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Here's a trick that works brilliantly if you suffer from strong symptoms of nervousness. Yes, 'trick' because you're going to deceive your own brain and body into associating public speaking with pleasure. All it takes is a few minutes of quiet practice before you go in front of your audience.

First, I need to explain why the trick works. Your subconscious has no concept of reality, truth or untruth. It just goes on obeying your orders and shaping your life. In fact you're giving it orders all the time, usually without knowing it. (There's a whole life-transforming significance to this, but for now we'll stick to public speaking.)

Follow me through Kiri's story (I've changed her name.) Her success was spectacular.

At the age of nine, Kiri made a mistake in her words when she was talking in front of the school assembly. The sight of pointing fingers and the sound of mocking laughter sank in deeply as searing humiliation. When I met her, she was an adult, recently promoted to senior management, and desperately trying to overcome extreme symptoms of fear of public speaking. When she was not performing, she could speak to the rest of the training group without too much of a problem. But the moment it was her turn to come out the front, her body would start to shake, her mouth would dry up, her hands would go clammy and various other symptoms would torture her body. She was also furious with herself that she couldn't control those symptoms—a self-flogging judgement that only exaggerated her problems.

I asked her to do some homework that night that would provide her with a special physical movement—a trigger—that would stop her body and feelings going into the too-familiar downward spiral. As you read through the first three steps, notice that there is no mention of presenting or public speaking.

The technique: the first three steps

  1. Think of something in your past which has given you immense pleasure. If it's the single greatest pleasure you've ever had, so much the better. Feelings of love, exhilaration, triumph, compassion and pride are all excellent tools for programming your subconscious. Luxuriate in that pleasure again. Feel the effects on your body.

  2. Decide on a simple physical movement to use as a programming trigger. It should be inconspicuous, such as touching the knuckle of your index finger, or pressing forefinger into thumb.

  3. Spend significant time, as vividly and emotionally as possible, alternating between imagining 1. and doing 2.

Suppose, for example, that your pleasure source is the way you felt when you crossed the finish line and won the swimming contest. Imagine. You stand up, gasping for air, water clears from your goggles, and you realize that you've done it. You've won. Everyone is looking at you and cheering and applauding. You feel exhilaration and triumph. Touch forefinger to thumb. You've won! Exhilaration! Triumph! Touch forefinger to thumb. Yes! What exhilaration! Your whole body is feeling it again. Touch forefinger to thumb. And so on. It's not the imagining itself, but the feeling that makes this work. The more passionate and carried away you are, the better. Lose yourself in it. Associate that tiny physical movement again and again and again with pleasure. Touch forefinger to thumb – feels good.

That night, Kiri carried out those first three steps. When she woke in the morning, she repeated step three, and she continued it before and after breakfast and in the car on the way to the training.

The technique: the last step

    4.   As you step out in front of the audience, press your programming trigger. Press it again just as you begin to speak.

As Kiri rose from her seat and came forward she pressed thumb to forefinger; and again as she opened her mouth to speak. And something wonderful happened—most of her symptoms of fear melted away. Then, when she realized the significance of what she had achieved, even those last echoes of fear vanished. The other trainees were open-mouthed and gave her huge applause when she finished.

By the end of that day, Kiri was thoroughly enjoying herself. It was obvious to everyone that she had become the most confident speaker in the room. When she left, she was walking on air.

What could those four steps do for you?

Michael

About Michael Brown

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Michael is a senior trainer with Skillset, based in Christchurch.

He is a leading authority on training in presentation and news media skills in New Zealand. He has special expertise in how to present emotionally charged topics to challenging audiences. Michael has trained thousands of New Zealanders and worked with people who speak on behalf of some of the country's largest organisations.

Michael is a prolific author and his books on speaking and working with the media are in their fourth editions.

Speaking Easy: how to speak to your audiences with confidence and authority

Media Easy: how to handle the news media with confidence and authority

One of Michael's books is about his family's adventures sailing in the Pacific.

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