What exactly does it take for people to get confidence? Do we understand confidence in a useful way? What actions, beliefs and understandings do we need around confidence for public speaking?Read More
There is a very simple answer to why we are scared of public speaking.
We feel threatened.
This may be a conscious or non-conscious thought.
Our brain looks out for threat (real or imaginary), or remembers previous threatening times and kick-starts the flight, flight and freeze system and we get that sharp mix of physiological and emotional responses.
So, the simple answer to lessen the fear of public speaking is to reduce what we see as threatening.
And in order to do that, you need to
change your thinking
focus far less upon yourself
have a different relationship to fear
understand audiences differently.
To understand that there is a lot of myths around public speaking that can trip us up.
With this understanding and learning on the way, you gradually expose ourselves more and more to public speaking in small steps and in a safe space. Please note this is not the advice of practice, practice, practice – which can lock in the fear.
What I’m doing in this blog is to explore a little deeper into the reasons we feel scared. By reading this it may give you some clear pointers on what to change. Of course, this article is not the whole answer but I hope it’s a very useful starting point.
Another reason for writing this blog is that I want you to get the idea that it’s not just you who thinks like this. I’ve been running my trainings for 17 years. Last year I ran 60 courses. This is NOT just you. You share these feelings with lots and lots of people.
1. What thinking do we need to change?
How we think about public speaking makes a real difference. We put a huge amount of pressures on ourselves. We often think it’s just an irrational physiological reaction however in my experience there is always some problematic thinking going on behind that reaction.
A. We have a harsh inner critic
We give ourselves messages like “I’m boring”, “I’m crap, everyone else is ok” “I’m not worth listening to”. It's a really common thought.
You can feel yourself lacking so you may think
“I’m not ________ enough” (tall enough, good looking enough, prepared enough, intelligent enough etc.)
We compare ourselves.
“Other people are better than me”
We apologise for ourselves because we don’t think we are good enough.
“I’m sorry that I’m wasting your time”
After you have done the speech, you may beat yourself up for months about how bad that was. So, the next time you do a presentation, no wonder the brain goes into threat alert.
B. It’s just me who is broken
You can think there is something just wrong with you.
“It’s just me who is especially scared, other people don’t feel like the fear, like I do”.
“My fear is really obvious where everyone is calm”
For some it may lead to feelings of “I feel so alone”.
C. Impostor Syndrome
Thoughts like “They will find me out, I don’t deserve to be here, I’m a fraud”
(70% of us have some sort of impostor syndrome according to Amy Cuddy’s book on Presence)
D. The lack of compassion for ourselves
We are generous to other people, we give them space, we encourage others but we often have really harsh rules for ourselves. If you spoke to your friends like you speak to yourself, would you have any friends?
Just notice how easily we allow everyone else to be the centre of attention and how tough it is for ourselves.
E. We become overly self-conscious
Many of us don’t like to be the centre of attention. We feel vulnerable, exposed and potentially shamed. When we are anxious, we often think that everyone is thinking about us. So, self-conscious really means “I’m aware that other people are noticing me”. Maybe you think that people are noticing your every fault. “They’ll notice my quivery voice, my big feet etc.”
So, the focus is all about you. But not in a good way. (see also section 2)
F. We put unreasonable pressures on ourselves
We seem to be great at placing excessive demands on ourselves such as …
“I can’t show that I’m nervous” or “I can’t be red” etc
A common if slightly ironic pressure you may put yourself under:“I should be relaxed”. Pressurising yourself to be calm when all you feel is chaos! That’s tough when our bodies are naturally reacting to the adrenaline surge. It’s what bodies do and yet we are war on ourselves. We give ourselves a hard time about having a hard time
Other unreasonable pressures include
“I can’t make a mistake”, “I have to be funny”, “I have to be dynamic”,” I have to be professional”, “I have to perform.”
We are fundamentally saying to ourselves “I have to be somebody I’m not”.
It’s no wonder we feel uneasy.
