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.
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.
With Halloween upon us, I thought it was timely to look at why a fear of public speaking is so common!
My Toastmasters Club, Talking Heads, has a Mark Twain quote on our website, "There are two types of speakers - those that are nervous and those that are liars".
Periodically a debate emerges in social media about whether young people should be forced to present in front of the class.
The Atlantic reported one such debate in September 2018. The story was about a tweet posted by a 15-year old high-school student:
“Stop forcing students to present in front of the class and give them a choice not too.”
This tweet had gone viral, as had a similar tweet posted earlier that year.
Some students were concerned that forcing them to present in front of their peers, could fuel their anxiety and have long-term harmful effects. Some of the tweets suggested it was a mental health issue, and that people suffering from anxiety should be given alternatives.
(Updated February 2020)
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to stand in front of an audience and feel calm? Actually, no! While it might be nice to feel calm, the reality is that you generally perform better when you are a bit nervous.
Imagine you are an Olympic athlete turning up to the start of a race. Do you think that you will feel calm? Of course not. You will be very nervous and rightly so. Once more those nerves will serve you well as they mean your body is producing adrenalin that will make you run faster.
When it comes to public speaking something similar applies. If you are calm the chances are that you will come across as laid back but not particularly effective or dynamic. However, with presenting, being very nervous doesn’t serve you well either. When you start to show visible signs of fear such as shaking, sweating, or going red, you become focused on what is happening to you rather than what you are saying, to the detriment of your performance.
What you want is to hit that sweet spot, where a bit of nervousness gives you optimal performance. Remember that those nerves are a sign that your body is preparing to perform. You want enough adrenalin to enhance your performance but not so much that it starts to undermine it. I recently learned that the Yerkes-Dobson Law explains this relationship between stress and performance and the corresponding 'inverted U' graph.
Body language expert Mark Bowden, in his book “Winning Body Language” describes a man who came to him for help because he broke out in hives every time he presented. Mark urged him to accept his fear as the first step forward. Bowden says, “In just about all cases of stage fright, battling the fear is never the answer”.
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.