the court, she’s laid out every possible scenario in her mind. And at that point, she’s totally calm.”

So using mental rehearsal to reduce your nerves is not about imagining everything going smoothly, it’s about imagining the things that might go wrong, and then visualizing how you will cope with this.

For example, let’s say you’re concerned about your mind going blank during your presentation. Visualize this situation as if it were happening to you right now. Now see yourself staying calm. Pause and take your time to look at your notes. Find your place and work out what what you want to say next. When you’re ready, look up at someone in your audience and start talking.

If you’ve practiced this in your head, should you suffer a mind blank during the real thing, you’ll have conditioned yourself to react in a calm and unruffled way, and you’ll be able to smoothly resume your presentation.

So unlike affirmations and positive visualizations, mental rehearsal is an effective method for reducing your fear of public speaking.

In the next post in this series, I’ll review the effectiveness of hypnosis, relaxation techniques and Neuro Linguistic Programming for reducing your nerves.

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