Born to Speak? Understanding Public Speaking Anxiety and Overcoming It

By Sharon Moore on March 22, 2012

Calm like an experienced public speaker, charming as a real princess, and cool like it wasn’t her first – Kate Middleton has made her very first official speech as a member of the Royal Family. As she stood before the crowd of children, staff and volunteers at the East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices, the Duchess of Cambridge remained confident from start to finish.

Public Speaking – the Top Cause of Fear

But how can someone – on her very first time to render a public speech, can stay calm and relaxed all throughout the time? For many people, public speaking is one of the hardest and most fearful endeavours in their lives. As a matter of fact, public speaking is the number one fear of many individuals and they consider it more fear-provoking than death.

So, are those who are good at public speaking good just because they are? Well, scientists say it’s actually in the structure of the brain.

Perhaps the reason why our brain is located in our head is because it plays an extremely vital role in our body, being capable of directing us with what to do and what not to do. Aside from instructing our heart to pump blood, our lungs to take in oxygen, our limb to move – our brain is responsible for all our emotions. The amygdala, a structure found in the centre of the brain, becomes highly active when we’re afraid. It is also connected to the prefrontal cortex through the white matter pathways. But new study suggests that while amygdala is active in times of fear, it isn’t the best predictor of anxiety.

Controlling Anxiety Levels

The brain is divided into two major categories – the grey matter and the white matter. The grey matter is responsible for processing complex information while the white one transmits signals from different regions of the brain so they can communicate and work together. On a recent study by Justin Kim and Paul Whalen at Dartmouth, it was found that people who have the lowest levels of anxiety are those who have thick white matter pathways between the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the amygdala.

In the study, the researchers asked the participants to look at some scary photos. Using fractional anisotropy (FA), a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique – they observed how the brain reacts when one is in the verge of threatening situations. Interestingly, they found that the participants who were more anxious did not have high levels of amygdala activation and those who were less anxious did not also show high levels of vmPFC activation. They concluded that people with stronger white matter pathways demonstrate low levels of anxiety because they tend to calm down faster.

Tips to Improve Public Speaking Skills

If you’re the kind of person who always gets butterflies in the stomach when speaking before a group or when talking to someone over the phone, it’s most likely that your white matter pathways are not that active. But don’t worry. Scientists agree that the brain is in a constant state of revision. That means it can be developed and improved.

·         Warming up before the speaking engagement

Speaker Judge Jeremy Stockwell who’s an expert of theatre performance and direction believes that preparation is an essential aspect of a successful public speaking. Just as sports players, musicians and actors warm up, speakers need to prepare not just their piece but their mind, body and voice too. 

·         Fighting the fear

Jo Brand, a speaker judge said on her interview with BBC that the nervousness that one may feel isn’t really affected by the number of audience. ‘It’s very situation specific’, she added. Even the best speakers feel nervous at times. It’s normal. But it’s all about controlling it. Practicing your speech including your body gestures will help reduce the anxiety that you may feel when speaking in front of the public as it will ease your worries of not being able to deliver well. 

·         Delivering the information right

It is very important that you know the purpose of your speech to be able to deliver it right. There’s nothing more symbolic of having caught your audience than total silence, said Speaker Mentor Lord Spencer. You must also inject yourself to your speech. If the audience is not able to see any connection with the speaker and his speech, they’re less likely to understand. 

·         Moving your audience

The main goal of any speech, may it be a wedding or a corporate speech is to influence the listeners’ minds. The speech, to be powerful, should be moving. It should leave an impression to the audience – something they will carry on their way home and as they go along with their lives. You can add creativity, say words of wisdom, tell a story, crack a joke – whatever which will instill your message to their minds.

Communication is a God-given gift that we should be thankful of. We are all speakers – we talk to friends, relatives and associates on a day to day basis. But the anxiety fires up when addressing a speech to a people you don’t know. But through the tips mentioned, you can always become a good public speaker.

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