How easy is it for the audience to detect our nerves? Does the audience really care? And why do we care so much about looking nervous?
Iask my clients to complete a pre-course questionnaire before they start one of courses and most of them say that they are worried about looking nervous in front of an audience. Many of them are also worried about sounding nervous – having a ‘shaky voice’ is a very common concern.
1 – How easy is it for the audience to detect our nerves?
People overestimate how easy it is for others to see their nervousness. Many of the physical symptoms of fear are not visible. For example, you may feel panic, nausea and light headedness. Your palms might be sweaty and your heart is probably racing. These symptoms feel extreme to you but are not observable to others.
When course participants complete a speech, I often ask them to remain on the spot and tell us a little about how they were feeling. They typically say something like “really nervous, my legs were shaking”. Then I will turn to the other participants and ask if they noticed the shaking legs and they will shake their heads. Then we all laugh because a variation of this happens every time I do this! Eventually they start believing that perhaps they don’t look as nervous as they feel!
The “illusion of transparency” is a well-known cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which other people can read their emotional state. This LinkedIn article explains this further and refers to another concept which is being nervous about being nervous! https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-every-public-speaker-must-know-illusion-laura-bergells/. As the article explains, when people are educated about how hard it is to detect nerves, they tend to feel more confident.
Of course, some symptoms of nervousness are more obvious; for example, turning red. Some of us blush more easily than others and it can be annoying – but what normally gives us away is that we start to get flustered when we blush more than the blushing itself. Shaking can be noticeable if you are holding something – like a piece of paper or, or if you are using a pointer to indicate something on a slide. But you can be clever about this by having your notes on a stand and designing your slides so that you don’t need a pointer.
There are signs of nervousness that are not symptoms of nervousness itself but habits that can indicate nervousness – like speaking too fast, rocking, pen clicking, hand clasping etc. The good news about these habits is that you can train yourself out of them once you become aware of them.
A final note on shaky voices. A lot of people worry about their voice sounding shaky when they are nervous. We all know that if we listen to a recording of ourselves it sounds very different to how we hear our voices. Apparently we can detect a shake in our voice well before an audience can. So, if you think that your voice sounds shaky it is unlikely that anyone else will detect this!
In summary, you are highly likely to feel more nervous than you look and there is a lot you can do to hide the signs of nerves that are more visible.
But let’s say that your nerves are noticeable. How does that affect what people think about you?
2 – Do audiences care?
In my view the answer is “usually not but it depends”. If you were a professional speaker, looking very nervous will make you less credible. If you are presenting to a senior management team or a board of directors they are usually looking for clear, succinct, and well-supported advice and your nerves could be interpreted as an indication that you are not sure about your subject.
However, most audiences are more forgiving. People are primarily interested in what you have to say and how they can benefit from it. Even if they notice your nerves they will pay little attention because they are thinking about themselves! I don’t mean this negatively – it is just that you are probably not their primary concern.
Audiences are much more likely to judge you harshly for talking too long or being unprepared than for looking nervous. If they do happen to notice a few nerves they will probably take this to mean that you care which is a good thing. They are also highly unlikely to remember it a few day later although it may be etched in your mind forever!!
In Toastmasters we often say that your audience wishes you well. Outside of Toastmasters I am not convinced that is always true, but I think it’s fair to say that most audiences won’t pay too much attention if you look a bit nervous – they are probably thankful that it is you at the podium and not them!
3 – Why do we care so much?
It’s funny when you think about it. It is a well-known fact that most people are nervous about public speaking, yet we want to hide it as if it is a dirty little secret! Even more puzzling is that many of us are quite willing to admit to being nervous but we don’t want to look nervous!
I am not sure that I can fully explain why we care about appearing nervous. Most of us would not mind people noticing our nerves before a bungy jump but we are mortified if we start to shake in front of an audience. Perhaps it is because the intensity of nerves we can feel seems out of proportion to any actual danger which makes us feel silly. But that doesn’t explain why I hear speakers all the time referring to how nervous they feel. If you think you have an answer make a comment on the post as I would love to know what you think.
While I can’t explain it, I can understand it. I am as keen as the next person to hide my nerves and present a calm and confident exterior! Rather than try to find a rational explanation I think it’s better to remind ourselves that we probably look a lot less nervous than we feel, and that even if we do look nervous, our audiences are too preoccupied to pay much attention to our nerves!
Post written by Catherine Syme
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