What Navy Seals Can Teach Us About Reducing Public Speaking Fear

What Navy Seals Can Teach Us About Reducing Public Speaking Fear

There’s an interesting article in Psychology Today about 4 techniques the U.S. Navy Seals used to increase their training pass rates –  and because all 4 tools are ones which I  use when coaching clients about reducing public speaking fear, I thought I’d share the Seals training techniques with you.

Navy Seals are an elite force in the U.S. military who have to undergo very intense training so that they can deal with specific situations in hostile territory. The original article by Bakari Akil II is here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-central/200911/how-the-navy-seals-increased-passing-rates. Here’s an excerpt from it, describing the issues the Seals were having with passing one particular vital area of the training (and one I’m glad I’ll never have to attempt!):

“Their training has to be super intense in order to have soldiers who can actually carry out their missions.

Hence, they had an extremely low passing rate for trainees. According to The Brain, a show featured on The History Channel, out of 140 recruits (average/each cycle) only 36 would make it. However, they noticed that they were losing good recruits, not because they couldn’t phsyically hack it, but because they had a mental block. It was in one key area; the water. The Navy Seals have a drill in a pool where recruits have to remain under water for 20 minutes. They are equipped with oxygen tanks for air. All they have to do is stay under water without coming up. Seems simple enough.

Well there’s a catch. The recruits are constantly harassed by their instructors who rip off their masks, tie their (air) lines in knots and conduct other general forms of harrassment. The recruit’s job is to not panic; wait until the attack is over; calmly fix the problem while remaining under water and then wait for the next attack. At the end of the 20 minutes the recruit will be required to kiss the floor of the pool and then will be brought up by the drill instructor.

But the opposite often happens. Soldiers do panic and even with four chances to pass (at different times in the program) many never make it. So the Navy Seals turned to psychology. Using a four step process they increased the passage rates in their program. What did they do? They emphasized what psychologists and communication academics have been advocating for years:  Goal Setting – Mental Rehearsal – Self Talk – Arousal Control.

By using this 4 step process, the pass rate increased from 25% to 33% – quite a big shift in such a rigorous program.

The 4 techniques:

1. Goal setting. Trainees were taught to set goals in very short time-frames. In the same way, you might set a goal or expectation to achieve one new thing on the day of your next presentation; for example, allowing  a couple of seconds of silence before a major point, or smiling before you start to speak, assuming an appropriate topic. (It’s amazing how often people forget to smile when presenting, through stress or intense focus.)

2. Mental rehearsal. Trainees learnt to visualise and imagine successful outcomes, and also going through the motions of the exercise successfully. You might imagine the first minute of your talk flowing smoothly and easily, and then being at the end of the presentation and it’s gone well.

3. Self-talk.  Trainees were taught to speak positively to themselves. We talk to our selves all the time: practise giving yourself words of encouragement, positivity and kindness to get yourself through the speaking event. We too often criticise ourselves harshly, just when we need to support and applaud our own efforts.

4. Arousal Control. Trainees learnt to breath in ways which calmed their system. In the same way, you can take calming breaths into your abdomen, ensuring that you exhale longer than you inhale. This is what sends the signal to your nervous system that you’re safe and not in immediate danger. It’s very useful to do this when you’re waiting to present, perhaps at your desk or sitting in the audience before your presentation.

The author Akil describes this 4 step process as “very simple”. I would add this: it is simple, but it’s not easy. Like a lot of things worth doing, these techniques take time, focus and practice to achieve good results. They will make a difference to you.

If you don’t currently use these tools, why not take one technique and practise it for your next presentation? Embed that one, and then try another.

What do you think? Do you believe these techniques could help you with your public speaking?

If you found this post helpful, here’s another one I wrote on three factors which reduce public speaking fear.

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