Public speaking is a performance, but it is not the same as acting. There are two main differences. The first is fairly obvious – as an actor, you are being someone else, but as a public speaker, ideally you are being yourself. Many people struggle with being themselves in front of an audience. How often do you hear people go into 'presentation mode'? They take on a professional persona that is an unconscious form of acting.
The second difference is about your relationship with the audience. An actor pretends that the audience is not there. But as a public speaker, you are there to engage directly with the audience – you acknowledge your listeners. To the audience, you are the whole point – and vice versa. Otherwise, you may as well just hand out notes!
Yoodli is an exciting new AI public speaking tool that I am using in my coaching.
A lot of my work is with people who have extreme public speaking anxiety that holds them back from achieving their career and life goals.
In my experience, there are three things that people need to overcome a crippling fear of public speaking:
Yoodli won’t replace the coach but it is a great tool to enable safe practice and support skill development.
Recently someone approach me for private coaching. She was nervous about an upcoming presentation. Before she ran through her presentation, she told me that her topic was important to her audience and she really wanted to have impact. Then she practiced her presentation by sharing her screen as she read, or sometimes paraphrased, a series of PowerPoint slides.
She came across as professional, knowledgeable and confident. Had she not mentioned her desire to have impact, I would have been quite encouraging in my feedback. I would have suggested fewer words on the slides and starting and finishing without slides so that she was more visible to the audience. But I would have reassured her that presentation was as good as many work presentations I see.
However, I knew that she would not achieve her goal of having impact. I could barely see her on my screen and I had read all the words on the slides before she spoke to them. I gave her positive feedback but I also told her that her presentation was not memorable. I also pointed out that she was adding very little value and she could just as easily have paused and let the audience read her slides for themselves!
“Overcome”, “conquer”, “kill”, “get over”, and “cure the fear of public speaking” are all terms that people google. I know – I have done the keyword research!
If you are anxious about public speaking, you probably see your anxiety as a big problem. You worry that others will notice your nerves, that your mind will go blank, and that your audience will judge you harshly.
All this is understandable. But this article explains why seeking to fight, eliminate or fix the fear is unrealistic and counterproductive. It suggests other strategies, such as shifting your focus and adjusting your self-talk.
Remember learning to ride a bike? You probably started with training wheels. What happened when your parents removed the training wheels? Perhaps you went, wobble, wobble, wobble, splat. The next time the wobble lasted a little longer before the splat, and then maybe by the third or fourth time, you went wobble, wobble and then took off. You were away!
Would you have ever learned to ride a bike if you had kept the training wheels? Unlikely. Training wheels don’t teach you to balance; they just give you a feel for sitting on a bike.
Relying heavily on notes when you are learning to speak publicly is similar to using training wheels on a bike. You will never be able to deliver a speech without notes if you always read your notes. But unlike training wheels, you may not need to ditch your notes altogether. But you will need to stop reading them!
The short answer is most people! But some people have extra high levels of anxiety about public speaking. This article explores how different personality types or attributes can affect people’s anxiety levels.
You have heard of 'Zoom fatigue' - the experience of feeling exhausted from being online all day. But have you experienced 'Zoom panic'?
I have had a spate of recent calls from people who have had a bad experience presenting online. Some of them tell me they have never liked public speaking, but presenting online has made it worse. Others are puzzled and concerned because they have considered themselves confident speakers until now.
A typical example was a call from a young woman who recently ran an online webinar for 50 people. The experience had been traumatic for her. She described having a panic attack and then having a similar episode a few days later.
A quick google tells me that these experiences are not uncommon. 'Zoom anxiety' is a thing.
Before the COVID19 pandemic, most people's experience of public speaking was to live audiences.
For people who have a fear of public speaking, you might think that the shift to Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other online platforms would have been a welcome relief. But, for most people, the nerves are just as bad online and sometimes worse.
A 2013 study (pre-pandemic obviously) verified this. The study's 70 participants gave a speech twice – once in-person and once online. The students' anxiety levels were assessed by a survey and heart rate monitoring.
The students expected to be more nervous in-person. But their heart rates were just as high online as they were in person. Self-reported nerves, surveyed post-speaking were also just as high online.
The study concluded:
"Based on results using both instruments, there were no significant differences in the amount of anxiety between delivering a traditional face-to-face speech and a speech given using web-conferencing technology."
Here are some reasons why I think that presenting online can be as anxiety-inducing as in-person.
Lack of non-verbal feedback
You probably feel more relaxed when you see your message resonating with others. Perhaps you get a nod or a smile, which can be very encouraging. But you don't tend to get the same non-verbal feedback online.
People react less when they are not physically present. Some will have their cameras off. And even if they are responding positively, you should be looking at the camera most of the time, which means you won't see their reactions.
