Back in July, I flew out to Washington DC for the 2015 National Speakers Association Convention, a four day event filled with educational lectures, presentations, and breakout sessions. One series of presentations was called the XY Fast Five, which featured five speakers delivering five-minute speeches.
The first speaker took the stage. The timer started and he launched into his best impression of an over-caffeinated auctioneer. Two minutes passed and so far so good. He’d covered a lot of ground. But then he suddenly stopped. He repeated the words he had just said, and then stopped again. The tension in the room escalated.
When something seems to go wrong in a presentation, the entire audience pays strict attention. In this case, all 2000 professional speakers in the room stared tensely at the speaker. He had forgotten his lines. This is a common problem that comes from word-for-word memorization combined with nervousness.
This catastrophic error threw off the entire pace of the speech and took all the focus off of his message. Although the audience cheered for him encouragingly, he left the stage embarrassed and undoubtedly had a few extra shots of Everclear that night.
If public speaking weren’t hard enough, try going blank in front of thousands of viewers. It’s a fear many performers face when taking the stage.
It’s also a fear that’s behind awkward conversations.
How many times have you been feigning interest in what someone is saying but secretly you’re racking your brain for something interesting, funny, or even relevant to say next?
This self-conscious behavior is a main topic in the book Psycho-cybernetics, by Dr. Maxwell Maltz.
According to Dr. Maltz, being too careful and anxious about making a mistake results in “inhibition and deterioration of performance.” When we make too much of a conscious effort to do something right, this produces anxiety which ironically makes us perform more poorly.
In public speaking, when you memorize a speech word for word, you have to remember each word as you practiced it, adding unneeded psychological pressure.
This is the same in conversations. When we focus too hard on what to say, we put more pressure on ourselves and fuel our own social anxiety. Not to mention half of our attention is on saying something that pleases the other person and so we can’t listen and focus properly.
But in reality, if you listen to the best communicators – salesmen, radio hosts, interviewers, and so on – their dialog is littered with grammatical errors, incomplete sentences, superfluous statements, logical errors, as well as trite, boring, or even offensive statements – basically all the deadly sins socially anxious people are afraid to commit. And yet they get away with it. They are able to talk confidently and comfortably with other people.
The difference is that the best communicators relax and let it flow. They’re not overly analytical or worried about making a mistake. They’re not constantly guessing what the other person is thinking of them. Most of all, they’re not concerned with producing an effect.
The way to make a good impression on other people is: never consciously try to make a good impression on them. Never act, or fail to act, purely for consciously contrived effect. Never wonder consciously what the other person is thinking of you or how he is judging you, (Maltz, pg. 162).
It’s easy to know and understand this fact but it’s more difficult to implement. Here are a few ways you can work on getting over your social anxiety:
Practice disinhibition. Be less careful, less concerned, and less conscientious about what you say and how others will judge you. The gut reaction is to think that I’m saying to be as loud-mouthed and offensive as Donald Trump, but in truth, you have too much inhibition, and that is equally as destructive as having too little.
As Maltz explains, to argue in favor of your social inhibitions is “like a patient running a temperature of 108 degrees who says, ‘But surely body heat is necessary for health.'” Just as too much body heat will kill you, too much inhibition will strangle your social skills. The cure is to take a large step in the opposite direction and to practice disinhibition. Don’t be afraid to lower your inhibition.
Don’t wonder in advance what you’re going to say. Just like in memorizing a speech word-for-word, the more you plan what you’re going to say, the more pressure this puts on you and the less comfortable you’ll be in a conversation. Devote your entire focus to listening to what the other person is saying.
One thing that may help is to remind yourself in your mind to just relax. Breathe slowly and deeply and slow down your rate of speaking. Ask yourself what it is you find interesting or entertaining about the person or what they said in order to take your focus off of yourself and how you may appear.
For more tips on being confident in conversations, interviews, or presentations, check out my YouTube channel.
Stop criticizing yourself. It’s usually easier said than done. Often, our lack of self-expression is a product of excessive negative feedback from our childhood development. Being told to shut up, not to talk back, not to argue or express our opinions, and not to show off causes us to stop expressing ourselves altogether.
Our self-criticism is a residual effect of these experiences that reminds us to stay bottled up – that we’re meant to be nobody and that it’s wrong to want to be a somebody.
Becoming aware of self-criticism is the first step in overcoming it. Once you notice yourself asking, “Should I have/have not said that?” or thinking “What I said was awkward and out of place,” then you can stop this train of thought and remind yourself that it’s not useful or constructive feedback and that the person probably didn’t even notice anyway.
Lastly, realize that self-consciousness is really a form of self-absorption and self-centeredness. When we are being self-conscious, we are imagining that other people are focusing solely on us; that we are the center of the universe and that everyone is watching us intently. We are acting as if our words and actions are supremely important and command the utmost attention from those around us. In reality, it is quite the opposite, and the person scrutinizing and watching us the most is only ourselves.
“When you are younger, you worry about what people think about you. When you are older, you realize that no one was ever thinking about you at all.” – Brian Tracy
- Relax in conversations – don’t be concerned with producing an effect.
- Practice disinhibition – too much inhibition is just as bad as too little.
- Don’t wonder in advance what you’re going to say. Speak before you think.
- Stop criticizing yourself. Our critiques are generally not constructive, advantageous, or even true.
- Being self-conscious is being self-absorbed.
***To learn more about how to overcome social anxiety and be more confident, check out Psycho-cybernetics, by Dr. Maxwell Maltz.***
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