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.
Do you find impromptu speaking difficult? Are you articulate giving prepared presentations but struggle to “think on your feet?” Many people find this hard. Even when you have plenty to say, organizing it into something coherent can be challenging with no time to prepare.
In a recent job interview, my 21-year-old son was asked to describe a time he had to think “outside the box” in an everyday situation. He said he would need a minute to think. He came up with a work-related example that was not very radical and only partly his idea. It was to do with their pricing strategy, and he admitted it was mainly his boss’s idea. He thought that the interview had gone quite well but was worried about his answer to that question.
He got the job, and I am guessing that his response to that question was adequate. They were probably looking at how he would respond to a tricky question rather than what he said. Asking for a minute to think was a good strategy. It showed that he didn’t panic. And he came up with an answer even if it wasn’t a brilliant one.
In 2015, Victoria University of Wellington did an Employability Skills survey to find out what employers are looking for in their graduates, apart from a degree of course! Read Survey. The survey found that the number one attribute (also known as ‘soft skill’) that employers want from graduates is work ethic while verbal communication skills are number two. They rank ahead of analytical and critical thinking (number four) and well ahead of written communication skills (number eight).
Other surveys and experts in New Zealand and overseas have found similar results.
Absolute IT, a New Zealand IT recruitment agency quotes an Absolute IT Job Seeker Insight report which found that tech professionals rate communication skills as the most important skill to get ahead in the workplace.
While researching this topic, I came across a comment in an online forum.
“I put on my first parent seminar this week. I was so terrified I almost cancelled! But I got over myself because I know parents are a bit desperate about how to help their boys and girls build a strong, positive body image (in our weight-obsessed culture).”
I contacted Emma, who was behind this comment. She suffered from an eating order as a child. She now helps parents to ensure their children have a healthy attitude towards eating and body image.
Emma told me that she was making plans to cancel her seminar right up to just before it started! But she went ahead, and it was a huge success. 100% of the attendees signed up to follow her e-course. As she spoke, she felt her nervousness evaporate because she realised people were listening and engaged!
When I ask a group of people if they have ever had to talk to a group about something they didn’t understand or were not convinced about themselves I usually get a lot of nods. Then I ask them how they felt about it. They say things like ‘I felt uncomfortable.’ ‘I felt like a fraud.’ ‘I felt like people were going to challenge me and I wouldn’t be able to respond.’ ‘I was scared I would get found out.’
Perhaps you are a team leader or mid-level manager and you work for a company who has just adopted a new vision and values. You have heard senior management explain it and put a great story around it and now it’s your turn to present it to your team. Suddenly you feel very uncomfortable. How are you going to explain it when you still have lots of questions yourself? Fearing your content is not helpful and can really undermine your confidence.
(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.
Many years ago, I did a public speaking course through work. At the end of the course we each gave a speech which was filmed. We were given the video to review in our own time. I was really unhappy with my speech because at one point I lost my way and hesitated for what felt like an eternity.
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.