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Afraid of Public Speaking? Nine Tips for Hacking Your Own Brain

[Public Speaking Part 1 of 1]

In the United States, sociologists conducted a poll of American phobias, and the top three are very revealing: while 31% of Americans are afraid of spiders, and 68% are afraid of death (which seems quite reasonable), 74% of Americans have a profound terror of public speaking. Americans are more afraid of public speaking than death.

The good news is that, the more that we understand the human brain, the more that we understand how it works, and the better we understand how to make it work for us. For our purposes, what you mostly need to know about the human brain is that it exists in three layers. The top layer, the neo cortex is the seat of language and higher reasoning, the middle layer or limbic brain is responsible for emotions and long-term memory, and the bottom layer or hind brain is responsible for survival mechanisms and all of the unconscious processes that keep you alive (breathing, blood circulation, digestion, etc.)

human brain in three major layers

And when we think of public speaking, we would think of that as occurring primarily in the neo cortex (seat of language, right?), but the truth is that the brain has specializations, but it still works as a whole. In other words, you can never turn off the hind brain or the limbic brain (which is good, because you’d probably also stop doing useful things like breathing and digesting). But when you’re preparing a speech, when was the last time that you thought of preparation in terms of more than content?

confused animated person public speaking

Two more things to remember. First, the hind brain is the fastest part of your brain. This actually makes sense, because it’s responsible for your survival reactions—so, if someone yells “Shark!” your hindbrain has you moving defensively, long before your neo cortex says, “Hang on a minute, why would there be a shark in my living room?” And have you ever instantly disliked someone just because they had a sneering, arrogant voice? That’s right, your limbic brain creates emotional reactions faster than your neo cortex produces rational reactions.

super power public speaking 

So, if stress reactions (like a fear of public speaking) occur in all three parts of the brain, then trying to psych yourself up by telling yourself “My content is really good. The data is very compelling” won’t actually work, because that thought only appeals to the rational part of your neo cortex. It doesn’t do anything for the hind brain or the limbic brain, and they’re both a lot faster than your neo cortex.

shark fear public speaking


The second thing to remember (and this is good news), is that although we’ve always known that the state of your brain chemistry affects your body posture (sad people droop, confident people strut), we’ve only recently begun to prove that changing your body posture can change your brain chemistry. But now we know that if you hold a pen lengthwise between your teeth (forcing your mouth into the shape of a smile), you’ll push your brain to drop your cortisol (stress hormone) levels and boost your serotonin and dopamine (happy hormone) levels. (You’ll also find things funnier.) And if you deliberately adopt a confident body posture, over time, you’ll likewise reduce your cortisol levels, while boosting your testosterone levels.

The gist is that even when you can’t reason with your hind brain or limbic brain, you can encourage those parts of your brain to relax by using your neo cortex to change your emotional focus and your body posture; and if you do that, you can hack your own brain chemistry.

So, here are nine quick tips for boosting your confidence before you step up to the podium…

Prepare Your Rational Brain

  1. Practice by Yourself: You’ll find it easier to identify and correct potential trouble spots in your presentation, when you go over the material several times. More importantly, you’ll build muscle memories and verbal patterns that can carry you through, even if nervousness starts to freeze up your brain.
  2. Practice for a Friendly Audience: Groups like Toastmasters are great for this, because the audience is entirely friendly, and they’ll give you feedback that’s both useful (which is good for your rational brain) and affirming (which is good for the rest of your brain).

people laughing during meeting


Prepare Your Emotional Brain

  1. Don’t Lose Sight of the Endgame: You are presenting for a reason—to educate, to persuade, to inspire—and if you focus on achieving your outcomes rather than presenting perfectly, your brain will ground itself on that more positive emotion. So, don’t tell yourself “I hate public speaking” (which reinforces all the fear centers in your brain); instead, tell yourself “These people are going to be so much better off when I share my ideas” (which boosts the positive centers in your limbic brain). 
  2. Accept the Probability of Mistakes: If you accept the fact that something is probably going to go wrong, it won’t throw you off so badly when something does go wrong. Even if your presentation is perfect, there might be a problem with the microphone or the slideshow. Either ignore the mistake and move on, make a quick joke, or find a way to incorporate the mistake into your concept. The critical thing is to roll with the mistakes instead of getting hung up on them. (In fact, if you look up the top 10 TED Talks, you’ll notice a lot of mistakes. But the speakers just keep rolling, and millions of people still find them very compelling.)

compelling public speaking animated character walking off cliff


  1. Dress Well: When you wear clothes that make you feel completely comfortable and confident, it will impact the way that you carry yourself. The right fashion will make you stand taller and with a more open posture, because guys who feel comfortable in their own bodies feel more comfortable in every context, and the right menswear will give your brain chemistry a critical boost. 
  2. Focus on the Bits that You Enjoy: If you don’t really like talking in front of people, but you’re really confident about your idea/data/research, try to focus your energy on your pride in the work that you’ve already accomplished, not the fact that you’re speaking. If you can focus on your excitement, it will shift your emphasis, loosen up your vocal cords and straighten out your body posture.

Prepare Your Hind Brain

  1. Stretch and Breathe: For a few minutes before you speak, tighten and relax your muscles, and be present in your body. When you take a single deep breath and feel the air moving in and out of your lungs, it short-circuits panic reactions and instantly relaxes your brain. Bonus—because your lungs occupy most of your torso, when they’re totally full of air, your shoulders automatically pull back into a more confident posture.
  2. Think About a Positive Experience: In the last minute before you speak, take a moment to sink into a memory of a time when you were incredibly successful: you got the promotion, you finished the degree, you sprinted past the finish line. When you really concentrate on a positive memory, you’ll feel your posture shift and your mouth start to smile. By tapping into that memory of victory, you’ve primed your brain chemistry for a confident and successful presentation.

free your public speaking skills

  1. Stand Tall: While you’re walking to the front of the room, focus on your body. Is your head up? Your shoulders back? Your mouth smiling? Even if it feels fake, do it anyway. The more you adopt the posture of confidence, the more you’ll convince your own brain that you are, in fact, confident.

politician public speaking

Changing the world starts with changing your brain chemistry.

So, go for it. We have confidence in you.

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