When I was 8 years old, I wanted to wage World War II with the help of my friend Michael up the road. (Like lots of boys at that age we were both loved guns.) Now it’s quite shocking to think that I was born only 14 years after that war ended in 1959. It meant that my weekly comic ‘Victor’ – there is a clue in the name - was full of war stories. Thankfully I’ve moved on, I am now firmly a peace lover but it occurred to me recently that lots of people see public speaking as some kind of battle with the audience and so when they present something they often employ warlike ‘defensive strategies’.
Raising a barricade – I will use a lectern as something to hide behind. It feels safer.
Guerrilla attack – if I say my presentation really quickly and get off at speed and maybe they won’t even notice me.
Camouflage - by showing 70 presentation slides, I’m hoping they will look at the screen and not me. I can hide in full sight. They may not notice me.
Make myself smaller - if I sit down I’m a smaller target and it feels safer
Not taking risks – if I do roughly the same presentation as I’ve always done, it will be safe. It might be boring but it’s safe. I don’t want to stand out.
Not making mistakes – I will use the powerpoint - that is controllable. I shall read from it therefore I won’t forget what I have to say and won’t make any mistakes.
Psychological warfare – Dominate the audience by imagining the audience naked
Big weapons in my arsenal – if I use big words in my presentation they will think I know what I’m talking about.
The Magic Armour – I want to ‘appear’ confident on the outside despite my personal hell on the inside.
But the trouble is that these defensive strategies are just about surviving in front of an audience. “If I grip tightly to the lectern I will get through the presentation”.
This defensive approach comes from our tendency to be overly sensitive to threat – it’s the flight-fight-freeze system kicking in. Defensive presenters are not really thinking about being interesting or different, they are simply focussed on surviving. No wonder we talk about bullet points being lethal!
Underneath this defensive strategy are thoughts such as “they are judging me”, “I have to be impressive”, “I have to perform”, “every one else is better than me”. And it’s not really the audience doing this to us. It’s usually us getting in the way of us. We are putting huge pressure on ourselves. We are almost at war with ourselves.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. We can do other things. We can learn new strategies that move us towards a more peaceful existence in front of people. Towards a place of connection and calm. So I urge you to raise the white flag, come out of your bunker and stand up tall. It’s time to re-think public speaking.