Have you had an epic public speaking fail? Here is how to stop berating yourself and practice self-compassion instead.
Many of my clients come to me after an epic and humiliating public speaking fail – or a series of more minor fails.
I spend the first half of the course explaining the reasons why we are hypercritical of ourselves and why they have probably overestimated the extent of their failure. With public speaking, we judge ourselves more harshly than the audience does. We make inaccurate assumptions about what the audience is thinking, and we focus too much on our mistakes.
I explain that it is important to recognise these errors in our thinking (known as ‘cognitive biases’ by psychologists) and adopt self-talk to neutralise them. For example, we can remind ourselves that the audience’s attention is not entirely on us as the speaker. The chances are that no one will remember the occasional fumble! In other words, that epic public speaking fail usually is much more significant in my clients’ minds than in anyone else’s.
But in the second half of the course, I offer some tools for people who have had a genuinely bad experience. Perhaps they completely froze in front of an audience, and their manager has told them they have to do something about it, or someone tells them afterwards that they looked incredibly nervous.
One of the most effective tools I can offer is self-compassion.
This email arrived in my inbox today,
"Hi, I am terrified about public speaking and the panic attacks that come with it! I go to great lengths to avoid these situations, and it's having an impact on my life. Is this the sort of course that can help me? Thanks."
I highlight it not because it is unusual but because it is typical.
Nearly 90% of people who sign up for our public speaking courses report that they actively avoid public speaking. And almost half of them say that a fear of public speaking has affected their career. Some have not applied for a promotion or their dream job. Others have designed their whole career around avoiding public speaking - or so they think!
I'm sure you have people with an intense fear of public speaking within your organisation. And you probably don't know about them. You may be thinking that excellent communication skills are essential for your staff and the people I describe if they exist, don't have much of a future in your organisation.
But what if I were to tell you that people who dread public speaking could be some of your highest achievers? And they may already be in senior roles in your organisation? Now that you think about it, perhaps you have noticed that Susan always sends her team leader to board meetings rather than fronting herself. And maybe I have you wondering whether Neil really was sick when you had to step in and cover for him at a big presentation recently!
You are a bundle of nerves. You have an important presentation to give. You have been dreading it for days. You barely slept last night, and you can feel your heart pounding and the panic rising.
You look in the mirror, smile, and repeat three times, “I am a calm and confident speaker, and I am going to be amazing.”
Instantly you feel calm and reassured. Two hours later, you give your presentation. It is a huge success!
That’s great! If positive affirmations work for you, by all means, keep using them. But if instead, you have an inner critic that responds, “You liar. Don’t fool yourself. Last time was a disaster and this is going to be just as bad,” you need to try something else.
There are plenty of useful articles about public speaking, but many of them repackage similar tips. Remember to pause; practice your presentation thoroughly; maintain eye contact; focus on your audience; tell stories; and so on. Don’t get me wrong — it is all great advice! But I get excited when I stumble upon new insights.
In this article, I have put together five less-known tips. Some of these I have discovered through my own practice and all of them I have put into effect or tested for myself.
Few people can engage an audience without preparing and practicing. Even presenters who look like they are speaking ‘off the cuff’, have usually prepared thoroughly— or have presented the same material many times previously.
When I first started as a public speaking coach, I stressed the importance of good preparation. But I noticed that some people would still turn up unprepared. And they often started their presentation by telling us that they hadn’t prepared.
I realized that they were using this as a ‘get of jail card free card’. If they told us how unprepared they were and it didn’t go well, they could always blame their lack of preparation. It was an excuse for failure. But it was also self-sabotage.
And so, I doubled down on my preparation message. I even suggested that if people turned up unprepared, they shouldn’t tell us!
Then I started noticing something else. While I always have a few unprepared clients, the majority spend so much time preparing that they become rigidly fixated on what they have prepared. They often memorize or read their script. They don’t sound natural, spontaneous, or conversational. And my preparation message was potentially making this worse.
Here in New Zealand, two high profile people recently made public statements expressing self-doubt. In different ways, Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Todd Muller have helped expose that leaders are not immune from self-doubt.
Dr Bloomfield, Director-General of Health, has become something of a national hero during the COVID19 pandemic.
Why avoiding public speaking is worse than doing it! It is career-limiting, stressful, and harder than you think.
Verbal communication skills are valued by employers. They consistently rank highly on lists of the top "soft skills". For example, the LinkedIn Learning 2020 Workplace report found that employers ranked "persuasion" as their number two soft skill requirement. And you can’t persuade without good verbal communication skills.
Public speaking is an important sub-set of verbal communication skills. But many people I come across, tell me they actively avoid public speaking.
There is a great story about a child with a fear of public speaking in season five of Rita – a popular Danish Netflix show. It features the kind, quirky, socially awkward headmistress Hjørdis who is also one of the school’s two teachers.
A few months ago, I had a phone call from a young woman who needed help. Anna (not her real name) was a marketing graduate who had landed a great first job in the grocery sector. But she was suffering from anxiety because she was required to present to a corporate audience of more than one hundred people. The audience included members of the senior leadership team.
She explained to me that she had had a bad experience of public speaking at college. And it still haunted her. Apart from that one experience, she had done very little presenting.
I discovered she would be presenting with two other more experienced people. I suggested that she tell them that she was nervous so that they could provide her with some support. But she couldn't do this, she told me, because everyone expected her to be excited about this "opportunity". Instead, she was full of dread!
Her story sounded familiar. Many years ago, I graduated with good grades but limited public speaking skills. Eventually, in my forties, I joined Toastmasters. But that was after twenty years of intermittent anxiety and avoiding public speaking at times.
It is easy to recognise an “authentic” speaker but unpacking what this really means can be confusing. Public speaking is a performance; so how can you perform and be authentic at the same time?
Although public speaking is a performance, it is not the same as acting. As an actor, you are pretending to be someone else, but as a public speaker you are yourself. In fact, the trick is to come across so naturally that it doesn’t look like you are performing!
But this highlights a problem for inexperienced speakers. The advice to “be yourself’ is not helpful when you are trembling bundle of nerves.
“Be yourself” does not mean for you to stand up and tell everyone how nervous you feel, then waffle on about your topic! You might look “real” but in a raw, uncomfortable way that lacks professional credibility and leaves the audience squirming.
Instead, you need to bring your best self to the stage – you “on form”. A high energy version of yourself. The self that you might bring to a job interview! And it takes much practice to achieve that. Being “real” is not quite enough. An authentic speaker also has confidence and credibility.
Let’s take a look at what an authentic speaker does – and how you can do the same.
Previously I have rejected suggestions to run Fear-less courses online because I was not convinced that it would work effectively. Then Covid19 came along! I had to cancel a course due to start on the first day of lockdown. And I had to decide whether to shut up shop and wait it out, or to try something new! I decided to run a ‘trial’ online course via Zoom and this article is about what I found.
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.