Three key factors which reduce speaking stress

Studying ‘stress hardiness’ research is part of what I do to help clients become more resilient presenters; and there’s been a lot of interesting work done in this area over the past nearly 40 years by two psychologists, Salvatore Maddi and Suzanne Kobasa. They’ve worked with 1000’s of 

Control, commitment and challenge - key factors which reduce speaking stress
Control, commitment and challenge – key factors which reduce speaking stress

professionals and have found three critical factors in resilient people. Resilience shows up when people go through life stressors and come out the other side showing the ability to grow and thrive. (Whereas non-resilient people suffer physical and/or mental ill-health.)

These three critical resilience attributes are also key factors which reduce speaking stress:
  1. Control
  2. Commitment
  3. Challenge

Let’s break these resilience factors down a little:

1. Control. If you believe that you have control over any part of the process of speaking to groups, then you’ll feel more able to cope with it.

Anything which makes you feel like less of a victim and able to take charge will help. It involves an internal locus of control. An internal locus means the feeling that you can influence the course of your life – you can choose, grow and change. With an internal locus, you don’t think your life is pre-determined and you’re just being helplessly being carried along for the ride. This inner sense of control also means that you’re far more likely to take actions to improve the chances of achieving your goals. It’s also about focusing in each situation on what you can control. Not what we tend to do when faced with something stressful, which is to focus on everything we can’t control (and desperately want to!). 

In public speaking then, how can you find more control? This might mean that you:
  • Do more – or any – practice out loud, so that you get used to hearing and feeling the words coming out of your mouth; especially the opening words. I talk about this a lot, because it makes a big difference to the level of shock to your system when you begin to speak. That moment of going from a ‘private person’ – often sitting down or on the room’s sidelines – to a ‘public person’ when you have to stand up and become centre-stage. When you become the focus of attention, all eyes on you, that’s a shock to your system. Having practised your opening words out loud a few times will help to smooth this shock.
  • Arrive at the venue early so that you’re not rushing and at the mercy of traffic (that used to be a big one for me!). Get to the room early and walk around, getting your body and mind system acclimatised to being in the space. Or if you have an internal presentation, try not to have meetings backed right up to your presentation time. And if you do have to run straight in, make sure that you re-centre and re-focus yourself before you start. My next point will help you with this:
  • Breathe into your abdomen/ribs before you start to speak, or whenever you start to stress out. Aim to feel your ribs expand up and out. This calms your system and gives you a sense of regaining control. Low, slow breaths. Obviously easier to do before you start than when you’re up there – but you can still breathe in between paragraphs, thoughts, slides. You just have to remember to do it!

Anything – no matter how small – which makes you feel that there’s an aspect of the situation which you can influence and control, is going to help increase your resilience levels.

2. Commitment. Can you in any way see your public speaking role as being meaningful or a source of engagement for you?

Examples might be:

  • The opportunity to influence others to your point of view
  • A way of increasing your ability to provide for your family
  • Buying something that matters to you
  • Finding pride and meaning in the act of deciding to improve your public speaking skills

It doesn’t matter what the trigger is, or how altruistic or materialistic it is. If it works to make you feel more engaged and committed to your words, it will work.

3. Challenge. If you can see public speaking as an opportunity for growth rather than just a stressor, you’re going to flip your perception to one of possibility, personal and professional growth.

This idea, of flipping a situation from a threat to a challenge, is something that’s been studied extensively by researchers. One in particular is Kelly McGonigal who’s written an interesting book ‘The Upside of Stress’. In it, Kelly talks about turning a threat into a challenge:

“viewing the stress response as a resource…can turn the physiology of fear into the biology of courage.  It can turn a threat into a challenge and can help you do your best under pressure. Even when the stress doesn’t feel helpful – as in the case of anxiety – welcoming it can transform it into something that is helpful: more energy, more confidence, and a greater willingness to take action”.

This is a great way to improve your resilience: even if you think this is beyond you, could you be willing to even briefly entertain the idea? This can be a real game-changer for you.

So, three C’s  – resilience builders, and key factors which reduce speaking stress. Why not give yourself five minutes today – now if possible while the ideas are fresh –  to jot down one or two ways you could increase one of these factors? More control, commitment, challenge around your public speaking – that’s only going to be a good thing!

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