Talking to a screen feels unnatural
Have you ever felt disconnected or had an out-of-body experience when presenting to an audience? You can hear yourself talking, but you feel like you are an observer, not a participant? Online presenting can exacerbate such feelings because there is nothing natural about sitting in an empty room and speaking to a screen! Seeing yourself on the screen can also be disconcerting.
And then there is the newness of the experience if you are not used to presenting online. I remember, many years ago, leaving a message on an answer-phone for the first time. I rambled and felt ridiculously self-conscious because I had never done it before!
You have an added worry – will the technology work?
As if worrying about what you are going to say is not enough! Now you also have to worry about things like screen-sharing and whether your Wi-Fi connection is stable enough.
It doesn't help that all of these online platforms all work a bit differently. Perhaps you are used to screen-sharing on Zoom, but now you are on Teams which is not quite the same.
It is harder to retain the audience's attention
As I said at the start, we are now all familiar with 'Zoom fatigue'. There is just something about staring at screens that makes it more tiring for the listener.
Most of us sit when presenting online, even in situations where we would stand if presenting face-to-face. But this tends to make us less engaging. And audience members can be easily distracted by checking their phones or what is happening in the background.
Even worse than getting little positive non-verbal feedback, you might think your audience members look bored! If that is true, it is probably not your fault, but it is natural to feel put-off by seeing people yawn!
You may be feeling more anxious generally
I often find that people who fear public speaking have some other sources of stress in their life that exacerbates their issues. And right now, the pandemic may be making everything worse for you.
Lockdowns have affected people in different ways, but perhaps it has been stressful for you due to loneliness, having children at home all the time, having to work in less-than-ideal conditions, or some other reason.
This is a significant factor, and it may explain why some people find presenting worse even online than face-to-face.
That is quite a list!
Of course, not everyone gets nervous about online presenting. Some people may even prefer it. But for many people, the lack of non-verbal feedback, worry about the technology, and oddness of talking to a screen can make online presenting feel uncomfortable. And more generalised anxiety that some people are feeling right now, can make things worse.
Eight things you can do to make it easier
Here are eight practical suggestions to make things a little easier for yourself. If you are usually a confident speaker, these things might be enough. But if you have always been a nervous speaker, you should also consider taking a public speaking course.
If you are experiencing 'Zoom panic' you are not alone. I have anecdotal evidence that lots of people are going through something similar. And research appears to back up that people find presenting online just as stressful as in-person – even without the stress of a pandemic!
Hopefully, you will find some of these suggestions valuable. Remember to check out that public speaking course as soon as this is possible! It will get better the more you do it. It is tempting to make excuses and try to avoid it, but this will make it worse in the long run.
Article written by Catherine Syme
When I ask my clients why they think so many people fear public speaking, they almost always talk about being judged.
Concern about being judged is a significant factor, but it is only part of it. Someone with strong self-belief tends to worry less about being judged - they might even relish it. But being judged when you have self-doubt can create intense anxiety.
Surveys show that most people are nervous about public speaking and around 10% of people have an extreme fear. Glossophobia is the term used to describe persistent and excessive anxiety about public speaking.
I have written before about why people fear public speaking. It is primarily a fear of being judged. But self-doubt is also a factor. Confident presenters don’t worry so much about being judged!
This article is about how glossophobia comes about - what are the factors that cause nervousness (experienced by most of us) to morph into something more extreme?
No good at public speaking? Six reasons why improving is just like learning to play a new sport (or any other complex skill)
I recently heard someone describe the three phases he goes through when learning a new skill. The first stage is fear. The second stage is grit – the hard work that goes into getting good at anything. Thirdly, there is mastery – the feeling of being highly skilled.
I found this relatable. I started my public speaking journey 17 years ago as an extremely nervous speaker. It took me eight years of consistent effort to feel proficient. Mastery is a strong word – especially when there is always room for improvement – but when things go well, I feel proud of what I have achieved.
I took up yoga around the same time as public speaking and have established a consistent practice that serves me well. I can identify the three phases too. The fear wasn't intense but I had nagging self doubt about whether my body was right for yoga (a baseless concern but very real!)
However, I can think of many things I have started but not achieved mastery or even proficiency.
Languages, for example! At various times in my life, I have studied Latin, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Māori – but have not become fluent in any of them. I don’t have a gift for languages – but nor do most people. I am not fluent because I never persevered long enough to achieve that level. In fact I have never really progressed beyond the fear stage - fear that I sound terrible!
Back to public speaking. Like any sport, craft, or even a language, public speaking is a skill-set that anyone can learn. No one would expect to be instantly good at a new activity requiring complex skills, but for some reason, we don’t view public speaking the same way. Many people are quick to judge themselves as just not suited to public speaking.
I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.