People who write a lot often put pressures on themselves such as
“I have to be eloquent” “I have to speak like I write” “
“If I’m really prepared they won’t catch me out”, “
I have to know everything”, “I have to be an expert”.
So, people can spend weeks preparing everything but actually seem to be adding to their woes rather than feeling better.
You may also have a brain that is drawn to disaster
“One mistake and that’s me done forever”
And a final excessive pressure adds more misery
“I’m not allowed to pause”, “Other peoples’ pauses are fine, mine are hideous”
G. Avoiding previous threats
You may have been shamed as children or in previous jobs. And our threat system remembers those events really well and drives us to avoid repeating any shameful experiences in the future...
H. The Fear of fear
Fear is meant to be a signal to avoid or fight. That is its biological purpose. It’s meant to be unpleasant. But we develop of fear of fear. So, we want to avoid it all costs. We don’t want to shake or go red. We don’t want the anticipatory fear or that sense of doom.
But that means we are planning everything around avoiding fear. “What happens if…. there is a presentation” So in many ways we are dwelling in fear most of the time even though we are trying to avoid it
As Michel de Montaigne said
“He who fears he shall suffer already suffers what he fears”.
Read that again, it does make sense!
I. Consequences of failure
You want to avoid the shame of failure, especially in front of your colleagues.
Maybe you have a mind-set that tells us that “People can’t change, it’s too late for me to learn, I will always be a bad public speaker, Always scared of public speaking”
K. Perceived threats from the outside
Somehow, we think we know what everyone is thinking about us. And this is without any proof. And it’s always negative.
So, we know that the audience is bored, hostile and doesn’t like me. All the eyes are on me. (See the section below)
You may think that there are pressures to succeed from the outside
“People have great expectations on me” “I have to be a professional presenter to fit in”
And of course, we also have perceived unwanted supported from the outside!
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me”
L. Your brain in general
The human brain is really wired for struggle and survival. It’s still fighting stone age battles. We over- see threat – that’s how we survived in the past by anticipating dangers. But as a result, we try to predict our future by what has happened in our personal past. We only see 10% of reality so we are making a lot of what we see up. So, we see the world not really with our eyes but with our brain. And if our brain is full of fear – guess what we see? Large dollops of fear and threat!
And when our brain is full of fear, we find it hard to think properly. We are concentrating on all the fear rather than the task in hand. So, we lose our focus, forget words and get flustered really easily.
M. The language that we use
Sometimes it’s simply the language that we use which triggers the flight and fight reaction.
“I’ve got a big presentation coming up”
“I’m in the spotlight”
“it’s going to be a massive event”
Sometimes it’s about self-fulfilling prophecies in how we speak to ourselves
“I’m going to be really nervous” – you are literally telling yourself that you are going to be scared. So, what does the body do – it becomes scared!
N. Conclusion to section 1
All this over-thinking means we are creating a really tough world for ourselves. We need to change our tendency to over-think threat. We need to calm things down.
Some of the solutions to all of this over-thinking is in section 2, 3 and 4. and the rest of the blog. It may also be about developing skills in mindfulness and how we interact with our own thoughts. And part of the work to change your thinking could be done in a course.
2. We are too focussed on ourselves
Just look at how long the previous section is! And it’s all about our thinking about ourselves. Our anxious brain is busy trying to protect us but it’s often just seeing the world from our scared point of view.
I think this quote sums it well:
“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection - or compassionate action.”
― Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
Good speakers understand that it’s not really about themselves at all, it’s about the audience or the subject or who they are representing.
3. Our relationship to fear needs to change
We know that fear does unpleasant things to us. It may make you feel sick, your heart thumping so much that it hurts, your vision narrows, you get clumsy, need the toilet, you feel surreal, your words and knowledge go. You may also shake and have shallow breathing. Not surprisingly, we think that fear is wrong. In the previous section I talked about people wanting to avoid fear at all costs.
And it’s the completely wrong strategy.
We need to accept fear. Fear is a normal human being thing. It is unpleasant but its normal. It’s a myth that confident speakers don’t feel fear. What they do is change their relationship to fear. They accept it, they know it goes with the territory.
