Why are audiences tricky to work with? We misunderstand what is happening when we are in the audience. Audiences have blank faces when they listen. They listen passivelyRead More
Are you one of those people who keeps avoiding facing up to difficult things?
If you’re avoiding public speaking and presentations because they feel too scary then you might not be surprised to hear that avoidance actually grows the problem.
Dwelling in fear for any length of time isn’t the answer.
Maybe if we could look at avoidance right between the eyes we could see that it is trying telling us something really useful.
My experience of teaching this over 18 years tells me is that if we face our fears in the right way, by taking the small steps outlined below, we CAN face that fear, we can liberate ourselves and we can live full, meaningful lives.
You probably know that by now that human beings are strange creatures. As a human being myself, I also do strange things. I’m not proud of myself. For years, I have actively avoided doing my tax return from September onwards. I say "active" as it’s always lurking at the back of my brain, I know I should being do it.
Shortly after Jan 31st deadline I pay the £100 fine for a late return. Then on March 1st when the pressure is too much, I spend a week preparing to do my tax return. So I sort out my papers, tidy my desk, organise my music collection, and then on the 8th day of March I get down to doing it. Once I get started it's actually much easier than I thought it would be and two days later I’ve done it. It has only taken two days but I’ve been thinking about it for at least 9 months. And I also have to pay the late fine and any interest and possibly further penalities. I say to myself “next year will be different”. And of course for years nothing changed.
So I know from both personal experience and from 18 years of teaching that avoiding things we find challenging really can really get in the way of our leading full and happy lives. It can affect our relationships and our self image. Take this kind of email that I get quite often:
“I have managed to avoid presentations most of my life but I have recently started a new job where I have to undertake presentations regularly. My first presentation is in two weeks and I already can't sleep and feel sick at the thought of it.”
Or this from another client
"I have always had an intense fear of public speaking and have always made every effort to avoid it at all costs. I even struggle with less formal things like giving updates in team meetings.. This fear really hasn't served me well over the years in terms of work opportunities and job interviews, but I've just brushed it under the carpet, suffered in silence and tried to just accept that it's how I am.
However, a couple of weeks ago I completely fluffed a presentation at work and it really, really shook me. I've therefore decided to finally try and do something about my intense anxiety in the hope that I can one day no longer have the horrible, intense fear and physical symptoms I experience in the run-up to and during a speaking event."
Yet another client I worked with never attended university because of the fear of collecting her degree at the degree ceremony and being the centre of attention on stage.
Sometimes the strength of that avoidance can be brutal. Three different course participants are talking here about how strong their feelings are
“I'd rather have a snake thrown in my face than do public speaking”
“ I'd rather be in the Congo, with armed guards than doing public speaking”
“I’d rather fight the Taliban than do public speaking”
So it’s not just you that is struggling. We seem to want to avoid experiences that are difficult. Even when the avoidance is costly to ourselves. Ironically or perhaps tragically we are spending our lives dominated by the very anxiety, we are trying to avoid. How mad is that? The grim truth is that avoidance doesn’t take the anxiety away, it just makes it bigger.
We avoid discomfort. And that has a profound effect on our lives
“the more we try to avoid discomfort, the more we base our actions on how we feel, rather than on what is most important in life. In other words, we avoid doing things that are important and life-enhancing because we are unwilling to make room for the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that show up. And the more we choose action that gives us short-term relief from discomfort, rather than doing what enriches our lives in the long term, the smaller our lives tend to become.”
Dr Russ Harris
What if we could change our relationship to avoidance?
What would happen if we became curious about the fear of public speaking rather than avoiding? Pema Chodron. a Buddhist teacher, has perhaps a surprising view on avoidance.
"Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for people who have a certain hunger to know what is true - feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are."
What if we moved from the idea that fear is a signal to stop everything to the idea that fear is the signal to start exploring. It’s actually time to be curious rather than to hide! Fear then becomes a teacher. Telling us where we are stuck and where we need to do some work.
But to be clear I'm not suggesting we jump straight in at the deep end.
We need to tackle this in small steps, by breaking a complicated thing such as public speaking into small chunks. Then it’s very possible to learn new ways of approaching it. The smaller the steps, the more possible it is to change something you have been worried about for years in a surprisingly short time.
We can move from threat to connection. From not wanting to be looked at to comfortable making eye connection with the audience. We can move from panic to ease.
