Anti-Anxiety Jiu Jitsu: Turning the Terror of Public Speaking to Power
By Mark Perlmutter
I was a baby lawyer, first-chairing in only my second jury trial. I was awestruck by the opposing counsel, a true jury-whisperer. He seemed super-human. Had a resonant voice, looks that made women quiver, immaculate dresser, folksy relatability, lightning-quick mind. I took no comfort in my senior partner’s claim that he “put his pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us”—after all, this was not a speed-dressing contest.! Nor was the case itself a source of confidence, being one of those loser “dog” cases young associates get to cut their teeth on. This one was even nicknamed around the office “the falling doghouse case” because my injured client had somehow found herself under a doghouse she’d been helping to lift over a fence.
The evidence had closed—earlier than I’d expected. Surprisingly to me, the judge had already prepared the jury instructions and said he’d give us a few minutes to prepare for final argument. Having expected to have overnight, I was in shock. Within a couple of minutes, I felt an excruciating pain in my chest, shortness of breath, cold sweat. I told the judge I thought I was having a heart attack whereupon, thankfully, he had the bailiff call 911—and off to the hospital I went. Turned out what I’d thought was a heart attack was merely a panic attack brought on by uncontrollable anxiety. And so began my decades-long study of public speaking anxiety.
In addition to being able to overcome my own anxiety, I’ve worked with lawyers, law students and others, studied psychotherapy and other modalities. What follows are practices tried and true.
Cognitive Reframes: Change Our Thinking
Most of us misperceive the nature of anxiety, seeing it as “bad,” something to be avoided. In fact, it’s an arousal that occurs when our brain decides something coming our way merits our attention. If we then decide it’s a threat, our brain gets ready to flee, fight, or freeze. If our brain evaluates it as good, we gear up to approach it. It turns out that the arousal is the same either way; that is, our mid-brain structures move us to take action, but whether we see this process as “anxiety” or “excitement” simply depends on whether our cortex appraises the stimulus as “good” or “bad,” as “threat” or “opportunity.”
Thus, the stimulus (making a speech) and arousal that we initially associate with a threat can work for us if we instead view the stimulus as an opportunity—just like the force from a Jiu Jitsu opponent can be converted to our advantage. The power of this reframe has been demonstrated in experiments related to test-taking anxiety. One group of GRE test-takers, told any anxiety they experienced would actually help them do well, outperformed the control group by an average of 50 points in the lab—and by 65 points on the GRE itself. The lesson: view anxiety itself as an opportunity to help us focus our attention on the task.
In addition to the thoughts we have about the nature of anxiety, a second set of thoughts requiring a reframe are our audience mindreads and negative predictions. Here are some of the more common ones: the audience hates me; I’m going to be embarrassed; I’m going to fail; I’m going to lose.
The mindread that “the audience hates me” is belied simply by our own experience as audience members. Most of us don’t put ourselves in an audience in order to hate the speaker. On the contrary, we want to be enlightened, or entertained, or in some way gratified. So whether the audience ultimately hates us does not depend on its mindset; in fact, we, as audience members, generally start out feeling positively. Rather, it depends on how well we attune to our listeners wants and needs. For that reason, whether our fear of failure, losing, or embarrassment is ultimately realized will not be known until after we’ve spoken. Because we can’t know until then, it’s not only irrational to make these negative predictions, but it serves only to torture us by raising our anxiety. Therefore the only reasonable approach is to engage our curiosity, that is “let’s just see how this turns out,” and devote our energy to attuning our presentation to the audience’s wants and needs.
A corollary reframe is to view our presentation not as a potential realization of our worst fears, but rather as an opportunity to bring a gift to our listeners—the gift of entertainment, empowerment, edification, or other enrichment of their lives. Viewed in this way, we’re actually performing an act of love that most anyone would find hard to reject.
Gerry Spence counsels us to stand emotionally “naked” when we rise to argue, to display emotional vulnerability at the outset. To me, this meant communicating my anxiety, using it to bring the jury into my camp, rooting for me. It generally went something like this:
Ladies and gentlemen, as I rise in support of my client’s cause, I find myself feeling nervous, even a little shaky. And that’s because I know my client has placed in my hands a matter of critical importance to her. If I fail to accurately and clearly summarize the evidence for you, responsibility for her profound disappointment will rest squarely upon my shoulders and I can’t bear that thought. With that in mind, I’ll now endeavor to help you determine what actually happened in this case and how that impacts your duty under the court’s instructions.
As I confessed my nervousness and saw the looks of understanding on the jurors’ faces, I felt a connection and my butterflies invariably settled down. My own terror had truly become a source of persuasive power.
Attunement: Preventing the Rotten Tomato Barrage.
One of my greatest fears was that I would say something so unacceptable, that I’d lose the audience
from the gitgo. But I learned from jury selection a foolproof technique that solved the problem: simply to ask the audience about their relevant attitudes and beliefs and tailor the presentation accordingly. For example, in an oral contract case to be tried in a venue where most people think it has to be in writing to be enforceable, I’d ask, “How many of you believe oral contracts in industries where they are customary and necessary to conduct commerce should be just as enforceable as written contracts?” All I had to do then was to prove this was an oral contract agreed to in an industry where such contracts were customary and necessary to conduct business.
A variation of this technique is to elicit evidence from the audience for the point we’re trying to make. For example, if I was trying to get a group of lawyers to accept the proposition the all of us need to be aware of our own vulnerability to behaving unethically, I’d ask the following questions and invariably get the following results;
“How many of you think you should never lie in the course of representing your clients?” Almost all hands go up.
“How many of you, in fact, have never lied in the course of representing your clients?” A smattering of hands. Nervous laughter.
“How many of you actually believe those who just raised their hands?” Virtually no hands. More laughter.
The very process of a responsive interaction with the audience may well make them accept us at the outset and give us cues that we’ve disarmed them.
TIPI: Teaching The Body There’s Nothing to Fear
Some people suffer from really stubborn cases of speaking anxiety, particularly those in which the speaker has had one or more or habitual traumatic experiences in front of audiences. These folks require more than mere cognitive restructuring. For their bodies literally experience a range of uncomfortable sensations at the very thought of speaking before an audience. In law school, these students are terrified to speak in class, freeze up when called upon, and cope by hiding in class as much as they can. They may experience sensations such as dry mouth, rapid heart rate, chest tightness or pain, butterflies in their stomachs, sweating, clenching, and many others. Similar reactions follow them throughout their careers. Those of us who suffer in this way can benefit from a powerful process called TIPI, a French acronym for “Technique for The Sensory Identification of Unconscious Fears.” Through a highly structured reliving of difficult emotional experiences in the safety of a practitioner’s office, our bodies get the message at the deepest level that there’s truly nothing to fear. Following a TIPI experience, generally in three sessions or fewer, my clients typically report being subjected to formerly anxiety-provoking situations and realize only after the fact that the anxiety was nowhere to be found.
I hope these thoughts will enable you to approach every opportunity to address an audience with energy and excitement.
A former Texas Trial Lawyer, Mark Perlmutter, MA, JD now helps individuals and couples build satisfying business and intimate relationships, and become more powerful communicators. He also mediates and practices co-parenting counseling. He has taught for two years at UC Hastings and continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Law in the summer program at the University of Texas School of Law. He can be contacted at email@example.com,