Nelson Mandela said: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
I’m not talking here about the kind of fear that is overwhelming and panicky. We need to reduce that fear to manageable levels. To a place where we can function well. But the idea that physiological reactions can go away completely is a myth. But what confident speakers do is to accept it, re-label it and call it excitement or perhaps “in the zone”.
4. Not understanding audiences
Audiences can be tricky. They listen in a different way to people listening to us in a conversation. Conversational listeners are active. They nod, and make approving noises and often mirror your body posture.
Audiences however don’t do that. They listen passively. They looked bored. And they have blank faces. It’s normal but it catches us out. We think they are judging us. They are just listening. But our brain is good at threat so we often see them as hostile.
5. Misinformation don’t help
You can read the “fact” that “93% of all communication is through the body”. If you think that is true you are going to be worried about what your body is saying. By believing this, we again, become overly self-conscious and become worried about what bits of your body are saying. I have read that 200 ways to move your eyebrows! I joke about this but people can be really worried about body language.
Luckily that “fact” is rubbish. If it was true, we wouldn’t ever need to learn languages at all. (we’d only miss 7% of their communication). There is a very small, tiny nugget of truth here. The only time it’s true is in this example.
If I am a speaker and shaking and nervous and I say “I’m really happy to be here” the audience doesn’t believe the words.
So, when there is a mismatch between the words and your body then it’s true.
But please remember it’s only then.
The other myth “Public speaking is scarier than death” again is rubbish. It’s from a 1973 survey that just counted what people are scared of. More people put “public speaking” down on the survey than “death”. It was a poor survey. It didn’t get people to rank fears. It just counted more people were scared of public speaking than death without asking “which is scarier”. But now this survey has done its damage. It’s a very sexy headline “More scarier than death” People now believe it and think they should be really scared. And I bang my head on the desk. It’s so frustrating. If there was just one story that all good public speaking trainers would like to banish from their part of the world, it would be this ofne.
I started off with the simple answer to public speaking fear – to see it as less of a threat.
We’ve seen just how much gets in the way.
We need to make it far simpler
If we understand that:
Your brain is geared to over-reading threat and you make a lot it of this up,
Audiences are not really thinking that much about you, audiences are not doing all that nasty stuff you think they are. They are individuals worried about themselves and their mortgage/athlete’s foot/overdraft/sex/food.
Public speaking is a conversation, a chat, rather than a performance.
You need to accept the fear as normal human being stuff (having done the work to hugely reduce it by changing your thinking).
You need to shift your focus away from ourselves. We are way too focussed on ourselves.
To develop and practise these skills in a small ways, in safe places such as speaking courses and groups or small meeting
Then public speaking becomes more possible, less threatening.
I had a client, on one of my courses, was very scared at the beginning of the day. At the end of the day, when various pennies had dropped, she said
“Oh, public speaking……. It’s just normal speaking to normal people”.
That’s what I want everyone to experience.
About 10 years ago, I interrupted a burglary.
From my office window, I saw two men carrying things from a house in the distance and somehow I knew straight away that they were up to no good. I jumped out of my ground floor window (the door would have taken too long) and shouted as I ran towards the men ‘Burglars, somebody help me” very loudly three times. I have a very loud voice for emergencies. And a neighbour joined me in pursuit. The house being robbed was occupied by two women, an elderly mum and adult daughter and they had been worried about security. I didn’t sit back and think what happens if I confronted the burglars. I just ran towards them.By the time we had almost caught up with the burglars, we were chasing them into the church car park. The burglars got into a car and wildly accelerated their car towards us. We dived out of the way but my heart was racing out of my chest and it felt like a very surreal intense experience.We said to each other “remember their number plate” as the car left. I repeated it to myself two or three times.
But within minutes, I couldn’t remember the number plate at all, we both had vastly differing accounts of how many men were involved and what had happened. We couldn’t even remember what make the car was.
