When I ask my clients why they think so many people fear public speaking, they almost always talk about being judged.
Concern about being judged is a significant factor, but it is only part of it. Someone with strong self-belief tends to worry less about being judged - they might even relish it. But being judged when you have self-doubt can create intense anxiety.
Imagine you consider yourself to be a terrible singer. Will singing in the shower or to your two-year-old make you nervous? No – because there is no one to judge you. But having an audience is likely to make you very nervous.
Now imagine that you are a great singer. You may still have a few nerves in front of an audience because even the most confident person knows that things can go wrong - but your confidence stops that fear from being crippling.
In my experience, a fear of public speaking arises from two factors:
It is highly likely that you are wrong about how much people are judging you, how harshly they are judging you, and about your abilities as a speaker.
This article explains why you are wrong about being judged.
Why you are wrong about being judged
I need to start with a qualification - you are not entirely wrong. When you begin speaking, the audience will form some impression of you within the first 30 seconds. But here are three cognitive biases that help explain why you are probably wrong about how much and how harshly others are judging you.
1 – The Spotlight effect
The Spotlight effect makes us think we are being noticed much more than we really are. When we stand in front of an audience, we feel like we are in the spotlight, with the audience focused on everything we say or do.
But think of yourself as an audience member. How much time do you spend judging the speaker? You are probably thinking about what they are saying (rather than what you think of them). The chances are you are also thinking about other things – like your mental to-do list or even what you will be having for dinner!
This is disappointing in a way because what we truly crave is approval – an engaged audience. But for the nervous speaker, it is also reassuring.
The little things that we feel self-conscious about – like a sentence that tripped us up - are not even noticed by the audience.
I recently asked two groups to watch a short TED talk. I asked the first group to report back on whether they agreed with the content of the talk and the second group to report back on what they liked and didn't like about the speaker's delivery.
The second group described how/when the speaker moved towards the front of the stage, what he did with his hands and how he used his voice. Someone from the first group commented that he was amazed because he hadn't noticed any of those things! Interestingly there is a part in that talk when the speaker trips up over his words and repeats a sentence. No one from either group noticed it!
2- The illusion of transparency
The illusion of transparency causes us to believe others can see exactly how we feel.
We hate the thought that our nerves are visible to others. We want to appear super-confident and are horrified to think that our anxiety is obvious.
But I have observed, time and time again, that just about everyone feels more nervous than they look. In fact, most people who purport to feel nervous have few tell-tale signs of nerves.
After someone gives a presentation, I ask them how they felt. They usually say something like, "I was very nervous. My legs and voice were shaking." Often, I ask others if they noticed – and they insist that they didn't.
No one can see your heart pounding or the butterflies in your stomach. Shaking legs are not noticeable because no one is looking closely at your legs. Even your voice shaking is usually not apparent to others.
But these things feel so intense to us that we think they must be obvious to everyone. I video my course participants and encourage them to watch themselves later. They often return the following week and admit that their nerves were less visible than they expected.
3- Negativity bias
If others are judging us, they are evaluating our overall performance. However, we tend to focus overly on the things that went wrong.
You might notice one audience member checking their phone and looking bored. Or perhaps you forget something in your speech, and you have to pause to recover yourself.
Afterwards, these things are magnified. We dwell on them to the exclusion of everything else – including the parts of our presentation that may have gone well or positive feedback from the audience. This is known as the negativity bias.
Many years ago, I took a public speaking course at work. We had to do a speech in our last presentation, and at some point, I fumbled and lost my way. I was convinced that I had bombed. The speeches were recorded, and I was so upset by my performance that it took me months before I could bring myself to watch the video.
When I did, I was surprised. Firstly, the fumble was barely noticeable, and secondly, the presentation was quite good overall! Watching my speech later, I was able to see my performance more objectively. I realised that an audience member would have formed a very different impression than the one I came away with and that I had been tormenting myself for no good reason.
Here is another example. I ran a seminar recently for a group of urban designers, many of whom have to present evidence at hearings. In the morning tea break, a woman brought up with me that she had been asked a tricky question in a hearing by a commissioner who she also knows professionally. She was not happy with the way she answered the question.
This event had happened two or three years earlier, but she was still going over it in her mind and thinking about how she could have answered the question differently.
She told me that every time she saw this commissioner, she felt embarrassed. When I asked whether she thought the commissioner remembered the incident, she acknowledged that it was unlikely. But she could not help herself from dwelling on the event more than two years later!
In summary, we have a highly distorted perception of how we come across to others. We have an egocentric view of the world and believe everyone is paying us a lot of attention. We believe that others can see how nervous we are. And we fixate on our mistakes - even minor ones.
How to improve your ability to objectively assess your performance
These cognitive biases are not easy to avoid. But being aware of them helps. Do a mental check when you find yourself thinking things like:
Are there cognitive biases that may be distorting your impression of your performance? What evidence do you have to support your views? And even if you are right, will anyone remember tomorrow?!
As I have already said, watching yourself on video is helpful. It can help moderate your cognitive biases and see yourself as others see you - to an extent.
I suggest you wait a few days and then watch the video twice. Turn the sound off the first time. No one likes the sound of their own voice! And turning the sound off will help you focus on your body language and any distracting habits you might have.
You can try asking someone you trust for feedback. You need to choose the right person - someone who will give you honest feedback but will do so in a constructive way. Prime them beforehand and tell them you are working on improving your public speaking skills. Tell them the areas you are working on - for example, answering questions - and ask them for specific feedback rather than something general like, 'how did I do?"
The truth is that we don't matter to others as much as we think we do!
This might sound brutal, but it is also liberating. No one cares. No one notices if you look nervous, and if they do, they don't give it a second thought. No one notices your stumble, and if they do, they have forgotten it in an hour. They are far more concerned about what others think of them!
Article written by Catherine Syme
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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.