Monday, October 18, 2010

Fear of Public Speaking? Dump NST, Detach, Get Rid of the Fear!

Marshmallows, Zen, and Glossophobia: What?
Don’t be alarmed. Glossophobia is just anxiety about public speaking — the cause of plain old speaker’s block. It occasionally shows up as a blank out: we can’t think and we certainly can’t talk. It’s not a fun experience. Solutions abound: take three deep breaths, then do it again; challenge the inner voice that says, “You can’t do it” and say, “Yes I can”; imagine the audience — naked! I’ve tried them all, and more, although I never successfully imagined eight or eighty naked people sitting right out there in front of me. True, the attempt at visualization diverted attention from my anxiety, but also distracted me completely from my speech.

I’ve used a different solution, based on new research in psychology and old practices of Zen Buddhism. Unlikely as it seems, a 1969 study of marshmallows, four year-olds, and the ability to delay gratification generated follow-up findings that apply to speaker’s block. The young research subjects were told they could have two marshmallows if they waited to eat them until after the researcher left and later returned to the room. If they didn’t or couldn’t wait, they could have only one. The successful delayers  (two-marshmallow kids) used distraction to help them postpone the gratification of the sweet, puffy, white, mouthfuls. They sang a song, looked away from the marshmallows on the table, closed their eyes, or climbed under the table so they couldn’t see the sweets. Inattentiveness to the marshmallows allowed them to temporarily forget their desire. Their “strategic allocation of attention,” paying attention to something other than the marshmallows, was the key to success, according to Walter Mischel, the coordinator of the original and recent follow-up research.

The process works whether you’re trying to distract yourself from something you do want (marshmallows) or something you don’t want, such as anxiety. Dara Torres, co-captain of the US Women’s swim team notes, “ . . . the key to managing prerace anxiety is being able to redirect one’s mind if it starts down a dark path.”  Torres recommended that her uptight swimmer pay attention to TV and polish her toe nails before a race as a way to distract herself from the dark path of anxiety; another example of strategic allocation of attention with a different situation and wording.

The steps in trying out the attention/distraction approach seem more passive than many of us are accustomed to, but give it a try. It may work for you.  Read more for steps 1 -5.

1.    Determine what thinking is going on in your head as you prepare to speak. Is the voice in your head focused on your anxiety or focused on your speech? Are you spending attention on your fear or on your speaking?

The fear voice might sound like:
 “Who do you think you are getting up here with shaky knees and a shaky voice and a boring story? They’re going to think you’re a train wreck.”
The speech voice might sound like:
“I’m repeating the opening sentence of my speech in my head until I get to the lectern.”

2.    When you determine it’s a speech voice in your head, you know you are allocating your attention well and you stay with that voice.
3.    When you determine it’s the fear voice, you know you need to distract your mind and spend attention on your speech.
a.  In your mind note, “The fear is talking,” without reaction or judgment or further attention. Here's where the Zen kicks in.
b.  Pay attention to each word, each point, each gesture, or the concept of your speech. Pause to do so if you want, allowing time for the fear voice to fade as a result of inattention.

4.     Repeat the process of noticing, without reaction or judgment. When the voice of the critic arises again, allocate attention to your speech; let the fear voice rise, fade, and diminish as before.

5.    Practice the process in speaking, as well as other situations where you have opportunities to reallocate attention from anxiety or self-criticism to something that will distract you from the negativity. Here’s an example that you may already use: You are having dental work done. You spend attention on the photos, art, cartoons in the room; you listen to the radio with earphones, or construct an engrossing visualization in your mind, distracting you from the potential angst that you don’t want to experience.

If you think of attention as a commodity, like money, then it becomes something that you can choose to spend where you get the most value.  You strategically allocate your attention as you do your money; you spend it wisely and purposefully, rather than fritter it away aimlessly. When you allocate your attention to the negative thought, you tend to accept the thought as true and accurate; you feel inadequate and go blank. You’re wasting your attention. When you allocate attention to your speech, you are spending attention wisely and distracting yourself from the anxiety. The negativity and fear, unattended, lose power and influence.
 If you have a mental mechanism that already works for you, more power to you! If you don’t have a process that works for you, then you have nothing to lose by trying this slightly unorthodox approach. The worst outcome is that it doesn’t work for you — as a speaker or in everyday life. The best outcome is that you determine that this somewhat far-out approach works for you in a variety of situations, but especially helps you to become a very confident presenter.
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