However for a couple of months I would remember the intensity of the chase and still be in shock. Unexpected tears would come. Not surprisingly we had gone through an extreme flight, fight, freeze reaction. The flight and fight reactions are instinctive, it’s a set of survival responses that primes the body to respond to threat, so you go through neurological, behavioural and hormonal changes and its accompanied by negative emotions such as anxiety fear and anger.
I teach lots of scared people to face their fears and to change how they see public speaking. So I’m fascinated by how we as humans react to fear and threat. I think it’s really worthwhile exploring how other groups of people deal with far more intense fear than public speaking so we can learn from them.
So let’s just imagine guns being involved in that story. What would what would have been my body’s reactions then. Last week I read about how American police react in a UOF (Use of force) situation and how the police can work better in high stress situations. (A Training Method to Improve Police Use of Force Decision Making, Judith P. Andersen, Harri Gustafsberg)
And I’m not talking a lot about the politics of their policing. How they react in extreme stress situations is of course very political, because of the amount of people that are killed by the police.
But here I’m just talking physiology.
When there is a real threat, or a perception of threat, our flight and fight reactions can start. Studies show that our perception gets massively affected as our heart rate increases.
We have changes in vision, sense of time changes and we hear less. Vision can be affected in three ways
- Reduced peripheral vision (tunnel vision).
- Distance only eyesight
- And forced binocular vision.
All three have dramatic consequences when you add guns. Tunnel vision is caused by restricted blood flow to the eyes and eye muscle contractions. The eye focuses on the source of threat with increased attention to detail while ignoring near objects.
Peripheral vision can decrease by 70%. And when that happens it takes 440% longer to react. That’s scary. This starts to explain how the police (or anyone) start to make poor decisions when their flight and fight kicks in. The arousal also disrupts monocular vision, so a police person cannot close one eye to aim like they might do on the firing range. They can’t focus on the gun sight because they can’t do near vision. They can’t aim properly. They have slower reaction times.
During fight or flight, heart rate increases, people either hyperventilate or hold their breath which affects the brain areas responsible for our fine motor skills. We lose dexterity, we get muscle tremors and loss of blood to our extremities. So aiming a gun becomes even harder. However the blood flows to the large muscle groups which means we get stronger - ready for the fight so we can kick, punch and run better.
The more you read about what happens at high heart rate the scarier it becomes. For the first time in my life I start to have some sympathy with American police! It’s not surprising that the wrong things happen when we are operating at such intense heart rates and flight and fight reactions. “An officer may even look in the direction of the threat but not actually see what is going on or may repeatedly pull the trigger of an empty weapon, misidentify innocuous items as weapons or not see or hear innocent bystanders in the line of fire”.
So we really need people like Professor Andersen who research approaches to calm the flight and fight reactions and train police in calming themselves down in a use of force situation.. I haven’t been on her courses - I wouldn’t be allowed! (I am in correspondence with Professor Andersen so I will be fascinated to hear more of what she has to say).
The training for the police consists of education about stress, biofeedback and breathing techniques, group instruction about how to use mental focus and visualisation to enhance situational awareness, practise in realistic scenarios, slowly to begin with and then becoming more realistic. I don’t know her work in enough detail as yet but it makes a lot of sense when I compare how I train and what she does. But I don’t hand out guns during my training, sorry if you are disappointed! (I did have a military participant in one group who said "I'd rather fight the Taliban than do public speaking")
What really struck me is their work on focus.
A small but important part of my coaching is to get people to move from a hard fear-based intense almost laser like focus (getting close to the tunnel vision) which is what happens to a lot of people whey they stand in front of an audience (or they can’t even look at people) to a softer wider focus. So although you are still looking at people’s faces you are also getting a wider focus so you are aware of the periphery around them. We’ve known this helps people relax in stressful situations for 17 years. What the police research seems to show is that it’s counteracting what the brain instinctively wants to do which is to narrow focus when we are stressed. So part of the answer to public speaking stress is to relax our vision, with more peripheral looking you can help our natural flight and fight system to calm down.