A quick guide to avoding avoidance….
• that avoidance is normal. You are not unique. It’s what humans do.
• anxiety makes us self-conscious and self focussed. And it distorts reality, not in our favour.
• the Evolutionary component of public speaking . We are evolutionary biased towards noticing threat. We needed that skill for survival. And we are very good at it.
• that is nothing wrong with you if you are fearful. 70% of population have fear around public speaking. Fear is normal
• that you really don’t know what people are thinking, even if you think you do. You do not have that super-power.. They are as worried about themselves as you are about yourself. So you are special but NOT that important.
• that it’s us holding us back. Me stopping Me. It’s 97% about our own thinking and we have the power to change that.
• the idea that confident people don’t feel fear is a myth. Confident people have a different relationship to fear but they still have fear. They may call it excitement or they know it’s just part of the deal.
• confidence is something you need to practice rather than it just arrives. Confidence is really about trusting ourselves more.
See the bigger picture – take the focus away from being centred on you
• focus on how life could change if you could make these steps. What’s more important than fear? I have had clients who took up dancing again, or became teachers, change their jobs, or ask their partners to marry them
• Move the focus away from yourself. Move your focus on to serving people. Be more interested in a cause or the issues than yourself.
• Learn about Mindfulness. Learn about how we are NOT our thoughts and that we don’t need to get entangled with every single thought. That we can say “thank you but no thank you to our thoughts”. Books and courses
• Learn about Public speaking. Find a course where the emphasis is on re-thinking the psychology around public speaking. That includes my courses, naturally but there are other people around the world. I can't be everywhere!
I’ve been running these courses for 18 years especially for people who have been avoiding public speaking.
We can do this in small steps too;
Read my website, Talk to me and ask me questions (that’s why I run 30 minute free sessions). And then the whole course is broken down into small steps as you can read in these two bits of feedback.
“The course made me realise there are steps to achieving more confidence and the way they were broken down was really achievable and encouraging”.
The course somehow seemed to challenge me without it feeling like much of a challenge. I had a brilliant group who were very supportive, which made me want to step outside my comfort zone. You are never pushed to do anything and it is hard to believe how such a gentle approach can be so effective. Sometimes small steps are massive...
I can’t make you stop avoiding, that’s completely down to you.
But I want you to know that it’s very possible for anyone to change and take their place fully in the world. You really don’t have to live in fear and avoidance.
(Yes, I’ve sorted out my stuff about tax now. This year I didn’t even pay the late fine! I’ll never be an accountant but I’m on top of things now)
"If people really knew what I was like they would find out that I’m fraud"
Ever had a similar feeling that you are going to be found out? That you don’t really deserve your job or to be standing in front of an audience? Or even if you really know your subject somehow you know far less than the audience?
"Everyone else" we seem to think "is better than me"
In every group I run on public speaking these feelings are expressed by lots and lots of people
In her book Presence, Amy Cuddy expresses like this;
It’s not simple stage fright or performance anxiety; rather it’s the deep and sometimes paralysing belief that we have been given something that we didn’t earn and don’t deserve and at some point we’ll be exposed”
When I was on a leadership course some years ago with 60 managers from the public, private and voluntary sector that I was amazed to find that every single manager talked about this feeling. They were going to be found out.
The trouble is with the impostor thinking is that it can undermine our confidence massively.
However the research quoted in Amy Cuddy’s book shows that 70% of people experience this feeling. This impostor syndrome is incredibly common. It’s so normal that it should be renamed as the “impostor experience” . And lots and lots of people have it. So relax, let go of that worry unless you really really truly are a fraud!
I got some really nice feedback today about last week’s course on re-thinking presentations
“What I liked best was that you exceeded my expectations yet again and proved to us that WE are the presentation and that allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, rather than hiding behind a PowerPoint presentation, gives the talk more power and really engages the audience”
Of course it’s lovely to get such feedback but this blog is not about showing off. I really want to pick up on Petronella’s point that it’s the person not the PowerPoint that matters in a presentation.
When presenters start to really engage the audience (which surely is the point of a presentation) they tend to use less and less technology. Or even no slides at all!
I’m not totally against PowerPoint but having too many slides can get hugely in the way of your relationship to your audience. And standard slide presentations often constrain a speaker to a fixed path rather than being able to respond to what the audience wants.
