Thinking about your purpose rather than your performance when public speaking is the key to managing your nerves but it doesn’t come naturally.
When you are standing in front of an audience it is very easy to think that it is all about you. And that makes you anxious because you feel as if you are being judged. However, it is more than likely that the audience is paying very little attention to you personally! Hopefully they are listening to and processing what you have to say. But they are probably thinking about dozens of other things as well, such as what they need to do next, how long the talk is going to last, and the email they forget to send…
Of course, if you are amazingly good or incredibly bad, they will form some judgements about you as well, but you are not their focus. For each individual member of the audience it is very much about them, not you.
I recently had a client who was worried about speaking at his daughter’s 21st. I reminded him that at a 21st function people are focused on his daughter, not him. All they expect from him is to hear how much he cares about his daughter and a couple of entertaining stories. To anyone else this is obvious but many of us would react the same way as my client. It is very easy to slip into ‘what will they think of me?’ rather than ‘how can I best acknowledge my daughter?’
Thinking about your purpose rather than your performance is a powerful concept for three reasons.
Everyone wants to look confident when they are presenting. We also want to feel confident – but most people can handle feeling a bit nervous as long as they can hide it from others!
This in itself is interesting and I touched on it in a previous blog article (“Public speaking and the shame of looking nervous”). But this article is about how you can employ some techniques to look confident even if you don’t initially feel it. Or to put it another way, how to ‘fake it until you feel it.’
Before we look at the five tips there is some good news. You probably already look more confident than you feel. Surveys indicate that over 70% of people have some level of fear of public speaking. But most people look reasonably confident when they speak. So how can this be? Either fewer than 30% of the people are doing all the talking (unlikely) or most people don’t show their nerves (more likely).
Watching a video of yourself presenting can help reassure you that your nervousness is not on full display. You may feel your stomach churning, your palms sweating, your heart pounding – but these symptoms are not visible to your audience.
Recognising that your nerves are not as visible as you imagine can be a huge relief in itself. But there are additional things you can do to look more confident.
I had a cooking teacher at high school who told us that “good cooks are born, not made” which left me confused about why she had decided to become a cooking teacher!
This is a perfect illustration of a ‘fixed mindset’ described by Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’. A person with a fixed mindset believes that qualities such as intelligence and talent are innate and can’t be developed. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset has a thirst for learning, loves a challenge, and believes that they can improve by commitment and hard work. Carol’s research demonstrates that having a growth mindset is a better predictor of success than natural talent.
You may have heard the expression 's/he has the gift of the gab' meaning someone is naturally good at talking. But this reflects a fixed mindset towards verbal communication and public speaking. While some people probably do have natural talents in this area, it is possible for anyone to become a strong public speaker.
Research shows that 70% of people have experienced the ‘imposter syndrome’ at some stage in their life and that 75% of people are nervous about public speaking. I would be willing to bet that there is a huge overlap between these two groups.
I am quite often asked this question and my answer is a resounding yes!!
From my observations there is no clear relationship between introversion/extroversion and public speaking ability. There is also no clear relationship between introversion/extroversion and level of fear about public speaking. Many people assume that extroverted people will be more confident speakers but that is often not true. I have come across extroverted people who are very nervous and introverted speakers who are very confident. In fact, some of my clients who tell me they have mild generalised social anxiety, end up being the best speakers by the end of my courses!
Here are some reasons why I think that introverts can be excellent public speakers:
In a previous article I talked about how a fear of public speaking could have an evolutionary basis. The fight, flight or freeze response that many people experience is a primitive response to danger. Although the danger is clearly not life-threatening, our bodies respond as if it. Unfortunately, while fighting, fleeing or freezing may be great responses to escape a predator, they are not very helpful when you are trying to speak to an audience!
Let’s take a closer look at what happens.
Susan Jeffers' seminal self-help book “Feel the Fear and do it Anyway” was first published in 1987 . Its messages are just as relevant today and are highly applicable to fear of public speaking. According to a website dedicated to Susan’s work, she identified five truths about fear. This article looks at how we might apply these to a fear of public speaking.
How Susan Cain overcome a fear of public speaking to give a TED talk that has been viewed more than 20 million times
I am a huge fan of Tim Ferris podcasts and I was so excited when I found out that he had just interviewed Susan Cain because her TED talk, The Power of Introverts, is one of my all-time favourites. I am an introvert by nature and so her message resonates with me but I also love her delivery style.
I was thrilled to discover that the first 40 minutes of the podcast interview is about her fear of public speaking! If you have time I highly recommend that you listen for yourself.
My interest grew as I listened because her experience closely mirrors my own and many of my clients and her approach to tackling her fear was the approach I use at Fear-less Public Speaking.
The main things I took out of the interview were:
How easy is it for the audience to detect our nerves? Does the audience really care? And why do we care so much about looking nervous?
Iask my clients to complete a pre-course questionnaire before they start one of courses and most of them say that they are worried about looking nervous in front of an audience. Many of them are also worried about sounding nervous – having a ‘shaky voice’ is a very common concern.
Nine ways to calm your nerves by connecting with your audience (and imagining your audience naked is not one of them!)
Presenting to an audience can be intimidating because it feels unnatural. We are used to interactive conversations where we get immediate verbal and non-verbal feedback. But when we present to an audience, it can feel like a one-way experience. All eyes are on us and we are often looking at blank faces. In fact, one theory about why we fear public speaking is that it has an evolutionary basis and we perceive the audience as the predator! (See my recent article on this and other theories about why we fear public speaking.)
Sometimes people do have to present to ‘hostile’ or indifferent audiences. But usually our audiences are easy to please if we give them what they want. More often than not the main thing they are looking for is connection. The great news is that establishing connection will also make you feel more relaxed.
Connecting with your audience helps you “get out of your own head” as you realise that it’s not all about you. Approaching a presentation in the mindset of “How can I best serve my audience?” rather than “what will they think of me?” is empowering.
Most public speaking coaches agree that the old advice to imagine your audience as naked is the worst advice that you can give someone because it creates the barrier between you and your audience!
So here are nine things you can try instead.
I strongly believe that anyone can manage their nerves and become a better public speaker with the right support.