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Thinking fast ain’t easy, especially in high-pressure situations, and then, speaking smart when you are being asked to express what you are thinking, can be even more challenging! Encountering one of these situations is unavoidable though-most of the things that you would really want in life require getting through a high-pressure situation. Not sure what I mean? Look around you: class discussions and presentations, dinner with neighbors or relatives, even birthday parties or other social situations with friends! Though these situations may look a bit different during the current pandemic, the basic fact remains – it is still very important to be able to respond well under pressure.
Why is thinking quickly so hard for most of us? When we get really stressed, even the words we do manage to think of usually aren’t the smartest ones. A big reason for this is the anxiety we feel. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some level of public speaking anxiety, also called glossophobia, affects about 73% of the population. (Note: depending on who you ask, this number may vary a bit.) Frankly, many experts think that the other 27% are not being completely honest. Here are 5 easy steps to help you manage speech anxiety and think fast and speak smart.
- Change your mindset. To manage your anxiety, one of the most important things to do is to change how you think about impromptu speaking. Considering all the physical effects of speech anxiety, (sweaty hands, shaking feet, red faces, etc. ) this may sound a little strange, but it’s very true. If a speaker can manage to keep their perspective of the situation under control, then a lot of the other reasons for any anxiety will also be taken care of. Instead of thinking of your speech as a ”performance”, think of it as a “conversation”. Try as much as possible to imagine that you are just speaking to a friend!
- Avoid verbal fillers. Even if you are having trouble thinking fast, you can try to clear up your speech so that it sounds more clear to the audience. One side effect of speech anxiety is not speaking clearly, which often results in the use of verbal fillers, also known as words like “ah”, “um,” “uh,” “like,” and “you know.” When used as verbal fillers, these words serve no purpose to your message- all they do is fill up the space between your thoughts. And worst of all, the verbal fillers make a challenging situation even harder as you grapple for words. Instead of using verbal fillers, try using pauses instead. Even though pauses that are too long can hurt the impact of your message, they do not hurt it as badly as stammering on and on for that time.
- Exercise. Stretch! Walk! Run! Dance! A great way to get your anxiety to dissipate is to spend all of that nervous energy. If you are feeling jittery before a class discussion or a presentation, and if it’s possible to, try doing some simple exercise in private before your speech. Just make sure not to overdo it- after all, you don’t want to give your speech looking like a sweaty mess!
- Practice. Even if you don’t know when one of these impromptu speaking situations will come up, there are ways to exercise your impromptu thinking. One approach is that you could ask each other impromptu questions around a range of easy topics which could be a fun activity with your family around a dinner table or when you are hanging out with friends, even virtually. A somewhat more formal approach is to take the FAS test. This test is mostly used for testing people for conditions like ADHD, but it can be useful for anyone. To conduct the test, get a timer for one minute ready. Have someone assign you a category that you do not know in advance, like “Words that start with B”, and say as many different words that you can think of that fit that category in a minute. You can either have someone keep count of how many you say, or you can record it and look back and count how many you got. Repeat 3 times and get your average. If you scored in the 18-20 range, you’re good to go! If you scored below that, you may just be having trouble because it’s your first time doing it. If you score like this consistently, you may want to look into the issue, because some people have conditions that make this test more difficult. However, keep in mind that there is no scientifically proven standard to this test. You can also play this by yourself by looking up topics and setting the timer as soon as you see one, recording yourself performing the test, and looking back on it that way. Here’s a video to help you learn about this experiment and how to use it. (I have set it to the time that she starts talking about the test, but feel free to rewind it and watch the whole video.) https://youtu.be/slivVd9hQlU?t=143
- Breathe. This may sound simple or lame, but it really works! It’s scientifically proven that if you take deep breaths when you are feeling nervous, the oxygen sent to your brain in doing so energizes the parasympathetic nervous system, giving you a sense of calmness. Close your eyes (if possible, otherwise just focus on your breath) and just…breathe. Don’t count the inhales and exhales if that distracts you. Don’t start thinking about the next breath. Just focus on each one you take. Focus on making each one as slow as possible. You’re ready for this!
Bonus: A Useful Resource: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAnw168huqA
This is a video that I found very helpful, and I think you will, too! It is a speech by Matt Abrahams, a teacher at Stanford Graduate School of Business. It was given at Stanford Graduate School of Business to alumni during a reunion event. It’s about an hour long, but if you can set aside an hour one day, or just a few minutes each day for a few days, take some time and watch it. In this video, Abrahams details easy tips, examples, and activities to develop your impromptu speaking skills.
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