A world famous pastor who speaks to sold out stadiums once admitted to me that in his first year as a minister, his hands would shake as he approached the lectern. His palms would sweat and his heart would race. He had severe stage fright. When he overheard a critical comment about his speaking, he would focus on it and replay it over and over in his head.
“I started speaking to myself in a more positive way. Instead of tearing myself down, I built myself up,” he said.
The minister also began to practice. He rehearsed for hours and hours ahead of every sermon. The latest neuroscience research concludes that the preacher intuitively did two things right — reappraisal and rehearsal.
Reappraisal: Changing the channel
The minister told me he overcame the fear of public speaking by “changing the internal channel.” Instead of focusing on what had gone wrong — or the negative comments he overheard — he focused on what he did right and the people who were moved by his message.
The minister was engaging in what psychologists and neuroscientists call “cognitive reappraisal.” According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, “cognitive reappraisal is the act of reinterpreting emotional information in such a way that the emotional component is diminished.”
In his book, Iconoclast, Berns writes, “There is growing neurobiological evidence that when people reappraise emotional circumstances, the prefrontal cortex comes online and inhibits the amygdala.” In other words, the part of our brain that triggers the fight or flight response — and elevates your heart rate when speaking in public — is more easily tamed when we reframe our internal thoughts from negative to positive.
Berns’ observation has been validated by many scholarly research experiments in the last few years.
In a paper titled, Rethinking Feelings, researchers at Columbia University, conclude: “We can change the way we feel by changing the way we think, thereby lessening the emotional consequences of an otherwise distressing experience.” Reframing the way we think about external events is nothing new, of course.
This observation has been made throughout history. From Marcus Aurelius to William Shakespeare, great leaders and great writers have always known that we can choose how we interpret events or experiences. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’’
The difference is that now we have the tools like fMRI scans that allow researchers to peer into the brains of athletes and business leaders.
Dr. Sian Beilock is a psychology professor at the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago. She wrote the book, Choke, to explain the science of why some people stumble when the pressure is one, while others thrive. She tested people in high-pressure situations including sports, test-taking, and giving presentations. Part of the reason why many people ‘choke’ when the stakes are high is because we put added stress on ourselves , stress we can remove if we choose. For example, Beilock says people are more likely to bomb a presentation “When worries and self-doubt flood the brain.” It’s very hard to function at peak performance when you’re worried about what people will think. “Anticipations of an event, and specifically anticipation of others judging you, is enough to put pressure on before you have even arrived at the performance stage.”
Reappraisal stops the cycle cold.
According to Beilock, “The prefrontal cortex is also the seat of our ability to reappraise a situation or event. Reappraisal is one of the main cognitive tools we use to reflect on what others do and change our own emotional responses accordingly.”
Rehearsal: Training under pressure
Beilock recommends “pressure training” to overcome nerves and stress. This works for athletes as well as business professionals preparing for a public-speaking opportunity. “Even practicing under mild levels of stress can prevent you from choking when high levels of stress come around,” Beilock writes.
For example, before a mission-critical presentation, gather a few people around to watch a dress rehearsal , even if it’s in the office or your living room. “Simulating low levels of stress helps prevent cracking under increased pressure, because people who practice this way learn to stay calm, cool, and collected in the face of whatever comes their way.”
According to UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman in his book, Social, there’s a difference between suppressing our nerves and reappraising the way we look at a situation. In public speaking, suppressing your emotion means walking on stage, putting on a broad smile and saying to yourself, “I’m not nervous. I’m not nervous. I’m not nervous.” The problem is — you are nervous. You might look less distressed to your audience, and that’s fine, but it won’t make you feel in peak state for next time.
Rehearsal and reappraisal will help you reach a high performance state of mind. If you change your perspective about public speaking and rehearse ‘under stress,’ you might find yourself looking forward to your next presentation instead of dreading it.