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From misery to mastery - the 10 stages of successful public speaking

Which stage are you at now and can you change?

Over the last 15 years, I’ve observed people going through different levels of public speaking. We are individuals, of course, but there are also common patterns of behaviour and thinking.  So I’ve identified 10 stages to help you get a sense of where you are now as a public speaker and what you can do to change. Not everyone will go through all the stages* and not always in this order but more than enough do to make these stages important.

My last blog was about confidence, about how we need to trust ourselves more and take action BEFORE we get feelings of confidence.
This blog outlines some of the thoughts and feelings we might have as we take the action and learn to be confident. As people learn about public speaking and go through these stages, they realise it’s about changing their thinking, having a new mindset AND understanding what is happening in an audience.

Which stage are you at?

1. Avoidance
Spending lots of time NOT doing public speaking. Working out ways of avoiding anything that resembles public speaking or simply being the centre of attention. Feeling huge short term relief about not speaking but knowing that I’m missing opportunities, not going for new jobs, avoiding social situations, not taking my place in the world. Fear is winning the day.

I get a LOT of emails from people who are really fed up of being stuck in this stage. They may have been stuck in this stage for years. We can get trapped here and the fear can grow and grow. (And if this is your stage I want you to know that it’s very possible to change how you feel about public speaking)

2. It’s all about me
Racing heart, sweaty palms, shaky legs, etc. Thoughts like; everyone is thinking about me. Oh please God, get me out of here. I hate being the centre of attention. I’m boring. I don’t want to look at people. I’m also giving myself a really hard time. And it’s really just me that feels like this. It’s very clear that no one else suffers like me. I don’t know where to put my hands or to put my body. (And I can feel like this before, during and after anything resembling public speaking)

This stage is where lots of people start. But it’s really not just you that is affected by the fear of public speaking. The fear is actually experienced very widely – in fact it’s normal as a human being to feel it. The acute self-consciousness is about feeling threatened in some way. We also don’t understand that our anxiety is distorting our reality. The audience isn’t full of hatred and loathing for you but it can feel like it! We need to learn to trust ourselves more and about audiences…

3. I feel judged

Those blank faces are bored/angry/judging me. It is fairly grim being the centre of attention.
I can calm down a little - just a little. I can look up. I can speak but I hate it. It’s cost me a lot of sleep and I’ve really been harsh on myself before during and after the speech. I prefer tohide behind 50 PowerPoint slides.

This is stage where lots of people who do public speaking can get stuck. They can do it but they still hate public speaking. They get advice such as just practice, practice, practice but the fear doesn’t shift.
We have to learn new things to move on from here. For instance, all the blank faces in an audience look like they are judging you. But that’s a wrong reading of an audience. Blank faces are just how people listen. Some people might be judging you but you can’t tell which ones. At this stage we are massively over-thinking the threat. So we need to calm down. In my approach to teaching I find it massively helpful to see public speaking as a one-to-one conversation. We also need to learn to love blank faces!

4. I can now look at the audience one person at a time
But I can’t pause yet. It feels odd looking at one person at a time but less scary. I now know that blank faces are just listening faces.
I’ll get through my allotted time as quickly as I can but it feels really slow.  My heart is still faster than normal but it bothers me less. I’m beginning to accept how it feels.

Some people think that if they say it quick enough maybe no one will notice them. Even when we get more experienced we tend to rush to the end. We need to learn how to pause and take our time.

5. I should be great but I’m really rubbish
I feel like I should entertain, be impressive, make people laugh. I am also really harsh on myself.
But now I can look at you. But I can’t just be ME up here. I’m putting so much pressure on myself. I’m not good enough

We put pressure on ourselves to “perform”. The more pressure we put on ourselves the harder it is to be ourselves in front of people. And yet, the audience wants us to be just us, to be real and authentic.
So slowly you start to feel that’s ok to be just you. The pressure starts to slacken. And maybe we can start to be more supportive of ourselves, to be more compassionate. We realise that how we treat and think about ourselves makes a huge difference to how we feel about public speaking.

6. It’s ok to BE here
The audience are not thinking bad things about me at all and when I relax, the audience relaxes. I can breathe normally. I’m NOW seeing public speaking just as a chat with people. I can have periods of calm when I speak.

7. It’s not about me at all
 Ah, finally the light bulb moment! My job is to serve the interests of the audience and create a sense of community in the audience. It’s really not about me. I might still get a little nervous beforehand but that is normal and not in anyway overwhelming

8. I’m in my flow
I’m enjoying this. I’ve even forgotten that I’m doing public speaking (hard to believe I know), it really feels almost like a conversation.  I’m now more concerned/interested with what I’m talking about and why the subject is important to me. I can handle questions well.

9. Public speaking mastery!
I’m fully connecting and serving the audience, in the flow, responding to what is happening right now in the room whilst being able to take the audience to a special place (creating excitement/ move the audience emotionally, inspire them)
I’m well on my way to mastering public speaking and realize that any nervous feelings are just normal and I now see them as excitement. I can think on my feet, allow interruptions, deal with questions and relax. I can speak off the cuff and deal with any change of plan.

10.  Serving your purpose
Use public speaking to change the world!

Thank you for reading this.

*I have seen lots of people go from stage 1 through to stage 6 in two days. We can shift things in lots of small steps in a weekend