The problem with the vast majority of public speaking tips and advice is they are centred solely on the speaker. The idea seems to go “Please fix me as the individual speaker in some way . Please help me “control” my nerves.”
For example, the tips for nervousness from the just published TED Guide to Public speaking by Chris Anderson, Head of TED, are as follows
• use your fear as motivation – that’s what its there for
• let your body help you – breathe
• Drink Water
• Avoid an empty stomach
• Remember the power of vulnerability
• Find friends in the audience
• have a backup plan
• focus on what you’re talking about
8 tips and they are mostly about preparing the individual speaker.
I love TED but with the greatest respect (and this time I really mean that) I think the speaker is the wrong place to start. And that’s because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on when we speak.
I think we need to tell a different story.
To understand public speaking, the first place to start is to understand audiences, NOT from the speaker’s point of view. But from when YOU are in the audience.
So next time you are in an audience of over 10 people, I want you to notice what you do and what other people around you do when you listen to a speaker.
I’m going to bet that;
• You listen passively, you nod far less than when you are in a normal conversation
• Your face tends to show few approval signs so your face looks blank.
• You just allow people to take the space when they speak – without too much thought at all. Speakers can just have their turn without you going “They don’t deserve that space” or “They are not worth it”.
• You listen to the speaker for a while but you also think about other things. “Do I need to shop on the way home?” “Do I need to apologise to my wife when I get home?”. (yes is the answer btw) and other thoughts. We occupy a private world in our heads.
• You just look gently at the speaker – you are not actively trying to stare down the speaker
• If the speaker makes a mistake or misses something out we don’t notice or don’t care -unless it’s a significant mistake.
• We are not thinking poisonous thoughts about the speaker. Not usually. We might get bored or frustrated with them but we are not wanting them to die, to fail. We are not criticising their body parts. (By the way I’m not talking about listening to the likes of Donald Trump here but a normal business/organisational presentation).
Being in an audience is a relatively benign place. We just listen or we don’t
But when it’s YOUR turn to speak, suddenly everything changes.
The audience has become hostile, judgemental, bored, is staring at you, is thinking bad thoughts, they have massive expectations of you. Audiences have angry, blank, judgmental faces.
But the audience hasn’t changed – YOU have.
We think we see threats that are not actually there. We assume we can read any audience without any actual proof. If we are afraid we assume they are ALL thinking negative thoughts about us.(inverse ego)
And yet moments before we were just in a gentle audience.
We misread the audience massively. We interpret lots of signs as threats. We forget that we have brains that are hard-wired for spotting threat over millions of years. When we speak we are suffering from evolution! We are operating on false information about the audience because we are anxious. So a yawn is because I’m boring, not because they had a bad night.
So when we speak we need to understand that speaking to audiences is different from a normal conversation. Audiences have blank faces – and that is normal. We may need to practise seeing audiences in this different way before a big event. So it’s worth finding a safe place to practise seeing the audience in this way. You can start of course by looking at what you do when you are in the audience.
The idea then is to understand more deeply what is really happening in an audience. We can learn to connect to those rows of people in front of you with more ease. We can be more ourselves because we are calmer. And then we have more chance to change the world.
Now I think that’s the idea worth spreading.