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.
All my clients complete a pre-course questionnaire, and most say that they are worried about looking nervous in front of an audience. Many of them are also concerned about sounding nervous – having a "shaky voice" is a widespread concern.
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!
While I can't fully explain it, I have a couple of theories about why we are so keen to conceal our nerves.
One is that we feel silly because there is no physical danger. You probably would not care if you looked nervous before a parachute jump! The anxiety you experience before public speaking can be just as bad. I read in a Toastmasters magazine once about an ex-serviceman who said that public speaking terrified him more than being in a battle zone! It is hard to admit to something that seems so irrational.
My other theory is that we view the fear of public speaking as a sign of weakness. We equate being nervous with lacking in confidence more generally. And we admire people who appear confident.
I like to take a two-pronged approach to help people who are ashamed of looking nervous. I start by "calling out" their judgements about how the audience views them. And I teach them techniques for looking more confident than they feel.
How easy is it for the audience to detect your nerves?
We tend to overestimate how easy it is for others to perceive our nervousness. Many of the physical symptoms of fear are not visible. For example, we might feel panic, nausea, and lightheaded. Our palms might be sweaty, and our heart is probably racing. These symptoms feel extreme to us but are not observable to others.
When my clients complete a speech, I often ask them to keep standing and tell us a little about how they were feeling. They typically say something like, “really nervous, my legs were shaking”. Then I turn to the other participants and ask if they noticed the shaking legs, and they will almost always say "no". Usually, someone comments about how confident they looked!
I recently had a young man who kept stopping during his presentation to tell us his legs were shaking! Afterwards, I sent him the video of is presentation. Within minutes he emailed me this reply,
"Wow. You really are right with the videoing; you feel so much more nervous than you look on video. This has made me feel much better; I appreciate it!"
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 by Laura Bergells explains the concept further. Laura explains that 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 visible; for example, turning red. Some people blush more readily than others, and it can be embarrassing. But remember that there are a lot of different reasons why people turn red—for example, a hot room. If turning red causes you to get flustered, the audience will probably notice. But if you can ignore it and carry on, you won't draw attention to the blushing.
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. You can avoid this with a bit of pre-planning. Put your notes on a stand and design your slides so that you don’t need a pointer.
Many people have habits that indicate nervousness, although they are not direct symptoms of nerves—for example, 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. I explain how, later in the article.
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 from how we hear our voices. We can detect a shake in our voice well before it is noticeable to others. So, if you think that your voice sounds shaky, it is unlikely that anyone else will notice it!
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 somewhat noticeable. How does that affect what people think about you?
Does the audience care if you look nervous?
Think back to the last time you noticed a speaker looking nervous? Did this make you feel annoyed or let down? Or did you feel empathy for them? The chances are that you were happy to be in the audience and not in their shoes!
When you are the speaker, most audience members are interested in what you have to say and how it will benefit them. They will readily forgive a little nervousness if you give them something of value. Looking a little nervous can humanise you and show that you care.
Audiences are much more likely to judge you harshly for talking too long or being unprepared than for looking nervous.
There are some exceptions. If you are a politician, looking nervous will be used against you! Similarly, a TV host or professional speaker will not get much sympathy for looking nervous. Looking confident is part of their job description! But for most of us, people understand that public speaking can be daunting.
It might seem unfair, but your audience is likely to be even more forgiving if you are young. No one expects you to be a polished presenter at the start of your career.
How to look more confident
Adopt a service mindset
Hopefully, you feel reassured that your nervousness is less noticeable and concerning to your audience than it is to you! Hang onto that, because caring less about what others think is the first step to looking more confident. Ironically, you will get the thing you crave -audience approval – by not trying to impress!
Try adopting a "service mindset" by focusing on how you can help your audience rather than what they think of you. What do you have to offer? Information? Entertainment? Inspiration? By concentrating on delivering a message that meets the needs of your audience, you can become a little less self-obsessed.
Cultivate stage presence
"Stage presence" is a concept that you instantly recognise in others, but may find it hard to define. It is a combination of what you do, and the personality and attitudes you bring to public speaking. While it can take years to cultivate strong stage presence, a few simple tricks will get you well on the way.
Try to eliminate distracting habits such as rocking, fiddling with an object, or wringing your hands. Watch yourself on video to identify these habits. I suggest watching with the sound off to help you focus on your body language rather than your voice.
Once you become aware of a distracting habit, you have to go through a process to eliminate it. At first, you have to stop or change the habit consciously. And this feels like hard work! But eventually, it will become automatic. Then you are ready to move onto the next improvement!
Mastering the art of eye contact and pause will also pay great dividends in your quest for stage presence.
Nervous speakers tend to avoid eye contact by looking at the floor or the back of the room. Instead, try to hold eye contact with members of the audience. In a small audience of up to ten people, you can make eye contact with everyone. With a larger audience, you need to ensure you cover the room.
How long should you hold eye contact? Slightly longer than what feels comfortable! At first, it might feel like you are staring, but I guarantee it won't feel like that to the other person - as long as you shift your gaze at regular intervals.
Eye contact makes you look more powerful and trustworthy. It also makes you feel more powerful, especially if you receive positive non-verbal feedback like a smile or nod.
You can also use the powerful pause to create anticipation for what you are about to say... ; to give people time to reflect on something that you have just said; or to indicate a change in mood.
Like eye contact, a well-timed pause will make you look and feel more powerful. Also, like eye contact, the ideal length for a pause is slightly longer than what feels comfortable!
For more tips on looking more confident, see this blog article, How to Look Like a Confident Speaker (Even When You Don't Feel Like One!).
Eliminating distracting habits and cultivating new ones takes time. You can't concentrate on everything at once. It's a bit like learning or refining a sport - let's say tennis. If you try to change your serve, your footwork and your backhand grip all at once, you will probably fail. Pick of one thing at a time, and when you notice an improvement, move on!
And remember that you are your own worst critic! Your audience members don't notice half as much as you think, and if they do, they care far less than you think! By shifting your focus to honing your skills and helping your audience, you can worry less!
Post written by Catherine Syme
Updated October 2020
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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.