I’ve just been reading another book called “Deep Survival - Who lives and who dies” by Laurence Gonzales. And that’s all about how we react when things go wrong in the wilderness. He writes:
“Everyone begins with the same machinery, the same basic organism and when it’s threatened whether in pursuit of pleasure, for duty, for honour or by accident, the organism reacts in predictable ways. It is only by managing and working with those predictable inborn reactions that you’re going to survive. You can’t fight them, because they are who you are”
So of course public speaking isn’t as dangerous as police work or the wilderness (it might feel like it is). But we all need to manage, work with and accept our inbuilt reactions. We can think “it’s just me who is broken” and that makes us feel smaller. But it’s important and perhaps liberating for us to understand the big picture about fear. Fear is a human species story we all share. Fear is normal and we need to learn how to handle it better.
Public speaking is about far more than work. We can celebrate life death love and connection. That's why I do my workRead More
What makes an effective presentation? I was talking about that in a presentation clinic I ran for a company recently. One guy, Simon, was holding onto the idea that people need the full data more than anything else otherwise they would question his research. Simon was one of the brightest guys I’d ever met. He’d written his presentation like a huge document and wanted the audience to get all the information because ALL of it was really important. 79 slides full of text. But that would be tricky as
a) he was the only one in the company that understood what he was saying. I had to get a colleague to translate his ideas for me. Simon had been assuming that we all knew what he knew. That’s been called the curse of knowledge! We forget what it's like not to know.
And b) he would have carried out not just death but a whole massacre by PowerPoint. The audience would have been overwhelmed
So we spent the day re-structuring his presentation but this time from the audience point of view. Changing it so the audience could understand it and see his ideas clearly. Chucking out lots and lots of stuff. And trying to persuade him that stories really help the audience understand his exciting project. We actually had a great time and got really creative.
A Stanford University survey (quoted in Made to Stick) shows that after a presentation 63% people remember stories and only 5% remembered individual statistics (a stat about how poor stats are!). Yet only 10% of the presentations used stories in their presentations.
Presentations are not just about what you know. You need to think about how you engage and inspire your audience. So next time you are planning a presentation - try to imagine sitting in the audience. What would you want to hear/see from a presenter? My guess it won't be the 79 slides full of text that Simon wanted to use!
We focus on the wrong things when we speak publicly. We need to shift our focus away from the fear onto different things. I offer 6 re-thinks for public speakingRead More
Which stage are you at now and can you change?
Over the last 15 years, I’ve observed people going through different levels of public speaking. We are individuals, of course, but there are also common patterns of behaviour and thinking. So I’ve identified 10 stages to help you get a sense of where you are now as a public speaker and what you can do to change. Not everyone will go through all the stages* and not always in this order but more than enough do to make these stages important.
My last blog was about confidence, about how we need to trust ourselves more and take action BEFORE we get feelings of confidence.
This blog outlines some of the thoughts and feelings we might have as we take the action and learn to be confident. As people learn about public speaking and go through these stages, they realise it’s about changing their thinking, having a new mindset AND understanding what is happening in an audience.
Which stage are you at?
Spending lots of time NOT doing public speaking. Working out ways of avoiding anything that resembles public speaking or simply being the centre of attention. Feeling huge short term relief about not speaking but knowing that I’m missing opportunities, not going for new jobs, avoiding social situations, not taking my place in the world. Fear is winning the day.
I get a LOT of emails from people who are really fed up of being stuck in this stage. They may have been stuck in this stage for years. We can get trapped here and the fear can grow and grow. (And if this is your stage I want you to know that it’s very possible to change how you feel about public speaking)
2. It’s all about me
Racing heart, sweaty palms, shaky legs, etc. Thoughts like; everyone is thinking about me. Oh please God, get me out of here. I hate being the centre of attention. I’m boring. I don’t want to look at people. I’m also giving myself a really hard time. And it’s really just me that feels like this. It’s very clear that no one else suffers like me. I don’t know where to put my hands or to put my body. (And I can feel like this before, during and after anything resembling public speaking)
This stage is where lots of people start. But it’s really not just you that is affected by the fear of public speaking. The fear is actually experienced very widely – in fact it’s normal as a human being to feel it. The acute self-consciousness is about feeling threatened in some way. We also don’t understand that our anxiety is distorting our reality. The audience isn’t full of hatred and loathing for you but it can feel like it! We need to learn to trust ourselves more and about audiences…
3. I feel judged
Those blank faces are bored/angry/judging me. It is fairly grim being the centre of attention.
