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
No, I’m not getting married so you don’t need to save the date. I’m already very happily married, thank you!.
But since I started teaching I've had five women in my groups who didn't have wedding photographs on their wedding day. Another participant commented “I had to take beta blockers at my own wedding 31 years ago because I found the idea of being the centre of attention too daunting and too horrifying”
On the course I hear about couples going abroad for their wedding because they don’t want a big wedding.
I had a woman on one of my courses dreading her wedding day coming up with only three weeks to go. (Don't worry she loves her man). For her it was more about the fear of being the centre of attention for the whole day. On the course she said things like:
”I don’t want to be looked at, I don’t want to arrive in a big car, walk down the aisle, sit at the top table”.
She needed to re-think what being an audience member really means. Audiences are usually not thinking about you that much, are not out to get you and are often thinking about themselves rather than you. But she realised on the course: "When I go to other people's weddings, I'm really happy for them, so maybe they will be happy for me". Part of the work on the course is to understand audiences more deeply. The audience had moved from being hostile in her head to being supportive and they are there because they love her.
After the course she sent me this note
"When I tried on my wedding dress again (after the course) last weekend I also felt so different. I felt comfortable in my skin and even excited that I’ll be able to stand up in front on all those people on my wedding day because I can be myself. Thank you so much John for transforming my thought patterns and breaking down those barriers to being seen by others"
But I didn’t know how her wedding actually went until a year later I got this email:
“I attended your course in Bristol 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”
She is not the only person to have been scared by being the centre of attention at a wedding. A few years ago I had a man in my group who dropped a number of friendships with really good mates when they got engaged - just in case they asked him to be the best man. He wasn't even sure he was going to be asked but just in case he decided to forego his friendships by not replying to their phone calls/texts and blanking them. Painful stuff for him but he’d rather do that than be the centre of attention.
Another course participant told me that he was pushing his seven year old daughter on the swing in the local park the week before he came on the course. All he was thinking about was a future father of the bride speech “The wedding is probably 20 years away, and I’m already petrified of all those faces”.
For many people the idea of the wedding day is not a happy one and that makes me sad. It could be a wonderful time. We can re-learn how to be the centre of attention. It doesn't take long and can make a huge difference to your wedding day and your life. And some day, your children will be able to giggle at your wedding photographs when dad still had hair.
I have a wonderfully weird gig coming up in May. I’m talking to a group of women who are focussed on empowering women about public speaking and self-confidence. So it’s an interesting challenge for me to tackle - mansplaining or what? So a part of me is a little scared, not of the public speaking, but of taking that space. I once appeared in front of a women’s committee at my Student Union in the late Seventies. They were fairly radical feminists and it didn’t go well. I should have been better prepared. I was only 19.
So this Bank holiday weekend I’ve got myself a pile of books on women and confidence and started to make notes.
Tara Mohr’s “Playing Big, A Practical Guide for Brilliant Women Like You” is a great book. What I find compelling isn’t just about women and confidence, because most of what she says also applies to men but she’s really opened my eyes to a “new old” way of thinking about fear.
She writes about how the Hebrew Bible uses two different words for fear. The first is Pachad: this describes the fear of what might happen, the over-reactive irrational fear, which we know as anxiety. Our lizard brain is reacting. Most of us know this fear well. We want to avoid taking emotional risks. It’s one of the main reasons why people come on my courses.
The second word is “Yirah”and we don’t name this very often, if it all. And this is where it becomes really interesting.
“Yirahis defined in three ways:
1. The feeling that overcomes us when we inhabit a larger space than we are used to.
2. The feeling we experience when we suddenly come into possession of more energy than we had before.
3. What we feel in the presence of the divine.”
So it’s the fear of standing tall, of moving into a new space or way of being. The feeling of “OMG, am I really here to do this?” The fear of moving towards something you really want. The fear we experience when we step into our own power.
Tara writes “Yirah is the fear that shows up in those moments when we uncover a dream, access our real feelings about an important situation, or contemplate taking a big leap toward a more authentic life. We feel sacred awe, which has a kind of trembling in it.”
Of course we often experience Pachad and Yirah together but it’s worth unpacking them.
So how do you do that?
“1. Ask yourself: what part of this fear is pachad? Write down the imagined outcomes you fear, the lizard brain fears. Remember they are just imagined, and that pachad-type fears are irrational.
2. Savour yirah. Ask yourself: what part of this fear is yirah? You’ll know yirahbecause it feels different. It has a tinge of exhilaration and awe –while pachad has a sense of threat and panic. You can savour it, knowing it’s just a signal that tells you are touching sacred ground within. You can keep leaning into – even looking for – the callings and leaps that bring yirah.”
There is a spiritual language here that I wouldn’t normally use, but I think it is a really helpful way to re-think fear. I see this fear quite often on the second day of my courses.
A participant might say:
“Damn you, if I’m no longer scared of public speaking then I have no excuse, and there is nothing stopping me from doing what I want to do. That’s differently scary!”
Now I can put a name to that fear.
It’s Yirah and it’s a fear we need to move towards. And I will be standing in Yirah for my speaking gig in May.
Wish me luck.
Public speaking is about far more than work. We can celebrate life death love and connection. That's why I do my workRead More
Abi came on my two day public speaking course in March 2016 and has written this guest blog.
30 was a big milestone for me. I had a “before 30 to-do list”: get to director on the career ladder, visit 30 countries, get on the London property ladder, find “the one”, get in shape… After a lot of stumbling along the way, I finally got to 30 with these boxes pretty much ticked. Now what?
I put a lot of energy and attention into this stuff. And I was having a great time, but… it didn’t feel like enough. I, personally, felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I never felt like enough, no matter what I did, I always felt that I was falling short, not good enough, needing to try harder, do better.
