Nine ways to calm your nerves by connecting with your audience (and imagining your audience naked is not one of them!)
Presenting to an audience can be intimidating because it feels unnatural. We are used to interactive conversations where we get immediate verbal and non-verbal feedback. But when we present to an audience, it can feel like a one-way experience. All eyes are on us and we are often looking at blank faces. In fact, one theory about why we fear public speaking is that it has an evolutionary basis and we perceive the audience as the predator! (See my recent article on this and other theories about why we fear public speaking.)
Sometimes people do have to present to ‘hostile’ or indifferent audiences. But usually our audiences are easy to please if we give them what they want. More often than not the main thing they are looking for is connection. The great news is that establishing connection will also make you feel more relaxed.
Connecting with your audience helps you “get out of your own head” as you realise that it’s not all about you. Approaching a presentation in the mindset of “How can I best serve my audience?” rather than “what will they think of me?” is empowering.
Most public speaking coaches agree that the old advice to imagine your audience as naked is the worst advice that you can give someone because it creates the barrier between you and your audience!
So here are nine things you can try instead.
1. Pause and make eye contact
This can be a real game changer when you learn to do this well. A tip is to pause at point you would normally expect a response (verbal or non-verbal) from someone if you were in a two-way conversation. Establish eye contact with someone as you do this. Often they will acknowledge you with a nod or a smile and it’s a very reassuring when that happens! If someone looks grumpy or bored, don’t dwell on them – move on to the next person.
Of course, you should also make eye-contact when you are speaking, not just when you are pausing. Hold eye contact with one person for a few seconds until the end of a sentence, phrase or idea. At first this will seem a bit longer than you feel comfortable with but with a bit of practice it will feel quite natural.
2. Stop hiding behind the PowerPoint
A lot of nervous speakers look down at their notes or at their PowerPoint presentation or hide behind a lectern. I have done this myself – I hid behind a PowerPoint presentation for years because I liked the audience looking at the slides instead of me! Afterwards I would feel relieved that I got through another presentation, but it didn’t make me a good presenter.
There is nothing wrong with PowerPoint to support your presentation but remember you are the presentation – not your slides!
3. Involve your audience
There are so many ways of doing this from passive to very active and everything in between. Here are some ideas.
4. Get conversational
The most natural speakers appear to be having a conversation with their audience. Although a presentation is a performance the trick is to make it look as natural as possible. Minimum use of notes, pausing and making eye contact all help with this. Its best not to memorise your speech – remember ideas, not words. Each time you practice or give a presentation, the words should be a bit different.
5. Tell stories
Stories are a powerful too for presenters for so many reasons and they really help with audience connection. A good story has emotion and a message or a takeaway that people can relate to.
6. Get personal
While stories are great, personal stories are even better. An audience loves hearing about you own experiences, especially if its humorous or about something that has gone wrong!
7. Be vulnerable
You have probably seen the famous TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown. What she discovered is that true human connection is not possible without vulnerability. In a follow up talk, “Listening to Shame” she makes a striking observation. “ You know what the big secret about TED is? .. This is like the failure conference. ..You know why this place is amazing? Because very few people here are afraid to fail. And no one who gets on the stage, so far that I've seen, has not failed. I've failed miserably, many times. I don't think the world understands that, because of shame.”
I have always known that tales of overcoming adversity are well received but I had never noticed that so many TED talks are about failure!
A word of caution. Audiences want to hear the resolution - they probably don’t want to hear about your failure or heartbreak when you are in the midst of it. Raw emotion may spark sympathy but it is not the type of connection that will make you feel strong unless you are talking to a close friend. If Brené had stood on the stage and said she was in the middle of a nervous breakdown it would have been a little uncomfortable. On the other hand, life lessons and overcoming adversity are themes that people never tire of because they are inspiring.
8. Use humour
Humour is one of the quickest ways of connecting with an audience. It comes more naturally to some people than others but anyone can learn to be funny. Poking fun at yourself is one of the safest ways of adding humour. I don’t consider myself naturally funny so I have a preference is for subtle humour. If the audience laughs that is a bonus but if they don’t laugh it doesn’t matter as there is still value in what I am saying. This is much safer than a joke with a punchline because if the audience doesn’t laugh that can get a bit awkward. Laughing is very relaxing – but equally listening to others laugh at what you have will give you a feeling of wellbeing that will reduce those nerves considerably!
9. Go off-script
I am cheating a little by including this one as it is an advanced technique and not one that most highly nervous speakers will be able to employ at first. But as you get more experienced you may be able to “read your audience” and adapt what your material to suit. For example, if people are looking confused you may be able to find another way of explaining something instead of getting flustered. Audiences love this as shows that you care about them.
Written by Catherine Syme About
I strongly believe that anyone can manage their nerves and become a better public speaker with the right support.