Anxiety about public speaking is a near-universal feeling. And so books that focus on helping people deal with that anxiety are perennial sellers. Matt Abrahams’ Speaking up without Freaking Out is no exception, and so I was pleased when I had the chance to talk with him about the book and his approach to communications.
Nick Morgan: How did you come by your interest in frightened speakers — I mean, of course, stage fright or performance anxiety?
Matt Abrahams: My initial interest in presentation anxiety was very personal. When I was a high school freshman, I was told by my elderly English teacher to deliver a speech at a weekend Speech Tournament to get much needed extra credit. I crafted a 10-minute speech on karate. Following my teacher’s advice to grab my audience’s attention at the beginning, I opted to start with a big karate kick. Unfortunately, my anxiety over giving a newly crafted speech in front of a room full of my friends, parent judges, and the girl I liked caused me to forget to put on my more spacious karate pants. Unfortunately, my initial kick delivered in the first 10 second of my 10-minute speech caused my pants to rip from zipper to belt buckle. From that moment on, I realized how anxiety could adversely impact speaking effectiveness!
In college and graduate school, I was fortunate to study with experts in shyness and communication. I learned that numerous techniques existed (some of which I did research on) to help people feel less anxious when presenting. I have since made it a personal mission to help people through my coaching, teaching, and writing to bring these actionable anxiety management techniques to those wishing to become more confident and comfortable speaking in front of others.
Morgan: What percentage of your students/clients/acquaintances suffers from stage fright in your estimation?
Abrahams: This is an easy question. All of them! Research tells us that 85% of people feel anxious when speaking in front of others, and I fully believe that the other 15% are lying. We can always create a situation that can make confident presenters nervous. In my decades of doing this work, I have only encountered one person devoid of speaking anxiety, and he was the most boring, disengaged speaker ever. I believe anxiety is beneficial when presenting: it helps us focus and gives us energy. The trick is to manage it, so it doesn’t manage us.
Morgan: Amy Cuddy has received a lot of press and TED talk views for preaching the idea of the power pose — the Wonder Woman pose — to instill confidence. Subsequent studies have undercut her initial findings, but the popularity of her prescription persists. What do you think of the Wonder Woman pose, and what would you tell your students about it?
Abrahams: Research from many different fields (e.g., anthropology, biology, psychology, etc) tells us that those who stand big and balanced are perceived by others as confident and assertive. What is beginning to be questioned is the impact of those body postures on our own experience of our confidence. Cuddy’s work has shown that neuro-hormones (e.g., testosterone) are released when we stand in a big, balanced manner. Her research (and that of others) has suggested that the cascade of these hormones makes the person taking the posture feel more confident.
Like all cutting edge research, confirmatory studies need to be conducted to validate the findings. For now, the dust has yet to settle. Regardless, the guidance to stand big and balanced (feet facing forward beneath your shoulders with your arms hanging down by your sides, hips and shoulders parallel to the ground with your head straight) definitely make your audience see you as confident, so I still advise my students and clients to invoke this posture. The bottom line is that Cuddy’s Superman or Wonder Woman pose can help you be perceived as a confident speaker.
Morgan: What is the single best step to take, in your view, to mitigate performance anxiety?
Abrahams: It is impossible for me to pick just one technique. Allow me to suggest three:
1. Take deep belly breaths…the kind you would take if you were practicing yoga or tai chi. This type of breathing prior to presenting not only quells your autonomic nervous system’s fight or flight response, but it provides more support for your voice (i.e., nervous speakers breathe shallow from their upper chest).
2. Greet your anxiety. When you begin to feel nervous, say to yourself “This is me feeling nervous; it makes sense that I am nervous since I am doing something of significance that is important to me and others.” This permission to feel nervous and recognition that it is normal and natural allows you to stop from being swept away from your anxiety. In fact, as mindfulness research teaches us, you create space between your anxiety and the experience of it. In this space, you can take action, such as going for a walk around the block or breathing deeply.
3. Be in service of your audience. Nervous speakers feel the spotlight burn brightly on them. Everyone’s focus on you as the speaker amplifies your anxiety. If you change your focus to be in service of your audience’s needs, then that spotlight becomes shared. Putting your cognitive attention on your audience, reduces your evaluative self-focus. In other words, you feel less nervous because it is not all about you…it is about your message and its impact on the others in the room.
These are but three academically validated techniques of the 50 I write about in my book Speaking Up without Freaking Out. Not every technique will work for every person, but if you can find five or six that reliably work, then you are in a position to present confidently.
Morgan: OK, tell us about the third edition of your book. What’s new, what’s still good?
Abrahams: I am really excited about this third edition of Speaking Up without Freaking Out. In addition to updating the research and adding a few new techniques, this edition branches out beyond bolstering confidence. For the first time, I provide specific guidance on how to be a more connected and compelling presenter. I include techniques for engaging your audience and making your content and delivery more relevant and authentic. Additionally, I have included appendices that focus on specific speaking or speaker situations, such as maximizing persuasion and increasing clarity for non-native speakers. Anyone wishing to improve the impact of their presenting should find many useful tips and best practices in this new edition.
Morgan: Tell us about Matt — your background, what you do, etc.
Abrahams: Thanks for asking! After holding senior leadership roles in high tech companies where I saw the value of effective, confident communication, I returned to my passion for teaching and consulting. I am a lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business as well as co-founder of a thriving Silicon Valley based communication consulting firm called Bold Echo, LLC. I really enjoy my blend of academic and practical experience. I truly believe it makes me a better teacher and coach.
My fundamental purpose is to help people feel more comfortable and confident in telling their stories and sharing their ideas.
Morgan: Thanks, Matt!
Nick Morgan is the author of Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact.