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Embrace Stress

Don’t Try to Relax and Be Comfortable when Giving a Presentation. Embrace Stress.

One of the most common complaints I hear from students is that they just want to “relax and feel more comfortable” when giving a presentation – as if they should feel perfectly at home giving a high-stakes talk to a room full of people. Public speaking anxiety is one of the most common fears in the professional world. So, it is no wonder people want to find ways to trick their brains into being less stressed. But advice on how to feel more at ease is usually misguided. 

The truth is that performance – not comfort – should be your goal. 

There is no shortage of advice on how to trick yourself into becoming more comfortable when delivering a presentation. The old classic “picture your audience naked” has been thoroughly and thankfully debunked. “Start with a joke” is a piece of advice that still gets wide circulation. One piece of advice I heard recently is to chew gum immediately prior to the presentation because it somehow sends a message to the brain that you’re in a casual situation. Maybe that actually works. I don’t know. I haven’t tried it personally, nor have I tried those others. 

When we shift our goal from comfort to performance, we shift our attention away from our own needs to our audience’s needs. That’s what professional communication is all about. Our anxiety doesn’t disappear; it gets harnessed. Think about world-class athletes or Broadway performers. Their goal is not to feel at home. Their goal is to channel their energy into achievement. 

Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist who used to urge her clients to avoid stress, but her research as well as other recent research has revealed that stressing about stress is the most dangerous stress of all. 

When we decide to embrace stress with a goal in mind, the stress has zero negative impacts on our health. In fact, we should be embracing stress for the many benefits it provides. Here are four research-backed benefits of stress that apply to public speaking: 

  1. Stress improves performance

Researchers have found that increases in stress boost the production of neurons that create optimal levels of alertness and more focus in both cognitive and behavioral performance. During a presentation, wouldn’t you rather have increased focus than increased comfort? 

  1. Stress makes you more social.

A 2012 study showed that increased levels of stress can lead to more pro-social behaviors that are related to trust. One of the key mistakes amature presenters make is to forget that they are in a social situation. A presentation of any kind is above all an effort to connect with an audience. But of course, when people try to avoid stress, what do they do? They disconnect from the audience. Their eye contact wanders. Their facial expressions go blank. Their voices get quiet. Their body language becomes stolid. In short, efforts to avoid stress almost always create distance between the speaker and the audience. In other words: bad performance.  

  1. Stress improves learning and recall. 

One 2007 study revealed that “acute stress” created better results in healthy men who were tested for memory and spatial reasoning. The subjects showed “significantly” better performance when it came to matters of quick thinking. Presentations should almost never be memorized, let alone read from a manuscript. This is because speakers come across as more engaging when they speak extemporaneously. They must still be well prepared and organized, but they come across as natural and conversational. Quick thinking in these situations is key.

  1. Stress sharpens your instincts. 

A study at the University of Maine found that students performed much better when making critical decisions after they had been put through a series of high-stress exercises. In other words, when forced to make a decision based on their “gut” feeling, they tended to perform better after the spike in cortisol. The same can be said of public speakers, especially when they find themselves in the dreaded Q&A portion of a presentation. They do not have the luxury to sit and think about a question for hours or days on end. They have to come up with an answer now. I would never advise someone in this situation to BS their way through an answer. Fortunately, the added stress of the situation might be just enough to trigger a smart and informed response.  

In the many years that I have been teaching public speaking and presentation skills, I have learned that the students who are the most comfortable are often the ones who end up the most disappointed. They are more likely to go over their time limit, be less organized, do less research, and end up with a less than stellar evaluation. What about the students who come to me early in the semester to tell me they’re freaked out and want to drop the class out of fear of public speaking? They routinely end up with high marks. Their stress draws them into a state of sustained focus and energy. As a result, they tend to perform better. 

There are good reasons to reduce stress in some cases, but be careful. 

The truth is, there are ways to decrease levels of stress prior to and during a presentation. The best methods are the old-fashioned ones: prepare well and practice a lot. There is no better advice on controlling presentation anxiety. More recent research is showing that there are other ways to decrease disabling levels of anxiety, such as visualization, breathing, and eye contact. I will discuss these and other tactics in future blogs, and they are certainly covered in my courses. 
So, I am not suggesting it is bad to want to manage problematic levels of stress. My point is that doing so should not be one of your highest priorities. And if you are going to try to decrease your stress levels, you should do so with caution. In the end, if you lose too much stress, you are likely to lose your audience along with it.

Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.

His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.

Ben’s areas of expertise are Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Argumentation, Sales Training, and Professional Writing.

In his free time, he spends time with his wife, Rebecca, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.

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