Speaking Up Without Freaking Out: How to Tackle Communication Anxiety
In this podcast episode, we share the science behind nervousness and offer tips for keeping your cool during various speaking situations.
“Eighty five percent of people report being nervous about speaking in public, and I believe the other 15% are lying,” says Matt Abrahams, lecturer in strategic communication and podcast host. “What is it about speaking in front of others that makes most of us nervous? Well, those of us who study this ubiquitous fear believe it is part of our human condition.”
In this special episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Abrahams returns to one of the podcast’s main goals: helping people become more confident communicators. Listen to his interviews with Stanford University professors who research stress, as they share insights into why these feelings affect our communication, and how to overcome them.
Explore our 2022 Confident Communicator Challenge and discover more resources on public speaking anxiety.
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
Matt Abrahams: According to comedian Jerry Seinfeld: People fear public speaking more than death, so at a funeral most people would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy. This joke is funny because it rings true for many of us.
Hello, I am Matt Abrahams and I teach strategic communication at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.
For today’s episode, we return to one of our podcast’s key goals: helping people feel more comfortable and confident in their communication. With this in mind, we have pulled together insights from three episodes to help us better understand our nervousness and provide us with specific tools to manage it.
To get started, we need to understand where our communication apprehension comes from, then we can explore how our mind set and framing of this stress can be hacked to help us. Finally, we’ll look at specific techniques we can use to manage our anxiety.
The fear of speaking in high stakes situations is very common. 85% percent of people report being nervous about speaking in public, and I believe the other 15% are lying. So why is this? What is it about speaking in front of others that makes most of us nervous? Those of us who study this ubiquitous fear believe it is part of our human condition. Evolution has wired us to pay very close attention to our relative status to others. Now, when I’m talking about status I’m not talking about who drives the fanciest car or who got the most likes on a social media post. What I’m referring to is back in our evolutionary past, when we were hanging around in groups of about 150 people, your status in comparison or relative to others meant your survival. The lower status you had the less opportunity you had to get shelter, to get food, for reproduction. Your life was literally on the line. When we speak in front of others, we risk that status. People are judging and assessing us. This is ingrained in who we are.
Just because this is ingrained in us does not mean we can’t manage our nerves. There will always be a situation that can make us nervous, but we can learn to manage our anxiety, so it doesn’t manage us.
Not only will this help us feel less nervous and more confident, but it helps our audience too.
Let me explain: We have all watched a nervous speaker. Most of us feel bad for them. Some of us begin to experience what I call secondhand anxiety…we get nervous because the presenter is nervous. We’re distracted and can’t focus on the speaker’s message. So, as a speaker, reducing anxiety also helps our audience by allowing them to focus on us and our message and not our anxiety and their reaction to it.
One way to address our speaking anxiety is to explore our mindset and framing. Here is a helpful exchange I had with Stanford psychology professor Alia Crum on this topic.
Matt Abrahams: When it comes to communication, stress and anxiety loom really large. Be it delivering a presentation, giving constructive feedback or answering questions. What insight does your work on stress provide to those of us suffering from communication anxiety and stress around speaking?
Alia Crum: Yeah, so … a lot of people have been studying stress and anxiety for over a century now from an academic standpoint, of course we’ve always experienced stress and anxiety to some degree. And by and large what they focus on is when it comes to the psychology of stress is what people call appraisal. So how do you appraise or think about the stressor and your ability to handle it. So, do you view a conflict or a challenging situation or an important presentation or an important meeting as a threat? Something that you don’t have the resources to overcome or a challenge. Something that’s difficult but you do have the resources to overcome. Those sort of appraisals have shown to be really important in shaping how we show up and how we perform in stressful situations. Our work on mindset goes a little bit deeper into the mind, into understanding not just sort of how we appraise a particular situation, but what are our core assumptions about the nature of stress itself.
The nature of a challenging situation or a demand in our life. That’s what we been focused on. And what we’ve found is that, if you kinda go back into those core assumptions, what you realize is that, most people have the mindset that stressful situations are inherently debilitating. They’re going to ultimately make us sick, make us struggle, make us crumble under pressure. And when you look at the truth about stress which is like most things very complicated, you realize that that is a simplified assumption. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s only one way of viewing stress and you start to realize that the true nature of stress is more complex.
And in fact, there’s a whole other side of stress that reveals to us that the body’s stress response, the mind stress response, was not designed to be debilitating, but instead designed to help us elevate our performance and behavior to meet the demands we’re facing. There’s a whole side of stress that shows that it can have enhancing qualities on our cognitive functioning, our physical health and on how we behave and interact with others. And so, our work is not necessarily to find out the truth of stress, what it is or what isn’t. But to look at how our mindsets, the core assumptions we make about it shape how we respond in stressful situations. And what we’ve shown is that if we can get people to open their minds to this notion that stress can be enhancing. That stress can help you rise to a new level of understanding, can deepen your connection with others, can make us even physiologically grow tougher and stronger. Having that focus shifts our attention and behaviors in ways that make that mindset more true.
