I do a lot of travelling for my work and I talk to people on trains. But rest assured, only if they want to be talked to! This year I’ve had some amazing conversations.
One of them was with the runner, Kate Jayden, who told me that she ran eight 100 mile races last year.
“Doesn’t it hurt? When you get to mile seventy, what are you thinking about?” I asked.
I’m thinking that she still has 30 miles left and that’s longer than a normal marathon.
“I direct my attention away from the pain. I do maths problems when I’m running. I try to solve the same difficult math problem in different ways” she replies.
She is SO different from me.
But here she is talking about a technique that is not only useful for running but is also really handy for public speaking. It’s a very simple one and I call it “shifting focus”
Why do we need to shift focus when speak publicly?
When we are anxious about public speaking we over-think. We catastrophise, we assume that everyone is thinking negative thoughts about us.
We are self-conscious, we don’t know what to do with our hands, or how to stand. We use terms like: “I’m in the spotlight”, “All eyes are on me”, “They are all gunning for me”. And we often compare ourselves negatively with other people.*
It’s like we are in a gloopy, smelly soup of self-harming thoughts and grimness whilst everyone watches us. Not nice!
We need to shift our attention away from our anxious selves, stop dwelling in fear and start noticing/focussing on other things. Like Kate who does maths in her head to distract her from the pain of running, we need to shift our focus to something else.
Shifting your focus
1. Change the story you are telling yourself. A client told me this week “I struggling with confidence”. After we chatted, she changed her focus to “I’m learning to be confident, it’s going to be a process of being curious and trying stuff out”. Framing how we see things in a positive way can make a big difference to how we feel. So re-framing helps us to shift focus.
The other story we could change is about fear. Physiologically, fear is very similar to excitement. When we go to fun fairs, or do adrenaline sports we call it excitement (or madness depending on your age!). Olympic athletes change their relationship to fear. They say “I’m feeling pumped” or “I’m in the zone” or “I’m excited”. But the heart is still racing, and the adrenaline is going but it’s a more pleasant feeling.
2. A great way to help you to shift focus is to ask yourself “What is MORE important than fear for me?”. What do I value? Knowing what is important to you helps you to focus on your higher self, your purpose in life. It might take some work but I think it’s really worth doing. If you know what your values are and remind yourself of them before you speak, you tend to have more courage when you speak. (Speakers who are clear about their values also find writing presentations/speeches easier).
3. An approach that helps me is the idea that I’m here to serve others. Choosing to serve rather than concentrating on anxiety. Rather than focussing on “I’ve got 10 senior people in front of me, what are they thinking of me?”
My job as to serve a group’s needs. Focussing on other people’s needs and fears helps me to go into lots of different organisations and work with groups without fear and with a sense of deep curiosity about how I can help them.
If we realize that actually speaking is not really about us as individuals, it’s about serving the audience, speaking becomes a very different feeling. We become less self-conscious.
Another approach which I think is related to serving people I work with. I don’t believe in God but I have a Quaker poster on my office wall which says “Finding God in everyone”. For me it’s also a way of shifting focus as I’m looking for the specialness in everybody I work with. Both of these approaches take me out of myself.
4. You could see your job as a speaker is to create a sense of belonging in the room. To make sure that people feel included in the debate. So as a speaker I want you to have individual eye contact with the people at the back, and at the side and in front. I’d love you to work on making sure people feel noticed. By doing that you are taking your thoughts away from yourself to others. I want you to notice individuals. (You will have to do some work on getting used to/loving blank faces before you can do this).
5. Speaking on behalf of people…. Recently I worked with people who are recovering from life-changing mental illnesses. Their task was to be the voice of the other service users in a NHS trust. They were speaking on behalf of people who were often ignored or sidelined in the system. Focussing on their colleagues who don’t speak up and need representation helped them see the importance of their work. And then they stepped up and found their courage. The stories they told were inspirational.
6. Looking at the bigger picture, Meditation and Mindfulness are structured practices that help you focus your attention to the present moment and calm the anxious brain. They can make a profound difference to how we live with and change our over-active negatively biased brain.
So like the canny parent who distracts a crying child with something intriguing or like a long distance runner wrestling with maths, we can shift our attention away from anxiety.
It’s a simple but important addition to the public speaking toolbox.