I can calm down a little - just a little. I can look up. I can speak but I hate it. It’s cost me a lot of sleep and I’ve really been harsh on myself before during and after the speech. I prefer tohide behind 50 PowerPoint slides.
This is stage where lots of people who do public speaking can get stuck. They can do it but they still hate public speaking. They get advice such as just practice, practice, practice but the fear doesn’t shift.
We have to learn new things to move on from here. For instance, all the blank faces in an audience look like they are judging you. But that’s a wrong reading of an audience. Blank faces are just how people listen. Some people might be judging you but you can’t tell which ones. At this stage we are massively over-thinking the threat. So we need to calm down. In my approach to teaching I find it massively helpful to see public speaking as a one-to-one conversation. We also need to learn to love blank faces!
4. I can now look at the audience one person at a time
But I can’t pause yet. It feels odd looking at one person at a time but less scary. I now know that blank faces are just listening faces.
I’ll get through my allotted time as quickly as I can but it feels really slow. My heart is still faster than normal but it bothers me less. I’m beginning to accept how it feels.
Some people think that if they say it quick enough maybe no one will notice them. Even when we get more experienced we tend to rush to the end. We need to learn how to pause and take our time.
5. I should be great but I’m really rubbish
I feel like I should entertain, be impressive, make people laugh. I am also really harsh on myself.
But now I can look at you. But I can’t just be ME up here. I’m putting so much pressure on myself. I’m not good enough
We put pressure on ourselves to “perform”. The more pressure we put on ourselves the harder it is to be ourselves in front of people. And yet, the audience wants us to be just us, to be real and authentic.
So slowly you start to feel that’s ok to be just you. The pressure starts to slacken. And maybe we can start to be more supportive of ourselves, to be more compassionate. We realise that how we treat and think about ourselves makes a huge difference to how we feel about public speaking.
6. It’s ok to BE here
The audience are not thinking bad things about me at all and when I relax, the audience relaxes. I can breathe normally. I’m NOW seeing public speaking just as a chat with people. I can have periods of calm when I speak.
7. It’s not about me at all
Ah, finally the light bulb moment! My job is to serve the interests of the audience and create a sense of community in the audience. It’s really not about me. I might still get a little nervous beforehand but that is normal and not in anyway overwhelming
8. I’m in my flow
I’m enjoying this. I’ve even forgotten that I’m doing public speaking (hard to believe I know), it really feels almost like a conversation. I’m now more concerned/interested with what I’m talking about and why the subject is important to me. I can handle questions well.
9. Public speaking mastery!
I’m fully connecting and serving the audience, in the flow, responding to what is happening right now in the room whilst being able to take the audience to a special place (creating excitement/ move the audience emotionally, inspire them)
I’m well on my way to mastering public speaking and realize that any nervous feelings are just normal and I now see them as excitement. I can think on my feet, allow interruptions, deal with questions and relax. I can speak off the cuff and deal with any change of plan.
10. Serving your purpose
Use public speaking to change the world!
Thank you for reading this.
*I have seen lots of people go from stage 1 through to stage 6 in two days. We can shift things in lots of small steps in a weekend
It’s really obvious to say that what we think about public speaking matters. The problem is that we believe our thoughts and they often turn into firmly held beliefs. Knowing what mental model you have of public speaking and your relationship to be being the centre of attention is often quite hard to know. Those beliefs are often below the surface of our thinking or hard to make conscious. It’s often just a feeling of being anxious. Those unexamined assumptions can make it hard for us to feel comfortable doing public speaking
So we might assume when we do public speaking:“people are judging me”
And when we do, we think
• our beliefs are the truth
• the truth is obvious
• our beliefs are based on real data
• the data we select is the real data
When we stand in front of an audience we see rows of blank faces. So we know for a “fact” that they are judging us.
