Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring means changing the messages you send to yourself about your public speaking experiences and skills.

Here’s a quick little self-diagnostic to see if you could benefit from cognitive restructuring. Can you identify with any of these “symptoms”?

  • Awfulizing = You determine some event is 100% awful, terrible, and appalling. (This could be a past speech or a future presentation.)
  • I-can’t-stand-it-itus = You conclude a particular event is so horrible that you cannot endure it or tolerate it.
  • Negative thinking = You excessively criticize yourself and believe you are a “bad person” because you cannot live up to the perfection you expect or you think the audience expects.
  • Always-and-never thinking = You insist on absolutes and conclude that situations will always be the same; they will never change, and past experiences will always predict the future.
  • OR your own form/combination of these harmful ways of thinking!

A good first step is to make a small attitude adjustment. You might be thinking about your presentation as a performance. It’s not! In order to effectively communicate with your audience, you need to break down the metaphorical wall that exists between you and the audience, and you need to feel like you are speaking to each person there, not performing for an anonymous crowd. This is called a COMMUNICATION ORIENTATION, as opposed to a performance orientation.

Watch Andy Harrington, a top international speaker from the UK, speaking with a communication orientation, not a performance orientation.

Next, think about your fears and concerns about public speaking. Are they realistic? Here’s an example: Every time Joe speaks, he is afraid that the building will set on fire and burst into flames right in the middle of his speech. Every time Lauren speaks, she worries that an audience member’s phone will go off during the speech and distract her and the audience. Who has a realistic concern, and who has an unrealistic one? It’s pretty obvious that Joe’s fire scenario is unlikely to occur, while Lauren’s phone scenario is highly likely. Don’t focus on unlikely or unrealistic fears. Instead, focus on preparing yourself for common distractions and problems. In this example, Lauren could decide to stop if a phone goes off and wait for the room to get quiet before proceeding.

Finally, this may be the most important part of the cognitive restructuring process: coping statements. Coping statements involve turning your fears and concerns into positive statements. Here’s an example: Evan worries that people are judging him based on his speech and that people do not find him interesting. A possible coping statement for Evan could be: “The audience is not here to evaluate me as a person. They’re here to listen to my speech because they’re interested in what I have to say.”

Now it’s your turn! Use this step-by-step guide as a starting point…

  1. With which type of orientation are you speaking? Performance or communication?
  2. Are your fears realistic? If so, do you have a plan?
  3. Have you written out coping statements for your biggest concerns? Try it!

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