Matt Abrahams: To reiterate what Alia said, Reappraising our communication stress and changing our mindset toward it, helps us put our anxiety into perspective and actually harness the benefits of it.
Next up is advice we heard from Stanford School of Medicine Professor Andrew Huberman. Andrew shares the purpose of reframing, while helping us understand the biology behind our anxiety.
Andrew Huberman: When we are in a state of alertness, whether because of excitement or fear, the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, let’s just call it the alertness system, deploys a hormone from our adrenal glands adrenaline and it deploys the equivalent chemical in the brain where it’s called epinephrine. It’s actually the same chemically identical structure, but called two different things, because neuroscientists and physiologists like to make things complicated. Not simple, but the role of adrenaline/epinephrine is to create agitation in the body and to create focus in the mind. And this is an important concept because that agitation makes it harder to be still, which is sort of a duh, right? That’s the definition of agitation, but it was designed to move us, to physically move us so that we would be biased toward ambulation or biased toward shifting from one position to a new one. And so one of the toughest things for many people is to tolerate that level of adrenaline or alertness when they have to be still.
The simplest example — I can give you this that I think most people will be familiar with, as if in the days where we congregated in person, this is this traditional practice of going around the room and introducing yourself and saying something about what you do and most people actually find that to be very stressful, especially if they toward the end of the line. Now, why would that be right? Most people know their name and can say their name. Most people know what they do and can say that — it’s anything but a high stress circumstance and occasionally there are some social pressure where someone’s very funny before us or they say something in a particularly nice way than we feel like some additional pressure to do that as well, but it really has more to do with the fact that when we’re in a room listening to somebody, we can we’re comfortable with the fact that we’re not going to speak or walk or do much and we could just sit there and write or listen or text or whatever it is we have to do. As we are called on to say something the reason it’s easier to do early in the line is because we are holding on to a reverberatory circuit. There are circuits in our brain that anticipate action and prepare us for action and the longer we keep that in check, the more challenging it becomes when we are trying to withhold action. But we’re preparing for action. There’s a lot of reverberating, excuse me, active activity in our nervous system and it feels like stress.
Getting ready to go up to the podium is tough. When we get up to the podium, many people, including myself, find that if we rock back and forth a little bit or we can engage some movement in our body, suddenly we start to relax and that’s because adrenaline/ epinephrine was designed to move us and it wasn’t designed to move us in response to incoming large predators. It was, but that’s not its primary function. Its primary function was to move us from whatever position we’re into a new position, sometimes towards things, sometimes away from things, depending on whether or not we want the experience or we want to avoid the experience. But the actual inner experience, what we call interception, our perception of our internal landscape, is identical for something that we want to approach versus we want to move away from; absolutely identical — below that from the neck down then.
Matt Abrahams: That is really interesting. So if you can reframe the physiological response, you can see it very differently. And I find it fascinating that when we see somebody who is nervous moving one way versus the other way, as an audience member, we have very different perceptions. So if somebody steps up on a stage and then takes a step back as they’re starting to speak, it looks like they’re retreating and therefore may be nervous or shy. But if somebody actually steps forward, we have a perception that they’re confident in stepping into the challenging situation. So it’s not only what we perceive, it’s how the audience perceives it as well.
Andrew Huberman: Absolutely. It might be useful for people to think about the fact that there’s only three responses we can have to any circumstance. One is to stay still. One is to move forward or one is to move back. Back in two-thousand eighteen a graduate student in the neurosciences program did her thesis with me Lindsays Tillet, and I published a paper in the journal Nature. Lindsay discovered a brain circuit that controls the movement toward threats. Now, this isn’t the kind of movement that will get you killed. This is the kind of movement toward an intelligent way, an adaptive way towards something that in this case, an animal or a person wants to do, but feels a tremendous amount of autonomic arousal, of stress and nervousness about.
And the take-home message is the following: forward movement under conditions of anxiety or high levels of alertness, a case, stress triggers the activation of a circuit deep in the brain that releases the neurochemical dopamine. Dopamine, of course, is a molecule that is most commonly associated with the sensation of reward and it is released when we achieve something that we want to achieve, but the other very interesting function of dopamine is to increase the probability that we will move toward similar types of goals in the future. So dopamine is not just the molecule reward, it’s the molecule of motivation and drive. And so Lindsay’s results have a number of different implications, but I think if people can just conceptualize that the anxiety or stress response is the same as the excitement response, they feel different because of some top down perception or verbiage that we introduced to it, but they’re actually identical physiologically. And that forward movement, provided it’s adaptive toward a goal, triggers the activation of chemicals in the brain and body that will make the subsequent pursuit of those same or similar goals more likely and more pleasurable.
