Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash

Blame Your Fear of Public Speaking on Your Amygdala

Then Cure it With Kaizen

Why is it when we try to achieve something that’s really important to us we go into a state of panic and overwhelm and our brain seems to just shut down? It’s as if our ability to think has abandoned us just when we needed it most.

Some of us have experienced this when we pulled an all-nighter studying for that big test. No matter how hard we studied, on the day of the test our brain seemed to freeze up and we couldn’t remember a thing.

Why is it when we’re faced with having to give a speech we go into that same state of overwhelm?

You can blame it on your amygdala! The amygdala is a part of your brain that developed almost 500 million years ago. It is your internal fight-or-flight mechanism. It protects you from harm.

When you are faced with a life or death situation your amygdala goes into action and does what it is supposed to do — it shuts down all of your brain functions not necessary for your immediate survival. Rational thinking, creative thinking, appetite, digestion and sexual desire all get shut down so your brain can direct all of its energies toward your survival. Your amygdala prepares you to do one of two things — fight or run.

The problem, however, is your amygdala views any new, unfamiliar or frightening situation as life or death and a threat to your survival. It doesn’t have to be something as dire as being robbed at gunpoint or coming face to face with a wild animal. A gun, a wild animal or a speech — to the amygdala they’re all the same. It sees them all as a threat and reacts as such. The result is that the rational and creative thinking you need to write and deliver a speech gets shut down.

Before you get discouraged and feel you are doomed to failure, take comfort in two pieces of information. Fist, there is nothing wrong with you. Your fear is simply a manifestation of the physical, biological and chemical properties of your amygdala. Second, there is a technique to quietly tiptoe past the amygdala so that it never awakens when you are faced with fear or overwhelm. It is a technique known as Kaizen.

Kaizen is a centuries-old Chinese technique used by psychologists as well as by leaders in business and industry. Kaizen is simply the art of taking small steps — steps so small they may seem ridiculous and meaningless to achieve large goals. As many of history’s great visionaries have said, “You don’t need to see the whole staircase. Just the first step.”

“You don’t need to see the whole staircase. Just the first step.”

The art of Kaizen is beautifully explained in Robert Mauer’s book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life The Kaizen Way.

Mauer demonstrates how Kaizen works by telling the story of Julie, a divorced mother of two under pressure at her job, overweight, in poor health and who was flirting ultimately with diabetes, heart disease or worse.

Mauer watched Julie’s heart sink when her physician gave her the worn out advice about going on a diet and exercising which put Julie in a state of overwhelm. Between the kids, the job and other pressures, diet and exercise were out of the question even though she knew such a lifestyle change could save her sanity and her life. Just when she needed rational thinking, motivation and drive, her amygdala shut it all down.

The physician was a bit peeved when Dr. Mauer asked Julie, “How about if you marched in place in from of the television for one minute each day?” Julie’s demeanor brightened. She could do that!

Did marching in place for one minute each day turn Julie into a picture of health? Of course not. What was important is that Julie had a breakthrough. If she could do one minute a day, what else was possible? Soon Julie was marching for an entire commercial break during the television show. She then pushed herself to march for the entire show. Julie is now involved in aerobics and is well on her way to conquering her health issues.

Julie tiptoed past her amygdala. By starting her exercise regimen with just one minute per day there was no overwhelm. Her amygdala was never alerted. Then she added a little more time to her routine and then a little more. During this whole time, her amygdala remained asleep.

So how can we apply Kaizen to that speech you have to write and deliver? Let’s get that speech written right now without your amygdala ever knowing you did it!

Let’s Write That Speech Kaizen Style!

Grab a legal pad and a pen and set them on your desk, the countertop or perhaps the kitchen table. That’s all! Don’t do anything else. You’re finished. Let the pad and pen sit there for an hour, a day or even a week. No overwhelm here and the amygdala doesn’t notice a thing. But guess what? You’ve started!

What is the topic of your speech? Can you think of one or two ideas for a title?Write them down on the pad. Done! Don’t do anything else. See ya tomorrow. The amygdala remains clueless.

Are there a few main points you want to include in your speech? Write them down. Stop. Now go mow the lawn, do the dishes or clean the house. Your amygdala has no idea what you’re up to.

Could you write a line or two or maybe even a paragraph about one of the points you want to make? Maybe you could get really ambitious and tackle two points. Call it a day. Shhh. Your amygdala is still sleeping.

When you come back, take a look at the rest of your points and do a few lines or a paragraph about them. Now it’s time for your favorite television show.

Imagine you are about to give your speech. What are the first two or three things you’d like to say to your audience? Perhaps a welcome, a brief look at your background or expertise and a line or two indicating what your topic is going to be?

How will you end your speech? With a story? An example? A reinforcement of the points you made? A call to action? Don’t call too loudly because you’ll wake up you-know-who!

Through the simplicity and magic of Kaizen, look what you’ve done one ridiculously small step at a time. “Hmmmm”, you say, “I’ve got a pad filled with stuff. I have a title, even two to choose from. I have four main points. I have a paragraph about each one which I can easily expand upon. I have an opening to my speech. I have a close. My goodness, I have a speech!

Remember, as you complete each small step your confidence will grow as you realize you are reaching your goal. And through it all, no overwhelm. Your amygdala never knew what happened!

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Tom Zalaski

Tom Zalaski

Tom Zalaski is a television news anchorman, speaker, emcee, author, grandpa, guitar player and #1 fan of Leslie West and Mountain.