Enhance speaking performance by using self-talk as a Public Speaking Anxiety management tool.

M ark Twain summed it up well when he said “[t]here are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars”. Nervousness is a common response to public speaking and part of what is termed as Public Speaking Anxiety (PSA). Whether you are actually nervous or are lying to yourself about being nervous, you have probably engaged in self-talk – “a silent or vocalized dialog with one’s own self” – about an upcoming public talk. Here I build on the PSA strategy toolbox I introduced in previous posts, to discuss the types of self-talk, their effect on anxiety, and the benefits of you engaging in positive self-talk for more confident public speaking.

Self-talk is key to a person’s self-regulation process. This process helps you understand and control your behaviour, focus, and confidence. Self-talk content can be both positive and negative. If you already experience high levels of PSA, you are more likely to be affected by exaggerated cognitions such as “I know I will fail because I haven’t prepared enough” or “they will find out I’m incompetent and an imposter”. Therefore, understanding self-talk is important because of its effects on your PSA levels and this, in turn, can affect your audience’s assessment of your speaking performance.

In a 2015 study, four types of self-talk were identified. The study focused on the experience and management of PSA in participants giving persuasive or commemorative speeches in a public-speaking course. They are as follows:

  • Self-criticism – talking to oneself when feeling discouraged about one’s own actions
  • Self-reinforcement – talking to oneself when feeling good or proud
  • Self-management – talking to oneself when considering what to do or say
  • Social-assessment – talking to oneself when replaying what you’ve said to someone, or analysing the other person’s response to what you’ve said

It’s been shown that in the few days before a participant’s talk, self-criticism and social-assessment self-talk lead to increased PSA. Self-management, which is expected to lead to a decrease in anxiety, have neither a positive nor negative effect on PSA. However, when participants engage in self-reinforcement – by talking to themselves with thoughts such as “I feel good about preparing for this speech” – their anxiety significantly decreases.

The benefits of self-talk have also been identified in sports psychology where it’s been shown that instructional and motivational self-talk improves learning and concentration in athletes. In this 2011 study, two particular factors were found to play a significant role in determining the effectiveness of self-talk on performance; the type and content of the self-talk, and the consistent practice of self-talk during training. By applying these self-talk principles you could better manage your own public speaking performances.

The type and content of your self-talk should relate to the task at hand and fit your needs, for example “connect with your audience by making eye contact” or “speak clearly and pause between slides”. You may develop the content yourself or receive help from a professional (e.g. speaking coach, psychologist), and choose to say it out loud or internally. However, for more effective results try framing your phrases or words positively when self-managing, for example, “you can do it” rather than “don’t screw it up”, i.e. use positive self-reinforcement rather than self-criticism.

Once you’ve identified your content it’s important to consistently put it into practice. Consistency in practicing positive self-talk is key to “maximise possible gains”, which will be beneficial for your next public speaking event. Practice different words or phrases until you find something that works for youand your particular situation. You may even have different phrases for different times related to the event, e.g. one phrase on the morning of your talk, another for the 10 minutes before your talk, and even an (internal) reassurance during your talk. As with all PSA toolbox methods, you need to find what works best for you.

To enhance your own speaking performance start by being aware of the types of self-talk and try to avoid self-criticism and social assessment. It is also important to identify appropriate self-talk content and use it consistently in rehearsal. By engaging in and practicing positive self-reinforcement on the day of your public speaking event, you can not only decrease anxiety but, most importantly, give bold, focussed and confident talks that are positively assessed and received by your audience. As sports psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis says “the mind guides action. If we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this will help our behavior”.