The Public Speaking Mind-Body Connection

This is the second post in a five-part series that will help you manage and reduce your fear of public speaking.

If you’re feeling joyous, there’s a good chance you’re smiling. If you’re feeling sad, you might be wearing a slight frown with downcast eyes and maybe even a few tears.

None of that is surprising. But what if the opposite was true? What if we were not feeling happy but forced ourselves to smile anyway? Could that facial adjustment—whether genuine or not—help transform our mood and “trick” our brains into thinking we’re happier than we really are?

Psychologist Paul Ekman, who studied the intersection of facial expression and emotion for more than 50 years, found that in many cases, the answer to that question is yes. (His work was so significant that it earned him a spot on TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list in 2009.)

As Ekman described in his book Emotions Revealed, he and a partner had a “crazy idea that simply making an expression would produce changes in people’s autonomic nervous systems.” They conducted four experiments over the next decade and found that “when people followed our instructions about which muscles to move, their physiology changed and most reported feeling the emotion.”

How To Reduce Public Speaking Fear Part Two
Researchers have found that other physical changes can have similar emotional benefits. One interesting example involved a professor of psychology at Ontario’s Queen’s University, clinical psychologists from Germany’s University of Hildesheim, and a treadmill.

The researchers, who wanted to learn more about the relationship between posture and mood, started by sharing 40 positive and negative words with their study’s participants—words like pretty and afraid and anxious—and asked them which words described them best. Then, they asked participants to walk on a treadmill, where their walking posture was manipulated to become either more upright (happy) or slumped over (sad). Here’s the fascinating part: when asked to recall the original list of words, the participants who walked in a happier style remembered more positive words; the ones who walked in a more shrunken position remembered more negative ones. “It’s not surprising that the way you feel affects the way you walk,” senior researcher Nikolaus Troje told The Queen’s Journal. “But we were asking whether the way you walk and the way you keep your body can affect the way you feel.” The answer, it appears, is yes.

If we’re feeling stressed and anxious about a presentation, our body language will likely reflect our thoughts. We won’t smile. Our posture may slump. Our bodies might close in and take up less space as we “shrink” ourselves.

But those two studies demonstrate that we can use physical changes to help spark a more positive emotional state. Smiling and standing erect are two good ways to create that transformation, but studies have shown that there are many others, including maintaining a wider stance, using open gestures, and nodding. You don’t have to wait until you’re in front of the room to begin making those physical changes (if you do, you might find doing so feels overly forced and unnatural). Instead, begin making those changes before your speech, from the very moment you wake up on the day of your talk.

To be clear, a speaker in the grips of overwhelming anxiety isn’t going to suddenly become the world’s most comfortable speaker simply by smiling and nodding their head. But even if they experience only a small benefit by consciously modifying their default facial expression and physical stance, they’re useful techniques that can, paired with everything else in this blog series, make a meaningful difference.

Asian woman wake up in the morning, sitting on white bed and stretching, feeling happy and fresh
It might have crossed your mind that in an ideal world, you would approach a presentation from the opposite perspective: that you would genuinely feel more confident, allowing your body language to automatically reflect your self-assuredness. Over time, that might be exactly what ends up happening. The psychological theory called “acting as if” posits that every time you act like a more confident speaker, you take a step toward becoming a more confident speaker. In The Handbook of Constructive Therapies: Innovative Approaches From Leading Practitioners, psychologists Jon Carlson and Len Sperry write, “When someone has difficulty acting prosocially, that is, speaking assertively or responding with some measure of empathy, the clinician might encourage [him or her] to act ‘as if’ they were assertive or empathic several times a day until the next session. The rationale for this reconstruction strategy is that as someone begins to act differently and to feel differently, they become a different person.”

With practice and experience (and, hopefully, speaking success), you will still be you—but the you that experiences less anxiety during presentations or, at the very least, has learned to manage it more effectively.

The next post will go deeper by offering two important perspective shifts and techniques to help you create the right public speaking mindset.

Our Fear of Public Speaking Series

Part One: An Introduction to Public Speaking Fear

Part Two: The Public Speaking Mind-Body Connection (This Post)

Part Three: Two Techniques to Reduce Speaking Fear

Part Four: Four More Techniques to Reduce Speaking Fear

Part Five: Physical Exercises That Reduce Speaking Fear