Navy Seals Teach Us About Public Speaking Fear

[Updated 2020.] As you’ll know if you’ve been around my work for a while, I used to suffer real anxiety around presenting to people (and music performance anxiety before that – it was a long road!). And when I work with clients on reducing public speaking fear, I use lots of different tools and techniques, depending on what people present with.

About 10 years ago there was an interesting article in Psychology Today about four techniques the U.S. Navy Seals used to increase their training pass rates with new recruits. The original article is here. And because all four tools are ones I might use when coaching clients on reducing public speaking fear, I thought I’d share the Seals training techniques with you.

Navy SEALS logo

Navy Seals are an elite force in the U.S. military who have to undergo very intense training so that they can deal with specific situations in hostile territory. This is an excerpt for the original article, describing issues some Seals were having with passing one particular vital area of the training (one that fills me with horror, and something I’m glad I’ll never have to attempt!):

“Their training has to be super intense in order to have soldiers who can actually carry out their missions.

Hence, they had an extremely low passing rate for trainees. According to The Brain, a show featured on The History Channel, out of 140 recruits (average/each cycle) only 36 would make it. However, they noticed that they were losing good recruits, not because they couldn’t phsyically hack it, but because they had a mental block. It was in one key area; the water.

The Navy Seals have a drill in a pool where recruits have to remain under water for 20 minutes. They are equipped with oxygen tanks for air. All they have to do is stay under water without coming up. Seems simple enough.

Well there’s a catch. The recruits are constantly harassed by their instructors who rip off their masks, tie their (air) lines in knots and conduct other general forms of harrassment. The recruit’s job is to not panic; wait until the attack is over; calmly fix the problem while remaining under water and then wait for the next attack.

At the end of the 20 minutes the recruit will be required to kiss the floor of the pool and then will be brought up by the drill instructor.

But the opposite often happens. Soldiers do panic and even with four chances to pass (at different times in the program) many never make it. So the Navy Seals turned to psychology. Using a four step process they increased the passage rates in their program.

What did they do? They emphasized what psychologists and communication academics have been advocating for years:  Goal Setting – Mental Rehearsal – Self Talk – Arousal Control.

By using this four step process, the pass rate increased from 25% to 33% – which might not sound like a huge leap, but it’s quite a big shift in such a rigorous program.

The four techniques:

1. Goal setting

Trainees were taught to set goals in very short time-frames or chunks. In the same way, you might set a goal or expectation to achieve one new thing on the day of your next presentation and put a time-frame on it. A navy recruit used the example of making it to lunch, then making it to dinner. You could go even lower. 

For example: “I’m going to smile at the audience before I start to speak”; “I’m going to make deliberate eye contact with individuals in the first two minutes” (in a smaller space like a boardroom) or “I’m going to make sure I look at people at the back and the sides of the room” (parts of the room which is often neglected if you’re in a larger space). 

2. Mental rehearsal

Trainees learnt to visualise and imagine successful outcomes, and also picture going through the process and motions of the exercise successfully. You might imagine connecting with your audience during the first minute of your talk by asking them a question (assuming that you know they’ll respond!). Doing this allows your brain to process that you’re having more of a conversation than a solo performance.  

Or you could imagine delivering a specific key point clearly and succinctly.  

Mental rehearsal is extremely powerful because our imaginations are powerful. Even if you think you’re not very good at the technique, or you struggle to “see” anything in your mind’s eye, don’t worry: it will still have an impact on your system. Remember that mental rehearsal isn’t just about pictures, it’s about other senses like sound and touch as well. The more senses you can bring in, the more powerful it will be for your mind-body system.

And if you’ve never had a positive experience of public speaking and this technique seems beyond you, just leave it for the moment. Straining to attempt metal rehearsal if you system is screaming with disbelief can make you feel worse: go to other tools instead. But if you have had previous positive experiences, this is a great one to build on.

3. Self-talk

Trainees were taught to speak positively to themselves. We talk to our selves all the time, and it has a huge impact on how we function in the world. Practise giving yourself words of encouragement, positivity and kindness to get yourself through the speaking event. We too often criticise ourselves harshly, just when we need to support our own efforts.

This is easier said than done, I know: but remember that self-compassion – being kind to ourselves – is shown in many research studies to have a much great effect on our ongoing motivation and confidence-building than high self-esteem. I wrote about this here.

4. Arousal Control

Trainees learnt to breath in ways which calmed their system. In the same way, you can take calming breaths into your abdomen, ensuring that you exhale longer than you inhale. This is what sends the signal to your nervous system that you’re safe and not in immediate danger. It’s very useful to do this when you’re waiting to present, perhaps at your desk or sitting in the audience before your presentation.

The author describes this four step process as “very simple”. I would add this: it is simple, but it’s not easy. Like a lot of things worth doing, these techniques take time, focus and practice to achieve good results.

If you don’t currently use these tools, why not take one technique and practise it for your next presentation?

Embed that one technique, and then try another.

What do you think? Do you believe these techniques could help you with reducing public speaking fear?

If you found this post helpful, here’s another one I wrote on three factors which reduce public speaking fear.

Best wishes with your presentations.


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