Updated: Nov 1, 2021
We think of excitement and nervousness as opposites on a broad spectrum of good and bad, negative, and positive, or comfortable and uncomfortable emotions. The former is something we enjoy despite the same physical response as the latter, which we avoid. In fact, they are both arousal sensations that can be triggered by identical stimuli. The physiological response is also identical and may include increased heart rate, surging cortisol levels, a dizzy feeling, and sweaty palms. Let us discover how this knowledge can be used to improve the public speaking experience for the speaker, and more importantly, for the audience.
Anyone seasoned in public speaking will agree that the audience’s experience is the determining factor in the success or failure of a presentation. We know that as we begin to form our ideas to persuade, inform, move, or entertain, we hope to engage the audience in a way that leaves them wanting more. Engagement with someone excited about what they are about to share is much easier and more comfortable, making a better overall experience, than watching someone dissolve their message in a nervous spell. A speaker will be more easily excused for tripping over their words from excitement than from anxiety.
Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D., a psychologist at Harvard Business School uses the terms “opportunity mindset” for excitement and “threat mindset” to describe anxiety. Because of the shared physiological response resulting from the loss of control over the future and outcomes, we can shift our brain to one mindset over the other by renaming the feeling. And although calm would be the speaker’s preferred mindset, the audience, which we have already laid out as the best measure of performance, is probably not going to stay as well engaged unless the intent is meditative. We would label the experience as boring, slow, and without meaning in cases where it is not. The audience wants to feel the speaker’s thrill.
Executives and professionals work with our instructors and coaches to improve their public speaking outcomes. Working on skills is important, so we develop a unique curriculum to address the gaps, strengthen the weaker skills, and polish their most well-honed techniques. Working on attitude for audience engagement is as important. For that, we delve into the psychology of engaging an audience to persuade, inform, entertain, or move the audience to action. In all cases, even the most experienced and successful presenters will name nervousness and anxiety as the greatest obstacles in focusing on the audience. We can use a simple technique and requires only self-awareness and focused practice to address what Dr. Brooks calls anxiety reappraisal. Renaming the same set of sensations allows the speaker to reclaim control over the delivery of the message and improve audience engagement and performance outcomes.
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