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Fear of Public Speaking Hardwired

Speech Anxiety Worse for Some, but Most Can Overcome It

You Can Speak in Public

Here's the bad news. You cannot change your traits. They are part of your personality. If you are a person with high-trait anxiety, there's no simple way to become a low-trait-anxiety person.

The good news is that we can learn to win with the cards we are dealt. High-trait anxiety is a challenge. It need not be a disability.

Witt doesn't try to motivate people. Instead, he teaches public speaking skills.

Before speaking:

  • Visualize. Picture yourself in the classroom or in the meeting room, standing up, taking your notes to the lectern, and so on. Visualize a successful outcome.
  • Practice. Practice going through your presentation, over and over again. But do it with someone who is supportive, so that you learn to succeed rather than to fail.
  • Sensitizers focus on the little things. "Through visualization they can get all that negative stuff out, so when the real day comes, they can get that out of their system and focus on real issues," Witt says.

During your speech, deal with symptoms as they occur:

  • Dry mouth? Take a little sip of water.
  • Knees knocking? Shift your weight and flex your knees.
  • Hands trembling? Put them together.
  • Voice is quivering? "Pause, take a deep breath or two, and smile. It is amazing what a smile will do," Witt say.
  • Sweating? "Forget it, nobody sees that anyway," Witt says.

"Those symptoms that distract us are treatable," Witt says. "It doesn't take a PhD to figure this out, but so many people don't -- because as sensitizers, they become so focused on their symptoms and their embarrassment in front of other people."

There are, of course, psychological problems that require more than visualization and practice. Witt recommends counseling for people who have violent symptoms such as vomiting. But for the rest of us -- who fear that everyone in the room can see our palms sweat -- it's a matter of gaining confidence by learning a set of simple skills.

"Virtually every speaker gets nervous most of the time, or at least some of the time," Witt says. "We all deal with our nervousness in different ways. The important thing is it does not have to make us embarrassed or frightened or upset to speak in front of other people. We can deal with that. You may be nervous, but you don't have to be disabled in front of other people."

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