There are lots of wrong beliefs around public speaking. Some have an element of truth in them but are still unhelpful. I’d like to challenge six of them. There are many other myths that get in the way but these six are all about anxiety.
1. “Nervousness is a sign of under-preparation so prepare, prepare, prepare”
Oh, if it was only that simple! If you were to believe this, then all you have to do is prepare really well in order NOT to feel nervous. I’ve many clients who’ve wasted weeks of their lives preparing presentations for this very reason, who would say very different things about this statement. It’s not true. In fact it's almost the opposite. Practising can help lock in the fear!
Nervousness is simply a sign that your instinctual flight/flight/freeze system thinks there is a threat or threats. And the threat can be real or imaginary. And that perceived threat could be about lots of things.
Fear of the audience, fear of being judged, fear of being the centre of attention, fear of being seen as a bighead and yes, perhaps not being prepared enough and lots of other stuff.
But it’s not just one thing.
2. I will always be nervous. I have felt nervous for 5 or 12 or 25 years, nothing will shift this.
If this next bit sounds like an advert, forgive me, but it’s true.
In my course reviews there are lots of people saying “I’ve felt this fear for 25 years and I wish had come earlier.”.
That’s because we have made public speaking way too complicated. We have been over-thinking it massively. We think we know what everyone is thinking about us. We have catastrophised it left, right, and centre. But it’s possible for even the most scared people to re-think public speaking. And it happens on every course. It’s simpler than you think. And I know that will sound like a con to some people. But it isn’t. These are skills you can learn in small steps and mindsets you can change and it doesn’t have to take seven years therapy. It can take two days. Maybe for some people it’s taken two courses (less than 10 people in 17 years)
We need to reduce the fear, and that’s done in very small steps. So if we can start to see public speaking as a conversation, realise people are not thinking about you that much, and change our wonky thinking. Then we can move away from the idea of public speaking being a performance to a simpler world.
3. Public speaking should be a polished performance
This belief is one of the key reasons why we find public speaking difficult. If you see public speaking as a performance, it means you have to put on an act, it means you put pressure on yourself to be “funny”, “dynamic”, “impressive” etc. And the more pressures you put on yourself, the harder it is to be there. The pressures can be really tough e.g. “I can’t make any mistakes”.
In one way, you are saying that in order to be a public speaker “I have to be someone I’m not. Someone who is better than my normal me.” You are really saying to yourself “I am not enough”. And that thought is incredibly common with lots of nervous speakers. “you might think there is a part of me that is not good enough”
But audiences want to trust speakers. They will only trust you if you are authentic. They don’t want to see a false persona, they want you to be you, a real human being. We need to get comfortable being ourselves rather than seek perfection or polish. A polished speaker who has rehearsed his speech for 200 times has nearly always driven the life out of the speech. Authenticity is the key.
4. I can tell what the audience is thinking and it’s always critical/negative
David Dimbleby, speaking last year, on the eve of the referendum edition of Question Time, said “I’ve been working with audiences for 40 years, I still can’t tell who in my audience, is a Labour voter or a Tory. I try to guess but I often get it wrong”
If David can’t work out audiences, nor can you. You don’t have that magic, nor do I. Sorry.
What is happening when you stand in front of audiences is that you see rows of blank faces. They look bored and judgemental. But normally audiences don’t nod or smile that much or at all. In fact they listen passively. Passive listeners are not active listeners. Blank faces are the norm. But we see a lack of response as critical. Our brain is good at anxiety so we think we know what people are thinking. It’s always negative. It’s our brain making it up, because how can we possible know what people are thinking? So we need to re-learn what we know about audiences and learn to love blank faces!
Start learning by observing what it’slike when you are in an audience. And look how much you don't do!
5. The audience can tell when I’m nervous
There are two answers to debunk this myth
a) When we are anxious, we often become very self-conscious. Our hands feel like that they have become huge, and when our faces go red we think that everyone is thinking about that part of our body.
You are special part of God’s creation, of course, but you are really not that important! People are worried about themselves, just as intensely as you are worried about yourself. So they are often NOT thinking about you all, they are thinking about themselves. On a course that I taught awhile back, six people thought that everyone was thinking about them individually, all at the same time. The maths can’t work. It’s our brain, it oversees threat. It evolved to do that. We need to learn to live with a brain that is a bit wonky.
b) I’ve been running courses for people who don’t like public speaking for 17 years (full time for 8 years). So that’s at least 5000 people I’ve seen. I’m running these figures by you in order for you to give credibility to the next statement.
It’s hard to see people being nervous.
I really mean it.
Everyone on my course is scared of public speaking. Very often people will say “Everyone else, apart from me, looked fine when they spoke in front of the group, in fact they look relaxed up there”. And then the reply comes “Well, you didn’t look nervous at all”. And people scratch their heads with disbelief.
The hell you are feeling inside is not translated to the outside anywhere near as much as you think it is. Of course sometimes you can tell someone is nervous from the outside but it’s far harder than you think.
6. I’m the ONLY one who feels like this.
I know that’s what it feels like. It’s just you. No else understands just how scary this is.
But I’ve been working with anxious people for 17 years. 5000 people have been on my course. It’s plainly not true.
We judge our world from our own brain. It’s kind of an obvious thing to say. We can’t see into other people’s heads. If people look ok from the outside, we tend think that they are confident. But you don’t know what they are feeling at all. But we are good at being harsh with ourselves, we undermine ourselves AND we compare ourselves negatively with other people. Our brain is good at keeping us down!
There is a special version of this myth: “But I’ve been diagnosed with social anxiety by a doctor, I must be especially scared”.
Social anxiety is incredibly common, just most people don’t see a doctor about it. In my experience, the diagnosis doesn’t tend to help. It just gives the whole process a medical label. And may even get in the way. I’m aware that I might be wrong with some people about this. But in my experience the people who come on my course with “social anxiety diagnosis ” are really no different from most of the anxious people on the course. You too can change!
It’s really very possible to change how we feel about fear.
Yes, it takes some work and yes, you have to a little courage. But it’s far better than living your life scared to be the centre of attention, scared to get married, scared to change jobs, scared to walk into a room or stand up and speak.
We can learn to take our place in the world.