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 will experience the 'Imposter Syndrome' at some stage in their life.
There are conflicting statistics about how many people fear public speaking. But we know that it is a common fear. And I am willing to bet that there is a significant overlap between people who experience the Imposter Syndrome and people who fear public speaking.
I am often asked whether I believe introverts can be good public speakers. My answer is a resounding yes!
I don't believe that there is a clear relationship between personality type and public speaking confidence or ability.
We often assume that extroverted people will be more confident speakers. But I have come across extroverted people who are nervous and introverted speakers who are compelling.
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 overcame a fear of public speaking to give a TED talk that has been viewed more than 25 million times
Susan Cain, author and celebrated TED talk presenter, once had a crippling fear of public speaking. Her TED talk, The Power of Introverts, has more than 25 million views and is one of my all-time favourites.
I am also a big fan of Tim Ferris, and so when he interviewed Susan Cain in this podcast, I had to listen. The first 40 minutes is about her fear of public speaking. Her experience closely mirrors my own and that of many of my clients.
Her main points are:
Why do we care so much about looking nervous? How easy is it for the audience to detect our nerves? And what can we do to conceal our nervousness?
I believe there are three reasons we are likely to view a fear of public speaking as a big problem.
Nine ways to calm your nerves by connecting with your audience (and imagining your audience naked is not one of them!)
esenting to an audience can feel unnatural. Most people don't like being in the spotlight. It is tempting to become less noticeable by hiding behind a PowerPoint presentation. But that is an unhelpful strategy. We need to do the opposite because connecting with the audience is the key to feeling more comfortable.
I had a conversation recently with a sales manager, Mike. He told me that when he was 18, he lived in Spain for his final year of schooling. He was asked to talk about life in New Zealand at a school assembly. His hand shook uncontrollably as he started to speak. He was holding notes which made this obvious! Then he put up a slide of a cow. I am not sure what he said, but everyone started laughing. And suddenly he felt relaxed!
Most public speaking coaches agree that the old advice to imagine your audience naked is lousy advice! The intent is to make the audience seem less threatening. But instead of treating the audience as hostile or dangerous, we need to connect.
Here are nine things you can try instead.
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.