Matt Abrahams: So once again, we learn that reframing how we see speaking anxiety can really change how we feel and act.
Additionally, forward movement like stepping toward your audience when you start an in-person presentation or leaning in slightly when in a virtual meeting can help us feel better and appear more confident.
Reframing is one key element to managing our anxiety about speaking. Let’s explore other ways. We will again hear from Professor Alia Crum followed by Stanford GSB Professor Baba Shiv.
Matt Abrahams: So let me put you on the spot. Let’s say I am somebody who has a big upcoming presentation or a meeting contribution and I’m getting nervous. What could I do in terms of my mindset to help me feel a little less nervous and perhaps even more excited about the opportunity?
Alia Crum: The steps to change your mindsets, at least as we teach, are as follows. The first is to acknowledge that you’re stressed, right? So, you have an upcoming meeting or a presentation that you’re given. It’s important, just acknowledge that you’re stressed, I’m stressed about this.
Matt Abrahams: Right?
Alia Crum: And also become … oh sorry go ahead.
Matt Abrahams: I was going to say that it’s normal to be stressed about it, most people would be.
Alia Crum: Exactly, notice that it’s normal. So acknowledging means yeah acknowledging without judgment, right? Knowing, just noticing what you’re feeling, right? How do you respond to stress? Is it hype getting hyperactive and sweaty palms or is it for me sometimes it’s like I have a big presentation or talk and I just get all of a sudden I’m exhausted.
Matt Abrahams: All right I perspire and blush. That’s my big thing. I start dripping with sweat.
Alia Crum: Yeah, so noticing the physiological reactions, noticing your emotional reactions, noticing your behavioral responses without judgment. That’s the first step. The second step is to welcome your stress. So why the heck would we welcome our stress? Well, it goes back to what I just talked about. We only stress about things that we care about. And so inherently underneath the stress is a true value, a true care, a true purpose. And we wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for something that mattered. And we wouldn’t be stressed about it if it wasn’t for something that mattered. So that step involves basically just asking yourself or completing the sentence, right? I’m stressed about x this upcoming presentation because I care about y and what is the y?
Matt Abrahams: Right, so it’s the goal that you’re trying to achieve or the change you’re trying to affect. That’s the y.
Alia Crum: Exactly. I care about it because I really feel like I have something important to say that could improve the lives of the people I’m communicating to or could change the way we’re doing things at this company or could alter fundamentally the relationship that I have with this loved one, right? These are the why’s, right? And you know, you got to go deeper in asking the why we call it sort of the downward arrows of why’s. Sometimes people are like, well, I’m stressed about this presentation because like, I don’t wanna screw it up.
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Alia Crum: Well, why don’t you wanna screw it up? Well I don’t wanna screw it up because I don’t wanna get fired, it’s well why don’t you wanna get fired?
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Alia Crum: I don’t wanna get fired because I feel like I have a contribution to make here because there’s something in here that I feel that I really have to offer. You go until it becomes a, it resonates at that positive level for you. That’s the second step. So, first acknowledge you’re stressed, second welcome your stress as being linked with something you care about, reconnect with what you care about. And the third is to use or utilize your stress in ways that help address the purpose, address that y rather than spending all your time, money, effort energy trying to avoid or get rid of the stress, right?
So you start to realize, you could go back to those behavioral or emotional responses you identified in step one, like you get flushed or you start getting jittery. I start kind of getting tired. It’s like, okay, well sometimes physiological responses you can’t change. But oftentimes the behavioral responses you can, right? So maybe you start snapping at your spouse or your kids or you start getting anxious and talking really fast and you realize, well, okay, well that’s not serving my purpose of the underlying value. Which is to really communicate this important thing that I have to share. So the third step is really utilizing your stress to address the core value or purpose, underline stress. So those are three steps that we share with people to help them to get into this mindset that stress can be enhancing. That the experience of stress can help us rise to a higher level of communication, and performance, and existence.
Matt Abrahams: That is really powerful and very specific and thank you and it avoids the checking out in the freaking out and allows you to harness the stress to support the goal that you’re trying to achieve. I think that’s fantastic.
