Thinking about your purpose rather than your performance when public speaking is the key to managing your nerves but it doesn’t come naturally.
When you are standing in front of an audience it is very easy to think that it is all about you. And that makes you anxious because you feel as if you are being judged. However, it is more than likely that the audience is paying very little attention to you personally! Hopefully they are listening to and processing what you have to say. But they are probably thinking about dozens of other things as well, such as what they need to do next, how long the talk is going to last, and the email they forget to send…
Of course, if you are amazingly good or incredibly bad, they will form some judgements about you as well, but you are not their focus. For each individual member of the audience it is very much about them, not you.
I recently had a client who was worried about speaking at his daughter’s 21st. I reminded him that at a 21st function people are focused on his daughter, not him. All they expect from him is to hear how much he cares about his daughter and a couple of entertaining stories. To anyone else this is obvious but many of us would react the same way as my client. It is very easy to slip into ‘what will they think of me?’ rather than ‘how can I best acknowledge my daughter?’
Thinking about your purpose rather than your performance is a powerful concept for three reasons.
It will help you connect with your audience
It is easy to tell the difference in a one-on-one or small group conversation between someone who is genuinely interested in you and someone who is seeking to impress. The former asks questions, takes the time to listen to responses and makes eye contact. The latter is more interested in talking about themselves and may be looking over your shoulder when we are talking.
The dynamics are obviously different for public speaking but the principles are the same. Self-absorbed, confident speakers can come across arrogant and will annoy the audience. Self-absorbed and self-conscious are actually two sides of the same coin. Self-conscious, nervous speakers will make the audience feel slightly uncomfortable. In both cases there is a barrier between the speaker and the audience.
Ironically, what the self-absorbed or self-conscious speaker most craves - the approval of the audience - can only be achieved when he or she stops thinking about themselves and starts thinking about serving their audience!
If the audience perceives that you are there to serve and you have thought about their needs (see the next point) it is highly likely that their body language will indicate their engagement (in a smaller audience they might nod and smile, while in a larger audience they might look highly attentive).
You will serve your audience better
Thinking about purpose will help ensure that you give your audience something of value. Every audience has different needs. Imagine a top sportsperson talking to a group of students. This audience is seeking is inspiration and belief they too could achieve great things in life. If the sportsperson was talking to a group of senior citizens, the message would be quite different. The speaker might emphasise that while they are grateful for their sporting success, the most rewarding aspects of their life come from relationships with family and friends. In this case, the speaker is bringing themselves down to the audience’s level.
Connecting with your audience and serving them well will calm your nerves
When you are speaking, the knowledge that you have connected with your audience and are giving them something of value is incredibly powerful. It can produce a surge of confidence to replace your initial nervousness.
Let's return to our Dad speaking at his daughter’s 21st. If he is nervous and tells stories designed to make him look like a great Dad the audience will probably squirm. But if he is nervous and tells stories that show how much he cares about her, the audience will feel warm towards him and will laugh at his jokes (no matter how weak!) which will make him feel much less nervous.
What if you don’t have a purpose?
Purpose doesn’t have to mean higher purpose. It is great, and a huge advantage if you can speak about something you feel strongly about that is of value to others. The urge to share becomes bigger than you. (See a previous blog post about how finding something important to say can boost your confidence) But every time you speak you have a purpose and if you can make this as clear as possible to the audience, and demonstrate that you have thought about their needs, they will respond well.
Blog post by Catherine Syme
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