Public Speaking: The Pitfalls of Negative Thoughts

By Alyson Connolly

This may not come as surprise, but it’s much easier to hold on to negative thoughts and give them emotional weight than it is to hold on to positive ones. After all, we evolved in a scary, deadly, wild environment. One thing your brain is very good at is alerting you to danger. Pessimism and negative thinking tended to keep you alive a hundred thousand years ago. You had to react instantly to a threat. Positive events don’t create the same urgency.

Your DNA, unfortunately, hasn’t had time yet to become concerned with your being able to master that presentation to your company without that creeping negativity following you around everywhere. Maybe your distant descendants fared better because of it, but in the meantime you’re stuck with your present DNA.

We’ve all heard of the fear of public speaking. Here are a few of the symptoms, both physical and mental:

  • Stomachache
  • Gritting teeth
  • Fear of opening your mouth
  • Hearing your heart beating
  • Stopping breathing
  • Losing your place in your speech
  • Blanking
  • Negative thinking

Our brains are hardwired to recognize the negatives in every situation. Think about it: You’ve probably got a lot of positive things going on. First off, you’re alive in this world and get to see all the cool stuff it has to offer. If you’ve got a career you like, that’s a positive that you constantly hold with you. Same thing if you have a family and/or a home, if you read good books, or if you’re able to go to movies. When you get a dog, you don’t just like it the first day it comes home as a puppy. It becomes a constant positive in your life.

Negatives, however, tend to overwhelm your contentment. Maybe there’s a blip in your career — maybe you got passed over for that promotion. It’s hard to keep something like that in context. We’re not really wired to zoom out and weigh the good and the bad equally because historically that would have little value in keeping you alive. Maybe your dog died — after a fantastic life of chasing balls and being jolly. It seems easier sometimes to remember the pain you felt at Rover’s death than all the instances of him bounding toward you after a tough day.

I’m not just saying stop and smell the roses (although feel free, they smell great). I’m saying try to remember to take negative thoughts for what they are — and nothing more. They are fleeting feelings that will take up all the emotional space if you let them.

Say no to negatives: Avoid your triggers

How do you take a negative emotion or thought and include it in the feeling of something without allowing it to completely overshadow anything else? Here are a few tips:

  • Be prepared: Take it from the Boy Scouts — they know what to bring in case anything goes down. And though you may not be worried about bears coming after the snacks on the table at your presentation, or which way north is as you’re facing the audience, it’s a good idea to take this scouting advice. Often folks who experience anxiety or negative thoughts surrounding a performance have not prepared to the extent they believe they should.

Don’t let that be you. Be meticulous. If you think the space where you’ll be presenting is intimidating, check it out beforehand. Try to get there early enough that you can practice onstage. Know where you have to go, whether you can use notes, where the washroom is. If you’re using a PowerPoint or some other visual aid, do a run-through to make sure all the equipment is working. Don’t let something you didn’t prepare for become a hurdle to your success.

  • Focus on the small victories: So, it’s the night before you hit the stage and present them with a keynote speech you’ve worked on for weeks. It’s a one-time thing, and everything is freaking you out. What if you mess up? What if you start coughing? What if you forget your words? Positive messaging can help you leap these hurdles.

Take out a pen and piece of paper. Write SMALL VICTORIES on top in big, important-looking block letters. Start from the beginning. Why are you doing this speech in the first place? Is it because you’re an expert in a certain field? Is there some perspective only you can bring to the subject? Find the context around why you’ve been chosen to do this speech — chances are, they’re all small victories.

  • Get positive about negative thoughts: You’re worried that the speech will be a failure and you’ll be shunned by your social group, and maybe society in general. Maybe there’s some small, cold island they send all the speakers to whose PowerPoint cut out or who blanked on a topic — you’re sure it’s only a matter of time before they send you on a boat without a return ticket.

It’s possible to turn such anxiety into motivation. Use it as a reason why you’re not going to mess up. Have an ego about it. Tell yourself you’re not getting on that boat to that island. It exists, people go there, but not you.

The presentation you’re about to give is a building block to your success. It isn’t a test to determine whether you’ll fail — it’s something you signed up for as a way to further yourself and your career. When a team plays an important game, there are two types of players: those who go out and try not to lose, and those who go out there and try to win. Successful athletes think about their accomplishments and believe they will succeed. Unsuccessful athletes tend to do the opposite. They ruminate on their failures and worry about their mistakes.

Perfect perfectionism

Are you the type of person who has to have everything just so? All your ducks have to be in a row, and if they’re not, your whole world is destroyed? Maybe asking yourself isn’t the best way to figure that out. Find someone who knows you well: your best friend, your partner, or maybe someone you work with closely. Ask them to give it to you straight. Do you seem anxious when things don’t go according to plan? Are you extremely hard on yourself and others? Do you compare yourself to others and feel that you fall short of their achievements? Sometimes it takes an outside opinion to determine whether you’re a perfectionist or not.

And hey, there’s nothing wrong with being meticulous. In fact, it’s a trait that — done right — is an important asset to have for many things in life. But we humans often have a way of overdoing things. Sometimes it’s hard to let things go, even if we know deep down that there’s nothing else to be squeezed out of it. Perfectionists have a way of grinding a problem that has no clear solution into the ground so far that it distorts the problem that existed in the first place. As much as humans and our brains are pretty sharp, we can’t think of ourselves as state-of-the-art analytical machines. It’s so easy to overanalyze the little things and blow them up.

Nix those niggling negatives

Everybody complains about something. It’s totally natural and it is indeed negative. Sometimes complaining or venting to a confidant can be a perfectly cathartic and rational way to get over something. But it’s easy to turn complaints into excuses. Complaining to the extent that it impedes your work is counterproductive. Here are a few tips to help you move on:

  • Don’t waste time complaining about technology failures.

Anything that happens onstage is directly related to you. Whatever horrible thing goes on up there, you’ve got to deal with it.

For instance, how many times have you seen a presentation where some piece of technology doesn’t work? It’s like a cliché at this point: Half a PowerPoint is missing, the mic cuts out, the screen falls off the wall. Many presenters — me included — find technology difficult to work with for this reason. There always seem to be more moving parts than there has to be, and there’s always something you can’t directly control. Yet often you do have to use a mic, and sometimes PowerPoint is important to your presentation. What can you do when things fail? Well, you can waste in your time wallowing negative thoughts about the technology — or you can press on and make the best of it.

  • Don’t get flustered by things you can’t control. Be smarter than your problems.
  • Let go of your own mistakes. And, of course, sometimes the problem really is you. So what? We all have an ego. We all have a sense of importance and want to show the world that we are doing a good job. The ego is an important thing for performance — one of the most important things you can wield. But you can’t let it get out of hand. We blame others to try to save face or blame ourselves. It’s so important to be able to control your ego and save it for when you need to use it the most.

Many people who are new to public speaking find it tough to admit that they’re going to make mistakes. But really, it’s just math — the law of averages. Everyone on up to the president of the United States makes mistakes while speaking. Pros know it’s best to shrug them off and just keep going as if nothing happened. A seasoned musician who plays two shows a day isn’t going to get hung up on playing a wrong note every so often — the vast number of right notes far outweighs the bad one, and most of the time the audience doesn’t even notice. But for a musician who just started her career, playing bad notes in her first big show can seem devastating.

So it goes with public speaking. The majority of people who end up speaking publicly don’t do it very often, and so experiencing a small amount of whatever they gauge as failure can cripple them.

Buck that trend. Instead of being the typical newbie, act like you’ve done it lots of times before — and act like you’ll do it again and again.