Baba Shiv: First and foremost, in my opinion, the tactic is go for any practice that will de-stress you. And this can range from, in some case, just taking some deep breaths. It could be visualizing the audience and visualizing the other person being very receptive. It could be laughter. You don’t need real laughter. Even fake laughter will de-stress you. The reason that is important is because if you don’t do that, if you’re not in the right state, and what I mean by right state if you’re stressed then, your brain tends to adopt frames that are much more risk-adverse. And it doesn’t allow you to experiment because you’re coming out of fear. So, the main tactic I’ll say is just feel comfortable in your own skin. Are you comfortable out there or are you still stressed? Because sometimes, you don’t know that.
So, that’s where practices like meditation is so very crucial. Not just for health reasons, but also, for communication reasons. To be a good communicator your brain needs to be a lot more resilient to stress. Matt, you have done this talking to an audience, and what will happen is that when you want to crack a joke, and this has been part of what you plan to do, and you get in to a stressful situation the joke will fall flat.
Matt Abrahams: Oh, yeah.
Baba Shiv: Right?
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Baba Shiv: So, some of the things I’ll do is that I’ll do the [unintelligible]. “Oh, I’m going to tell you a joke.” I laugh myself before I tell the joke and then, people will start giggling because it’s a natural human tendency if someone is laughing you get to laugh yourself. And then, I’ll crack the joke so, there are these kind of techniques, but the most important thing I believe is that of course, you need to know your audience.
Matt Abrahams: Yes.
Baba Shiv: That is the first thing you’ve got to know, and you probably have been mentioning this time and time again.
Matt Abrahams: We have.
Baba Shiv: But I’m a big believer that the most critical factor here is you are in a state of comfort.
Matt Abrahams: Right, and we’ve talked about this. Interestingly, we’ve had a couple guests, Christian being one of them who you teach with and Dan Klein, who I know you know. When it comes to this improvisational mindset and really, the logic is the same. We get in our own way through our anxiety and the pressure we put on ourselves. And if we can actually learn to relax that allows us to achieve our goal much more readily and be much more present-oriented, too.
Baba Shiv: That’s right, and you’ve got to understand that the way the brain is working is all these instinctual brain systems are shaping. And if you are stressed then, what happens is that it will completely shape the frame that you’re adopting about the audience, about your content, et cetera. And your body language is also going to tell.
A lot of our ability to persuade, as we all know, is not just dependent upon what we are saying, but how we are saying it. And so, if you’re not in that state it is going to show. It is going to show.
Matt Abrahams: Right, the tells that we’ve revealed, for sure. I have enjoyed so much getting some of your tips. I’m wondering, do you have any other tips that we haven’t discussed that you think might help us be more effective communicators?
Baba Shiv: Absolutely. So, if it is going to be a very important piece of a thing, you’re giving a talk to an audience, a large audience out there I would just say go to bed early, as you often do. Get a good night’s rest. Don’t sacrifice on sleep. I know people are doing this, that. They will keep on practicing the talk, and all through the night, and they get about three hours of sleep before they’ve got to talk.
If you’ve not had a good night’s rest guess what? Your brain chemicals are going to be such that you are going to be risk-adverse. You’ll then adopt a frame of mind where your brain is already thinking about failure, and that’s the wrong state to be in. I would always advise ‒ and if you didn’t get a good night’s rest that could happen.
And in your traveling Matt, you do this, and I have done this. You’ve traveled across time zones, and you can get in to jet lag and stuff like that. So, one of the things I very quickly do if I’m doing that is first and foremost, what I do is I’ll order food that is comfort food for me.
Matt Abrahams: Huh, okay.
Baba Shiv: Right? So, for me, it is growing up in India, and you talk to most Indians it is yogurt rice. So, I will just go order some plain rice, get some yogurt, plain yogurt, mix it up and have it because you need to have that comfort, right?
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Baba Shiv: And food brings a lot of comfort. And then, if I’m not able to get to sleep that night I will go for a run in the morning because running also within about 15 minutes of a run serotonin levels, some of the chemicals in the brain will increase and then, you get in to the right kind of a state when you’re giving the talk.
Matt Abrahams: Great. I love that. Any excuse to eat my comfort foods I’ll take so, I’m now going to tell everybody, “Baba told me to.”
Baba Shiv: Even if it is unhealthy a little bit of it won’t hurt.
Matt Abrahams: We now have some very specific techniques we can employ to manage our communication apprehension: We can change how we view our anxiety through reframing, to exploring the value our communication brings to us and others to sleeping well and eating right.
Each of us has the ability to become a more confident, calm communicator…It can take a lot of repetition, reflection, and feedback, but it is possible. I see it all the time in my students and the people I coach and I have seen it in my own communication journey. So regardless of if you’re presenting at a wedding or a meeting, protesting or pitching. I hope that you confidently share your stories, give your input, and spread your ideas. We all stand to benefit from your speaking up without freaking out.
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