The most common question I hear from people seeking public speaking advice in and outside of my Toastmasters’ groups is “How do I get rid of the butterflies I feel every time I go to speak?” My answer is the same every time. In the eyes of the other person I see either a look of relief or a look of dread.
So what’s the answer?
First, let me explain the nature of these pesky little creatures.
What you see and what you hear travel to two different places in your brain for processing.
First, the emotional response center of your brain receives the signal. It’s programming is simple: it wants to fight, flee from, feast on or get “friendly” with the subject.
When the subject is an obvious threat (e.g., a hungry lion), this part of the brain takes over and you RUN! When our ancestors learned how to make decent weapons (and train with them), some could override this response and harness the desire to fight. They’d move in to kill what was now an inferior threat.
Second, your big neocortex gets the signal and gets to be all logical. It thinks about the existential nature of the subject. It might even wax poetic and ask “to flee, or not to flee,” if you weren’t already hightailing it to the closest cover.
That’s right, the way your brain is wired, you don’t even get to be all “high minded” until you’ve pooped your pants and you’re running full speed away or pulling your sword out of the chest of whatever you just impaled.
Back to the butterflies…
Those butterflies you feel in your stomach are a sign that your Amygdala (that’s the emotional center of the brain) has gone to work. When perceiving a threat it puts adrenalin in your blood, along with some other hormones that take very quick control of your digestive system.
What’s the threat?
In Toastmasters it’s other people watching you speak.
OMG: strangers and people I know!
At work it’s your co-workers, your boss and people who dare look at you.
Yep, your amygdala isn’t all that smart. It can’t tell the difference between a lion and your co-worker with bad hair. It can’t even tell the difference between an avalanche that’s about to bury you and a work deadline that’s a month away.
Given the right setting, they’re all a threat so the amygdala is just trying to do its job.
It doesn’t matter how logical you want to be.
The neocortex doesn’t have even the slightest amount of control over the amygdala and the amygdala gets to take action on what you see and hear before the neocortex even has a chance to think about it.
This means that you will always have that emotional response.
You will always feel the butterflies.
Getting rid of them isn’t really an option. The only way through this is conditioning.
Look up how Police Horses are trained to see just how effective such conditioning can be.
You need to experience the fake threat repeatedly.
You need to let the butterflies go Mardi Gras on your 25 feet of intestines.
Just let it happen and come out the other side so your amygdala can see that your perceived threat was not the same as a lion. Over time you’ll still feel the response but more as a gentle reminder from your amygdala saying “hey, I love you and just want to see you safe.” Now you have the freedom to make a choice about what to do next.
You don’t NEED to run.
You don’t NEED to fight.
What do I say when people ask “How do I get rid of the butterflies I feel every time I go to speak?”
The answer is “It’s not about getting rid of the butterflies. It’s about getting them to fly in formation.”
I hope now you understand why.