My wife was in an audience as one nervous presenter said “As the previous person has run over and taken nearly all my time, I will have to show you my 120 slides in 20 minutes rather than 45 minutes” And off he went at high speed, showing the audience his slides in record time. In the process he completely lost his audience. He had delivered his slides but he didn’t get his ideas across to the audience. He hadn’t communicated.
Presenters should really serve their audiences rather than being subservient to their slides. Of course it takes confidence and a bit of creativity to think differently about presentations but for the audience’s sake it’s really worth it.
When presenters have the courage to allow themselves to be fully seen and to bring their authentic selves to the presentation then very powerful things can happen.
It’s not the polished presenters that audiences really want, it's real human beings that they can trust.
We have to stop thinking that all presentations just equals slideware
And start thinking that our job as a presenter is to make our ideas really stand out and to really connect with our audience.
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.
I watched this talk recently for the first time. I was very moved by her story. This is a story of her redemption, of someone who has the courage to own up to her mistakes but also the courage to say enough is enough.
If I was in the audience I would have given her a standing ovation. She is poised, eloquent, vulnerable, brave and making an important point superbly. Well done, Monica Lewinsky (not words I would have imagined saying at one time - I was too quick to judge). You have my respect. I shall try and be an upstander!
That’s a question I often ask participants on my public speaking courses.
“The delivery”, “the content”, “getting people to take action”, “relaxed presenters” are some of the answers that I get. They are great answers and they are key parts of a presentation. But there is not much point doing a presentation unless the audience changes in some way.
And in order for them to change – they need to think about what it means to them and why they should change.
So the answer is simple, it’s the audience thinking process.
We need to; 1) invite audiences to think about what we are sayingAND2) give them time to think about it.
I’m going to concentrate on the second point – the time to think, aka the pause….
Often we don’t give audiences silence. Anxious speakers often rush their presentations to get them finished so they can sit down quickly. The presenter’s belief is “as long as I say it, (never mind if it’s rushed) – the audience will get it”. If that is the case, then successful communication hasn’t happened even if delivery has.
So we need to pause.
But the trouble is with pausing is that if you are not used to standing in silence, they feel like moments of terror. A pause filled with panic. “My pauses are huge and show the audience that I’m lost for words” has been said in my groups. If we are anxious speakers then silence seems to have only downsides.
And yet when we write, we know to look after the reader. We add spaces, commas, sentences, paragraphs, sub headings to help the reader understand our thoughts.
Otherwise it would look like this.. “Weaddspacescommassentencesparagraphssub headingstohelpthereaderunderstandourthoughts .” No use to the reader and no use to the audience if you are doing something similar when you speak.
So at the very least a pause helps your audience to think
But the pause does far more that.
The pause also gives you, the presenter time to think. If you can learn to pause and remain calm when you do, you can get your brain back. So if you lose your way a pause can help you get back on track or need time to think about the right way to answer to a question. They also give you time breathe or to drink some water. And if you are relaxed about pausing you are far less likely to use filler words such as “Ums” and “ok” etc.
So a pause can help you to think and look after yourself.
But the pause does far more than that.
It’s actually a thing of beauty for presenters. A pause helps you to connect with the audience. At one level it shows the audience that you are confident enough to take your space. But far more importantly, a powerful speaker will use the silence at the beginning to connect with the audience. And not just the audience as a whole I mean with individuals in the audience. By noticing individualsyou are creating a sense of community, a sense of belonging.
“When called to the pulpit Martin Luther King would often stand and wait— “sometimes ten seconds or more—but it would be “a very active kind of waiting,” in which he would look out over the congregation, “establishing his identity to them, and theirs to him “
(from Peter Manseau’s blog)
So a pause can be about audience connection.
But the pause does far more than that.
It also says that something important is about to happen. It helps the speaker emphasise something and creates a change in pace.
At the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, President Obama’s eulogy had a 13 second pause before he broke into singing “Amazing Grace”. It’s already a famous speech with avery famous pause! I think that particular pause had something of a higher purpose to it – a spiritual element
So it seems the pause has power beyond measure.
Well, that might be an exaggeration but it’s certainly worth exploring and getting friendly with a bit of silence. And if you can do, that your presentations will be far more effective.
13 seconds to go......
wait for it
hang on a bit
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound....