Public speaking anxiety shuts down the brain

The root of public speaking anxiety revealed

Scientists have just discovered that when someone is watching you perform, or even when you think you are being watched, an important part of your brain switches off. It’s called the inferior parietal cortex (IPC), and it’s situated in the outer part of the brain near the top and back of your head. There are two IPCs – one on each side of the brain – and they control the fine, precise movements of your lips and tongue, among other areas.

If public speaking anxiety has ever caused you to feel tongue tied, this may well be because your IPC was not functioning at full capacity.

But your IPC doesn’t work alone. Another part of your brain reads people’s emotions through their facial expressions. It then tells your IPC what is going on, and the IPC initiates specific little movements to suit the situation. When your emotion-reading centre recognises that your audience is happy and wants you to do well, your IPC will be happy and will allow you to perform well.

But researchers at Sussex University have established that when the brain picks up negative cues, the IPC becomes deactivated, and this can disrupt your performance with dramatic effect: musicians can hit the wrong notes, dancers can stumble and trip, and public speakers can struggle to get their words out.

Reducing public speaking anxiety

An IPC meltdown is awful at any time. It is particularly unhelpful if you’re pitching for business or delivering the keynote speech at a conference. However, if public speaking anxiety is the bane of your life, and if reading about the IPC is only making you feel worse, fear not.

Remember, the IPC only responds to what it is told by the emotion-reading part of the brain. As this emotion-reading area has the unenviable moniker of ‘posterior superior temporal sulcus’, I’ll call it pSTS for short. If you can persuade your pSTS that all is well, then your IPC will stay happy, and won’t try to derail you.

The lead scientist involved in the latest research, Dr Michiko Yoshie, has advice for everyone with performance anxiety. “When being scrutinised, we tend to care about how the audience is feeling about us and our performance”, she says. “It’s important to believe that the audience is supporting you and wishing for your successful performance. To strengthen such belief, you should sometimes have opportunities to perform in front of your supporters.

Dr Yoshie suggests that before every public performance you have a practice run in front of people whom you know are going to applaud you. “Such experience would help to induce a desirable activation pattern in your brain and boost self-confidence,” she concludes.

Removing public speaking anxiety

Practice is certainly vital, and so is changing your mindset – as I have found through helping many terrified public speakers to develop confidence and authority. Thanks to Dr Yoshie’s new research, I now realise that what I am doing neurologically speaking is training people’s pSTS to send positive messages to their IPC. And of course once your pSTS recognises that the audience is not going to throw rotten tomatoes at you, standing up to speak can become great fun. Yes, really!

But neuroscience aside, developing a positive mindset is just one element of removing public speaking anxiety. Fundamentally you also need to know what you are doing. Without the requisite skills, you are likely to come unstuck, whether your audience is supportive or hostile. And that’s where having the right coach comes in.

Becoming a great public speaker

There are lots of people with significant public speaking anxiety – the rich and famous among them. Glossophobia (public speaking phobia) can affect anyone. If you suffer from public speaking anxiety, fear or just a general sense of discomfort, then as well as working on the psychological elements of developing a positive mindset, you also need to acquire the skills to become a great speaker. (Don’t shake your head – it’s perfectly possible.)

Sometimes this means honing and owning your material in a way you haven’t yet considered. Most of my very senior clients initially tell me they don’t have an issue with what they are saying – they just want to improve their performance. But after our initial session they all tend to revamp their material significantly. I’m a journalist at heart, and I help people turn their talks into stories that other people want to hear. It makes a massive difference. And it makes you feel so much better when you know you’re telling a tale that will go down well, even if your message is not entirely positive.

Then there’s the physiological side of things. If you can create and maintain a sense of calm, and switch off that dratted adrenaline, your pSTS is much less likely to read audience emotions in a negative way. And that means it is less likely to tell your IPC to disrupt your performance.

“Switch off the adrenaline?” I hear you say. Absolutely. I can teach you how. If you’d like to know more, check out my Presentation Saviour Intensive coaching program and drop me a line or give me a call. Your public speaking anxiety could become a thing of the past more quickly than you imagine.