I work a lot with people who are anxious around public speaking. One thing is very clear that we think far too much about it. Especially if we are scared and anxious when we are the centre of attention. And guess what? The overthinking about public speaking does not helpRead More
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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.
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.
Public speaking is about far more than work. We can celebrate life death love and connection. That's why I do my workRead More
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
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
I’m often asked what are the results of doing a course. Can I guarantee changes?
Put simply, I can’t, because the outcome depends on the course participant as well as on me. But here are some stories about what happened after people came on my course. This could be seen as an exercise in trumpet blowing but I would like you to see it rather as a call to action for anyone who has been stuck around the fear of public speaking. You can tackle it. You don’t have to live an overly quiet life because of the fear.
I wanted to let you know that I delivered a 30-minute presentation to 11 others yesterday. I was so relaxed, I nearly fell over. Seriously! I really did take so much good stuff from your course - and I've reminded myself of the main ideas you set out on a number of occasions since. And it worked. This has been huge for me
I've just received some very positive feedback from a presentation I gave on Friday at a national showcase. I can wholeheartedly attribute my confidence to the skills I learnt on your course.
I attended your course in December last year. I found the course very helpful and just wanted to share the fact that I recently gave a speech to over 200 people and had some great feedback. This is in no small part due to what I learned on that day back in Dec.
I just wanted to let you know that because of taking your workshop, I finally reached my long-awaited turning point!! During my 30-minute presentation, I actually felt unafraid - even comfortable - in front of a crowd of about 40 academics. I made eye contact, my voice didn't shake, I felt confident - a very bizarre feeling! There was even a point when I realised that I really ENJOYED being at the podium. Afterward, some of my peers in the audience said that I looked like I had been professor for years already. It was such a great feeling, especially to know that I can continue forward with my career unafraid.
Four Job changes and One Dismissal!
I was able to put my skills to the test at a job interview recently that required giving a presentation. I had the confidence to go and just be myself and not be afraid to loosen up and see it as a conversation which really helped.
I got the job so am leaving my old job tomorrow- I really see your course as having such a big and positive influence in how I am at work and it definitely contributed to my calmness and ability to get on and give the presentation at my interview.
‘just wanted to drop you a line to let you know that since doing your course a couple of years ago, I've now become a yoga teacher! At the time it seemed like an impossible dream, as I hated speaking in front of others so much, but doing your course was the first step on a long journey and gave me the insight to see that it could be achievable.”
You were definitely sat on my shoulder this morning! I led an entire church service for 70 minutes, with about 60 people present. I kept hearing your voice saying ‘slow down, practice relational presence, assume support, chat to one person at a time!’....brilliant. I spoke between hymns and prayers, including a children’s talk and a 10 minute message, using only a few notes!! I had the whole service typed out long hand on the lectern (as usual) but I was able to move right away from it and only glance at the notes once or twice....gobsmacked! I felt the normal adrenaline symptoms but totally ignored them and just had the best time!
“The most important difference which means soooo much to me is that It finally feels like I might really be able to be a teacher.” She is now a practising Pilates Teacher
Just found out that I won my employment tribunal case. The panel decided unanimously that I was unfairly dismissed (constructive dismissal because I resigned).
Pretty positive feedback for your course - there is no way I would have withstood 9 hours of cross examination unless I was able to take my place.
Last weekend I delivered a Best man’s speech to over 200 people. It was 10 minutes long and had the audience vacillating between tears and laughter the whole time, it was one of the best moments of my life. You set me on an amazing and exciting path of discovery in public speaking and for that I am eternally grateful.
I didn't set the public speaking world alight but I got quite a few genuine laughs from the 120 strong audience, and what I'm really really really chuffed with is my confidence once I got going. I didn't slip up, my voice didn't quaver and I managed to speak from a set of visual queues - barely referencing the written speech. It was 8 minutes of my life I'd been dreading for the last 10 years, but it's now the 8 minutes I'm now most proud of.