However passive listening is normal in the audience. We don’t show approval signs not because we are judging you – it’s just how we listen. So blank faces in reality are just listening faces. Not judging faces.
We are basing our thinking on false data and that is creating a whole lot of trouble
How assumptions grow around public speaking
Another problem is with these beliefs/assumptions is that they can connect and grow. Let’s take a recent example of thinking that happened to a participant in one of my courses.
Seeing people who are really scared of public speaking and seeing them go red, feels really awkward for me in the audience
I'm really scared of public speaking so maybe I go red
I’m the only one who really feels fear anyway
As long as I don't show any symptoms they won't see I'm weak
If I go red then they will judge me as weak
I am red so I am weak
I make the assumption I'm flawed
I do go red so they are judging me as flawed
All those faces are looking at me and not showing approval signs
Everyone is thinking about me and it's all negative
Those blank faces tell me that they are judging me
I take actions based on that belief so I avoid public speaking
How quickly we make these false assumptions AND all of these thoughts felt very true to the participant. And as the assumptions grow we build a bigger hell for ourselves.
But there are so many points in this sequence where the gathering of information has been hugely skewed by anxiety. Fear distorts how we see the world and our brain is wonderful at over-seeing threat. Unpicking those distortions means we need to find ways of understanding our unspoken beliefs. So it’s really worth trying to catch those beliefs in your own head if you can.
What do you believe about public speaking that is untrue and getting in your own way? That’s a hard question for anyone to answer because it’s difficult to spot them!
17 false assumptions we make in public speaking
So I will give you some help from the assumptions that I’ve noticed that people believe in during my courses.
How many of these do you think are true for you?
• I'm the only one who feels fear like this
• I'm not interesting enough
• They will judge me
• Every one else is better than me
• I can't be myself – I have to be someone else
• Every one can see the hell inside
• I can't have a pause. Pauses are awkward.
• If I go red, and or if my voice wobbles they will judge me
• I ramble - others don't
• It's a performance, I'm in the spotlight, I have to be someone I'm not, I have to act a role
• My fear is especially bad.
• I can’t slow down because they will notice me more if I do
• I have to be funny/dynamic/entertaining when I speaking
• I can’t make a mistake – I have to be perfect otherwise they will notice/judge me
• I have to please everyone in the audience even though I don’t know what they want
• They want to see me fail
• One mistake and that’s me done forever
Those assumptions are talked about in every group I run. You are not alone. When we challenge our own false beliefs we can change how we feel about public speaking for the better. That might take some reflecting on your part but it’s really worth doing
When people are scared they often leave things to the last moment. Somebody rang me up a couple of weeks ago and wanted immediate help – he had to speak to 500 people the following week. Let’s call him Simon; it’s not his real name. He wanted one to one training in the next two days. But I was already very busy and the only time I had was there and then on the phone. So I spoke to him for 20 minutes.
Amongst other things I said to Simon was “The audience wants you to be real they want to know who you are. They want to be able to trust you. Just be yourself”
But I also knew this to be frustrating advice. It’s not very helpful because it doesn’t tell you how to be real. I don’t think it’s easy; there isn’t an authenticity switch. We do need to think it through.
Which self should you be during the presentation? The self that says, “actually right now I’m constipated” or the self that says “I’d really rather be drinking right now” or “I’d rather be in jail than doing this”.
Probably not a good idea.
So who do we bring to the fore when we stand there with everyone’s eyes on us?
Caroline McHugh in her Ted speech talks about our 4 selves. (The notes in brackets are my stuff not Caroline’s)
a. The most visible you that you represent to the outside world. What do others think of us?
b.The "you", you wish to be. The you that you construct and that changes.
(In a recent survey by the future foundation only 16% agreed that ‘presenting an image true to self’ on social media would also be considered a good moral value. We curate how we want people to see is.)
c. What you think of you - the ego
(In my work I notice that this is where a lot of people get stuck. They are incredibly critical of themselves. This is where they stop themselves because they are not good enough)
d. The fundamental ever present unchanging you.
