Jerry Seinfeld once famously said, “If you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.” Although meant as a joke, this quote resonates with a lot of us who say we are “terrified” of communicating in front of others. Our fears are not commensurate with a lack of skills, but rather mediated by how we think about ourselves and our audience. As a psychologist, I help my patients identify and restructure irrational and negatively-skewed beliefs. Or in terms I discuss with my kids, I call it Stinkin’ Thinkin’. When we have stinkin’ thinkin’ about our communications, we can end up feeling extremely nervous.
So how can we stop this stinkin’ thinkin’? First, we have to identify the kinds of thoughts that are getting in our way. Here are some of the “usual suspects”:
Contrary to popular belief, human beings are not able to predict the future. And yet, we do this all the time. And all too often, we predict the future in a negative light. Just because a negative outcome is possible, doesn’t mean it is probable. If you are familiar with your content and have worked on improving how you come across to others behaviorally, chances are things will go better than your negative assumptions.
Another superpower we do not possess is the ability to read minds. We have no idea what people are actually thinking of us. But we say things like, “They think I’m terrible, and they know how nervous I am.” In actuality, they are not hyper-focused on every little thing you are doing and feeling. Just like you can’t read their minds, they also can’t read yours. You might be freaking out—racing heart, sweaty palms, the works—and all people see is the behaviors on the outside. So the next time you make assumptions about how others are judging you, remind yourself that you are your worst critic.
When we think in black-or-white or all-or-nothing terms, we see things as binary. Something is either good or it’s bad. It’s perfect or it’s awful. When we apply this way of thinking to our communication in front of a crowd, we say things like, “If I don’t nail this, it’s a complete bust.” Well, there’s a lot of space between “nailed it” and “bombed it” on the spectrum of how well you perform. Just because something isn’t 100% incredible, it doesn’t mean it was a complete waste of time. Remember that your goal isn’t to be perfect.
The next time you communicate with others—whether it’s a high-stakes keynote or a small group meeting—try focusing that internal voice. Fight back your stinkin’ thinkin’ by using rational thoughts. You’ll feel more confident and might even get excited about making presentations—though hopefully not too many eulogies.