Public Speaking Anxiety: Examining Your Thoughts

According to a 2001 Gallup poll, 40% of adults have some degree of stage fright. Do you?

One way to address performance anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. “CBT” is a type of therapy that seeks to change unhelpful thinking and behaviors. Although behavioral strategies are an important part of CBT, I will focus on the “cognitive” or thought-related aspects today.

The underlying assumption in CBT is that our thoughts, for example how we view situations, affect our feelings and behaviors. CBT focuses on solutions, and asks us to identify and challenge distorted thoughts and beliefs and replace them with more realistic, effective ones. We can then view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them with more helpful and effective emotions and behaviors.

How might that work when you’re anxious before a presentation? Since you have a unique set of beliefs about yourself and the world, you’ll need to examine what you, personally, are thinking that leads you to feel anxious.

Let’s say you’re scared you’ll look stupid up there. What are the thoughts fueling that fear? Maybe, “I don’t know what I’m talking about” or “They’re going to ask me a question and I won’t answer it well.” There are behavioral ways to address these concerns, like studying the topic and practicing. But in terms of your thoughts…

Ask yourself, “are they realistic or distorted?” Do you really not know what you are talking about? Or is that a thought based on an unrealistic underlying belief about yourself, like, “I have to be an expert on everything.” Are you really certain that you won’t answer the question well, or is that just a fear? Can you really predict the future?

Once you identify a distorted thought or belief, you can challenge it and then replace it with a more realistic one: one that won’t set you up for anxiety. For example: instead of “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” how about, “I’ve prepared really well and I can tell them what I know. If they ask a question I don’t have an answer for, I can tell them I’ll get back to them and then do more research.”

If your underlying belief is unreasonable, (e.g. that you have to be an expert on everything,) that will likely lead to distorted thoughts. You can challenge the belief too. “Is that a realistic expectation, to have to be an expert on everything? Do I really need to be the ultimate authority on this topic or can I simply know enough and communicate it well?”

It can be scary to leave our “comfort zone” of anxiety and the behaviors that anxiety fuels, such as avoiding giving presentations. It requires effort, self-honesty and discipline to examine our thoughts, challenge them, replace them with more realistic and effective ones, and do it again and again until it becomes second nature. In my opinion, it’s worth trying.