Charles Hua, CEO of Poised
“Anxiety has long been associated with diminished performance within a number of domains involving evaluative interpersonal interactions.” — Article in Frontiers in Psychology
The more confident you feel, the more confident you appear. The more confident you appear, the more confident you feel. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Of course, there’s also the flip side to the way you perceive yourself. If you’re not confident in your communication skills, it can easily be read as insecure, underprepared, or just not leadership material. Fear of public speaking, a shakiness around presentation, discomfort with being the center of attention — these types of speaking anxiety all manifest in negative ways, with ramifications that go far beyond that one moment of communication.
Glossophobia. That’s the clinical name for speaking anxiety, and according to the National Social Anxiety Center, it affects a heck of a lot of people: 73% of the population. Maybe even you.
But speaking anxiety is a condition you can improve. There’s an entire science around managing performance anxiety in general in fields such as sports and musical performance. Much of the research and advice applies equally well to communication performance in general, but there are nuances and specific techniques that work best for speaking anxiety.
Everyone can agree on one thing: anxiety, no matter how you frame it, can inhibit performance. When Simone Biles recently withdrew from competing in the 2022 Tokyo Olympics after experiencing the twisties, a mental block specific to gymnasts where they feel a terrifying disconnect between their body and mind, it made headlines around the world. Biles was praised for her decision by a lot of people, and for good reason: study after study after study shows that athletic performance anxiety can be tied closely to injury.
In areas from theatrical performance to athletic performance to public speaking, conquering performance anxiety has long been a common theme. Solutions and remedies abound, from meditation to visualization to practice, practice, practice.
“In order to perform in the upper range of their capabilities, a musician requires three factors working in tandem: musical competence, optimal physical wellbeing, and optimal psychological wellbeing.” — Study in Psychology of Well-Being
In 2013, music students at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music were invited to take part in a master class in performance psychology techniques to achieve performance success. The program found that music students could indeed be coached toward measurably more confident performance. By using a “centering process” that included a series of exercises for concentration, breathing, and visualization, participants were able to successfully keep performance anxiety under control. The studies’ authors cited “preliminary yet powerful evidence for the benefit of performance psychology skills training in undergraduate music performance education to increase students’ capacity to cope.”
Of course, capacity to cope isn’t really the end goal for most people in their professional lives. Leaders don’t just want to stay calm and make it through a Zoom presentation; their goal is to “command the room,” make an impression, communicate clearly, and ultimately, make an impact with their work.
There’s a whole fake-it-til-you-make-it thing that happens around presentation. When it comes to speaking anxiety specifically, there are effective empirical tools and strategies, and most of them have to do with instilling a sense of confidence. Adopting confident behaviors can help with embodied cognition, which is why working on certain aspects of communication performance can go a long way in improving your confidence, both outwardly and inwardly.
Plenty of experts and coaches will give you tips on how to come across as more confident in your speech: Make eye contact. Start strong. Keep your body language confident. But it can feel like a subjective game. How do you gauge whether your efforts are working? By using tools that enable you to gain feedback on your communication performance and measure improvement, you can make gains over time. For instance, here are three distinct and measurable ways to assess speaking performance and infuse communication behavior with confidence.
Filler words are short, meaningless words used to fill pauses: like, so, um, actually, you know — a clear indication that the speaker is nervous or uninformed. Academics call filler words disfluencies: “breaks, irregularities, or non-lexical vocables which occur within the flow of otherwise fluent speech.” (Wikipedia’s words) They indicate that the speaker is unsuccessfully trying to talk and think at the same time. Filler words don’t always come from nervousness, but they certainly don’t contribute to an impression of confidence. At the very least, they’re distracting.
Tip: Want to come across as more confident and self-assured? Use fewer filler words. As you catch yourself using filler words, practice pausing instead.
Speaking anxiety can manifest as rapid speech. Learning to intentionally slow down and insert conscientious pauses into your presentation can serve as a sort of “paragraph break” in your speaking. Unlike filler words, which ding your overall scores when you use more of them, strategic use of pauses between sentences helps emphasize key points, giving them a chance to sink in and keeping your audience raptly engaged.
Tip: Working from notes or bullet points can help you figure out where to naturally insert pauses as you speak.
Hedging words add ambiguity to your communication. When you qualify your statements with phrases such as “kind of” and “sort of” and “almost” and “around,” people are less convinced that what you are saying is true. Speaking with conviction banishes anxiety from your delivery.
Tip: Rather than hedging your words, it’s sometimes a better solution to simply say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”
These are only three techniques for managing speaking anxiety, but they’re a good place to start. Many of the techniques that help with performance anxiety in general can be applied to speaking anxiety specifically, but in a world where much of our business communication relies upon our ability to project clarity and confidence, improving measurable speech skills is one direct route to lowering speaking anxiety.
There are few leadership careers today that do not require strong communication skills. Particularly with the advent of large-scale remote work and the booming popularity of video conferencing, the ability to show up in a calm, cool, collected way both on screen and off has being paramount for business leaders — and for all professionals, really.
Wondering how you can start measuring your speaking skills? The Poised team is focused on helping you measure and improve your communication with data-backed recommendations for increasing your confidence and clarity when you speak. Join our waitlist below and we'll reach out when you can access your Poised coach.