I did my speech Friday. The speech went really well ! It lasted around 3 mins and everyone was laughing, the groom was so happy with me and didn't expect it,and literally everyone was shaking my hand at the end of it.
I was of course nervous and you could hear in my voice that i was nervous but it didn't really bother me,i could easily do it again if asked.
Considering i have left college courses because of my fear of public speaking and numerous events my life has changed so much, i have been more social and speaking more confidently with friends and family. The main thing i learnt from the course was the talking to blank faces with ease, it’s so simple but so beneficial!
A bride writes…I attended your one-day course in Bristol in February/March last year (and it was so helpful in changing my mindset. I have benefitted a lot from it at work and I know it helped me be the centre of attention on my Wedding Day in July without panicking! I had one moment of negativity when I walked into the back of the church and saw how many people were there, but amazingly, instantly was able to tell myself that they were all there to support me, and the nerves vanished
pitching for business investment
I wanted to give you some feedback as to how it went last Wednesday.
I was totally shattered with nerves, but as soon as I got upfront I could see 'blank faces' and started to have a 'chat'. I was calm, steady with no nerves. It was the best presentation I have ever done and voted best pitch of the night. I have 17 interested parties and have been invited to speak at another event on Tuesday, Google House (50 investors). It went spectacularly well. The story worked beautifully and the finish got a few smiles and a huge round of applause.
Thank you for all your help, could not have done it with out your training!
Update on Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Minutes after I sent out an email about this blog I get a letter from a deputy headteacher.
"You should know that I am going to be a Head! Thank you so much."
Recently I asked a public speaking group I was working with…
“Right now, how many people here are thinking that everyone else is thinking about them even as you just sit in this group?”.
Tentatively 8 people put their hands up. We talked about what was happening for them.
Each one of those eight were thinking that other people were judging them, or noticing when they did things wrong, or how they sat, or what they were doing with their hands. They felt like they were sitting in a constant stream of judgement by others. And of course it was all negative judgments. A lot of the fear of public speaking is based around being overly self-conscious. And we we are nervous we tend to over-think massively
“They are all thinking about my red face” thinks Simon. (I’ve changed the names)
“They are thinking about me and that I’m overweight” thinks Julie
“I really know that they are just thinking all about my spot on my face and the fact that I pronounced a word wrongly half an hour ago” thinks Sarah
But we simply can’t all be thinking about Simon, Julie and Sarah and the other five people at the same time. The maths doesn’t work. Something else is going on. Again our brain is doing strange things (see the previous blog entry) .
I’m not sorry to say that everyone else is NOT thinking about you. On the contrary lots of people are just worried about what other people think about THEM.
And that is liberating. If we really got that freedom, we could just live our own live
We teach presence. That is what speaking circle teachers do around the world when we are teaching public speaking. We think that learning presence first is really important. But what is presence?
Here are some thoughts about what presence is.
• the ability to at ease when you are the centre of attention
• the ability to be comfortable with silence and pauses and taking your time
• the ability to connect and be relational with others when you are your authentic self
• the ability to be fully in the moment - to be here right now
• to be comfortable in our physical bodies - to notice the heart rate increase and see it as normal
• allowing ourselves to take risks and to be appropriately vulnerable - and in the processhelping the audience to trust us
It doesn't stop there - you could add
• the ability to inspire people to action (however from being who you are, rather than putting on a performance)
So presence isn't about learning how to do the right gesture, how to structure a presentation or how to dominate an audience with power words. Its NOT about learning to bolt-on behaviours.
It's really about internal changes in how we think. Re-thinking how we are in front of people. Some of the learning is actually more about unlearning all the advice and practice that just gets in the way.
But the good thing is that its about learning to be ourselves with more ease. That means we don't have to travel that far to really understand why we need to learn presence first.
Additional Note added 19th October 2016
I now teach this in two stages. Public being before presence. Can I be? Can I be seen, can I look? Can I breathe when I am the centre of attention? Very small steps around public being before it leads to presence. I think it's easy to teach and to learn.
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