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 tend to get less feedback online than in front of a live audience.
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 you. 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
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