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.
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".
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.