Speech anxiety: Recovery for panic mechanics and anyone who has ever broken down in a presentation

You start off well.  Then you fumble over a word or two.  Perhaps someone asks you a question or you notice someone is reading a message on their phone.  Perhaps that one audience member is looking at you with a very stern face.  Whatever the cause, the next moment you find yourself in panic mode.  And you’re a wreck.

Your carefully crafted message is now pouring out of your mouth in incoherent dribbles. It is probably not going as bad as you believe, but in your mind, it is an absolute disaster.  You can’t wait for it to be over. You rush to finish, speak too fast, leave some out, or in worst-case scenarios you might even just give up and feel left thinking you’re a failure and that you’re just not cut out for presentations.

If this is you, we have very good news for you. There’s nothing wrong with you.  You’re just stuck in a thought trap commonly known as catastrophising.  And yes, you can fix it and shine – not only in your presentations, but in other situations where this may arise.

Catastrophizing is an irrational cognitive distortion that causes us to magnify situations into potential worst-case scenarios which are often imaginary and unrealistic, making us believe these will happen and causing us increased anxiety, worry, stress and panic.

I too am guilty of being what I have fondly decided to dub a ‘panic mechanic’.

It is not a mental health disorder, and it is probably one of the most common irrational thought traps that human beings experience. We can experience this in different situations in our lives.

It helps to remember that we are not psychic, we cannot predict the future, and secondly that all the horrible things that we have predicted in the past have most probably never actually happened.

When we catastrophise when we are presenting, we start making irrational predictions such as ‘they are going to laugh at us’, ‘they hate me’, ‘I am making a fool of myself’ or ‘I am totally messing this up and it is the end of my career’ and other such thoughts.

To deconstruct these thoughts, we have to pick them apart like a programmer by playing out the worst-case scenarios and asking ourselves, ‘are these thoughts rational?” So let’s go through them one by one.

Have you ever laughed at a presenter who is struggling? I’m pretty sure the answer is no.  I’m pretty sure you either didn’t notice, or if you did, you were secretly rooting for them to succeed and felt a deep respect for their courage in persevering.  Human beings are actually intrinsically good natured and if someone ever laughs at you, well that says far more about them than about you.  It’s highly unlikely to happen and audiences actually respect a presenter who despite their nervousness is willing to proceed.  Nervousness and the willingness to continue despite the odd glitch is not a sign of incompetence, it is a sign of courage and tenacity and earns respect!

Making a fool of yourself?  That sounds like you’re being way too hard on yourself.  What does the word fool even mean?  Do you judge others in the same way? Why should you judge yourself with these same harsh standards?  Sounds irrational if you think of it, doesn’t it?

And that audience member with the stern face?  Maybe he/she is just thinking.  I’ve often been thrown by people on phones only to realise they were taking notes of what I was saying and the serious-looking folk were deep in thought!

I think you know where I am going with this.  Take each worst-case scenario and play it out and I’m pretty sure that you will agree that the scenarios we’ve been envisioning are actually pretty ridiculous.

We are more likely to catastrophise when our mood is low and when our self-esteem has taken a knock.  Practice huge amounts of self-care and please take this as a reminder that we can’t always believe our thoughts, and it’s really helpful to question the negative ones.

We truly can reprogramme our panic-generating machines and by creating better thoughts, we create better emotions and better behaviours / results.  Managing our thoughts makes us the powerful masters of our lives.

Even the best speakers in the world fumble and forget things.  Most of the time no one even notices.  Even when we do, you’ll observe they just continue and when they do, we respect them more for their bravery and humanity.

You’ve got this and we believe in you!

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