It’s hard to know which mix of the four (or more) selves we bring when we speak if we haven’t done some work with ourselves. So paradoxically we need to learn how to be ourselves and how to manage our authenticity. Not from Celeste Holm’s standpoint of “if you can fake honesty you’ve got it made."
But from an intention to be real, to connect with the audience, and to be passionate.
4 steps to speaking authentically
1. The basic one of being present or learning public being. We need to be able to stand in front of an audience and be ok with that. Getting comfortable just BEING there. We need to calm the storm down of nervousness and self-critical thinking. We need to be able to NOT get entangled with what do I think the audience is thinking of me. So we practise simple things like being looked at, breathing normally, connecting, pausing, speaking and get our brain back in front of the audience. We need to learn how to just BE in front of our audience. You can do that in a safe group but unfortunately for Simon not over the phone.
2. Speakers need to know what is important to them, what do they personally value, we need to develop self-knowledge. What were there turning points that got them here? Where do they come from?To collect and be able to tell stories about their lives and tell them from a place of service and humility rather than ego.
3. Vulnerability We need to accept the importance of being vulnerable when we speak. It’s a key skill for a speaker. To realize that vulnerability goes with the territory. Accepting that you are going to be there, to be fully seen. Allowing yourself to be passionate, being emotional, to say "I think this is important to me" when others might disagree.
4. Practice in small ways first. Play with these learnings as you build trust in yourself. Find ways to manage the levels of authenticity and what you reveal. I don’t mean rehearse, rehearse, rehearse but get experience of being the authentic you in conversations, small meetings and smaller presentations. Jumping from nothing to 500 is hard.
So I’m still saying “just be yourself”. But in order to do that, please, please. please give yourself a little more time to prepare than Simon had.
This list is a quick overview about why we might be nervous - its not comprehensive but it's big enough already. And these 10 point make a strong case for radically re-thinking public speaking
1. We have wonky brains. Our brains are great at reacting to what we think are threats.
We over-read, over-think and over-react to potential threats and we make up threats for ourselves. Thanks to 600 million years of evolution of our nervous system our brains are biased to looking for threat. So often we think we are being judged or people in the audience don't like us. And most of that time it's false.
2. We mis-understand blank faces in the audience - we seen them as threats.
They are just listening faces but we are used to faces that show approval like in a normal conversation. Audiences listen differently to someone listening to you in a conversation
3. We are tough and overcritical of ourselves.
Our inner critic puts us down. We don't think we are good enough, we think we are boing. That negative internal voice really gets going when we are under the pressure of public speaking. "I'm crap, everyone else is ok" is a very common thought
4. We think that we are transparent and people can see all our faults (the transparency illusion). Its not true but we really think it is.
5. We compare ourselves unfavourably to other people.
This is tied into previous point. We think everyone can see our faults so when we don't see them in other people we think that they are ok and don't feel like you do. They might be just as scared as you but it doesn't show very often.
6. We are great at remembering when a previous presentation went bad before and catrophising about what is going to go wrong in the future.
Just how many times have you fantasised about getting it right and having a wonderful session. We don't. We think of all the bad stuff. And that is our evolutionary brain trying to protect us from danger
7. Some of us don't like being the centre of attention
So we speak quicker and get off so people may not notice us anyway! We don't like everyone staring at us and we feel under scrutiny
8. What we focus on (or worry about) actually changes our brain so we worry more.
Plus all these other points 1-10 help us to over-think even more. Our brain gets overwhelmed and blank!
9. We have built up public speaking into this huge deal AND we think we have to be perfect to do it.
So we put ourselves under massive pressure to be really good.
10. Oh yes we have an adrenaline squeeze as well
Heart racing, dry mouth, shaky legs, red face etc
Don't worry, if you feel any of these things you are not alone. It's very very normal. These are patterns that human beings have around fear. We need to transform our relationship to fear and our thinking. On course after course I have people express these fears and pressures.
That's why we need to spend sometime re-thinking public speaking so that it becomes easier, calmer and a lot less work. It's very possible to change.