Chapter 1: Fear

Why is this happening to me? Reframing fear.

I turn pale at the outset of a speech and quake in every limb and in all my soul. -Cicero

There are two kinds of speakers; those who are nervous, and those who are liars – Mark Twain

Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is consistently rated as people’s top fear—above snakes, heights, and death. If you are nervous or anxious before presenting, YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Many, many people have faced this same anxiety (including Sir Winston Churchill, Aristotle, Demosthenes, and President Lincoln).

You may be saying to yourself, “okay, Eventoff, that’s fine, but having me relate my anxiety to orators of the past is a little tough to imagine, as I can’t see (or other than Churchill, hear) any of them.” Fair enough. Let’s turn to today. Is it only you? Not even close. How about Prince Harry? Warren Buffett? Leonardo DiCaprio? Adele? All had anxiety prior to speaking in public at some point in their careers. It doesn’t matter how famous you are, how wealthy you are, or how successful you are. From Demosthenes to DiCaprio, many of the most famous orators of all time felt the same angst.

In this chapter, I’m going to provide you with three tools to help you overcome these nerves: the illusion of transparency, plateauing and reframing nervous energy, and visualization. I have seen these strategies work for anyone from professional athletes, to c-suite executives, to movie stars. Backed by the best and most recent scholarly research, these tools worked for them, and they’ll work for you.

No One Can See You Sweat: The Illusion of Transparency

“My head was reeling, and I felt as though the whole court was doing likewise.” Mahatma Gandhi, 1889 (as a young lawyer)

“I know they are watching me tremble and sweat!”

“Can they see me shake?”

“I get so blotchy when I am nervous and I know that the audience can tell!”

A common, recurring misconception is that the audience can perceive just how anxious and nervous you are. That they are judging you. That your physiological responses to stress (trembling, sweating, shaking) are apparent to everyone.

This is simply untrue, and it is also very detrimental. When you think the audience can see how anxious you are, the result is always the same: an increased stress response.

I have worked with thousands of speakers over the years and know that you are always more nervous than you appear. Having prepared speakers across the globe, I’ve found that no matter the culture, religion, context, or audience, this is a universal principle. You may appear nervous, and the audience may see bits of sweat, but you never appear as nervous you feel. The audience is not in tune with your emotional state.

A study by Dr. Kenneth Savitsky and Dr. Thomas Gilovich, from Cornell University’s Department of Psychology, confirms this.1 Savitsky and Gilovich had participants deliver impromptu speeches in pairs. After each individual spoke for three minutes, the speaker was asked to rate him- or herself in terms of how nervous the speaker thought he or she appeared, and how nervous the other speaker appeared.

The results were striking: speakers systematically overestimate how nervous they appear to others. In Savitsky and Gilovich’s words, “when individuals are called to speak in public, they do not appear as nervous as they think they do.”

This is attributed to a well-documented psychological effect called the “illusion of transparency”—the illusion that a person’s emotional or mental state is as obvious to others as it is to that individual.[1] You are typically not quite as open of a book as you may think.

But there’s more. In the second part of the study, they found that “…Public speakers are often nervous over the (largely illusory) prospect that their nervousness is apparent to their audience—a concern that serves, ironically, to increase their nervousness.”

Let that sink in. Thinking that others see you are nervous (even when they don’t) makes you more nervous. It increases your stress response, boosting your anxiety even further. Savitsky and Gilovich call this the cycle of nervousness.

On top of that, Savitsky and Gilovich conducted a follow-up study where the design of the first was replicated, pairing off participants giving impromptu speeches. This time, however, they explained the illusion of transparency, telling the participants that their nervousness is not as apparent as they would think. Participants who were informed about the illusion of transparency delivered speeches that were both ranked more highly and perceived as less nervous.

By learning about the illusion of transparency, speakers were able to escape the spiral of nervousness. Knowing that you do not appear as nervous as you think you do makes you a better speaker.

In the 1980s, an advertising campaign for Dry Idea, an antiperspirant, told millions of people to “Never let them see you sweat.”

When it comes to public speaking, don’t worry—they won’t see you sweat.

[1] The illusion of transparency is documented in circumstances as diverse as reactions after tasting food (Gilovich et al, 1998), to how apparent someone is lying (Gilovich & Savitsky, 1999).



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