I was running fast, and I kept running – but after this milestone, I had no idea where I was running to. Every time I tried to fixate on a different goal in the future, it just felt wrong. Another promotion. Maybe some kids. Move north of the river. New York. Maybe be an MP. Prime minister. CEO. Save the Children. I couldn’t see my next goal, nothing seemed to fit.
Turning to Walt Whitman for inspiration, I spent a good few months immersed in his work – Leaves of Grass. My favorite passage is quoted above, and I got “I exist as I am, that is enough” tattooed on my arm because I was so drawn to the emotion it created in me. I really wanted it to be true.
To me, it meant that I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything to be enough, I didn’t need a new goal to be completed, I could just be. It was a quiet truth, a small voice, a personal triumph that I was beginning to recognise and trying to live.
I’d been carrying this tattoo for about a year, trying to be true to it. But I did not fully embody it, until I went on a 2 day public speaking course led by John Dawson.
So what has public speaking got to do with all of this? Well, everything – actually. This inner work of accepting that you are enough, is foundational for public speaking, because it enables you to simply put yourself out there without freaking out, without feeling the pressure to be more.
The whole 2 days, was about being comfortable in your own skin, comfortable being you and taking your place in the world. Very simply, giving yourself the permission to take up space without apologising for it or feeling the need to perform or trying to “add value” immediately. Stop running so fast and trying so hard, and bring your attention to your existence in the moment. You have a right to exist as you are, and take your space.
The theory was already familiar to me. But it was not until the physical, and public practice, that I actually embodied the meaning of the words. It was no longer just a personal tattoo on my arm for quiet reflection, I could express it to other people, publicly.
Standing in the room (taking a lot of deep breaths), physically taking my space in front of an audience and facing the reality of my experience – I realized: I exist as I am, that is enough.
My heart can be racing, and its ok. My palms can sweat and that’s fine. I can pause for thought and stay connected to theindividual human beings in front of me. I can make a mistake and still be impactful. I don’t have to be profound every time I open my mouth to speak.. and people will still listen. Physically experiencing and practicing the philosophy was a breakthrough for me, not just for public speaking, but for being. Because “being” is ultimately a public experience.
Instead of feeling awkward and sorry, ashamed or disappointed, it felt ok to be self-compassionate in the moment. It felt ok to be looked at, and to just be me, as I am.
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
This is going to sound strange.
Sometimes I think I don’t really teach public speaking. It feels that I teach people to not be afraid of who they really are – and public speaking is just a by-product of this process.
The fear of public speaking, in a way, is a reflection of our negative thoughts about ourselves and the chaos within. Public speaking can dramatically magnify that inner chaos of course.
But often people have been avoiding not just public speaking events but avoiding meetings, not going for promotion, not singing or dancing in case they get noticed and not doing the things they want to do because the fear of being seen. And the fear of not being good enough.
“My overly self critical nature, self doubt and lack of confidence is the nub of my problem with being the centre of attention,” wrote one participant who had a very senior role.
What this can mean is that we stop ourselves. We lead quiet lives. That is fine if you want to lead that life. But maybe you don’t but you are still letting fear win. Life is short and life will pass us by unless we learn not to be afraid of who we really are. (I was reminded of the shortness of life only this year when my appendix burst in May. Without the wonderful help from the NHS I would have not been writing this blog)
Another participant wrote to me about her regrets about not living her life to the full
“I want to step fully into my shoes, I’ve had them for years – but I’ve never put them on.
If we learn that it is fundamentally ok to be you. We can learn that we can take our place or space in the world.
Oh, and by the way, you may have also learnt some public speaking as you go!
Our time here is magic! It's the only space you have to realize whatever it is that is beautiful, whatever is true, whatever is great, whatever is potential, whatever is rare, whatever is unique, in. It's the only space.
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
What do we think about ourselves? How do we feel about ourselves. This 3 minute video from Dove rings true to me. What do you think?
For me its not just about beauty. The work here is about appreciating ourselves more and NOT apologising for who we are. From my work with thousands of people on a public speaking training I've been so struck by just how common it is to feel unworthy, how we are so ashamed of ourselves. And we can be so critical of ourselves. We are so tough on ourselves - "If we treated our friends like we treat ourselves - we would have no friends" (not sure who said that)
I'm not a Christian but I think these words from a preacher who came on my course last week expresses the inner conflict very well.
One of the things that really hit me on Friday (on the course) was how much of our lives we spend being who other people want us to be. In my case I just want to be the person God has created me to be and not a fake ‘preacher’ the church has fashioned. The realisation had quite an impact and by the end of the trip home on Friday I felt my brain had been rewired (and it hurt!) I spent half the night talking to myself (and God) and promising never to be ashamed to be me again
You might think that shame is a strange thing to explore on a public speaking course. To be honest is not the main aim of the course - I want people to feel comfortable speaking in front of people. But if we carry a belief that we are not good enough then its hard to stand in front of people with ease. Learning how to soften this belief, step around ourselves and realising that everyone else is really worried about what people think of them is part of the work. We are not on the earth for a huge amount of time so let us have the courage to be human, imperfect and learn to be friends with ourselves.
Why we do massively undermine our own confidence? What is the role of our inner critic? If we want to change how we feel about public speaking, it’s really useful to build confidence by re-thinking how we talk to ourselvesRead More
Brené Brown is a professor of sociology, a best selling author and her videos have been watched by over 7 million people on Ted and Youtube. She must be doing something right when she speaks.
She is a vitally alive and courageous speaker about the taboo subject of shame. She takes shame and vulnerability for a walk with the audience who go along with her willingly.
A couple of days ago I came across one of her podcasts on her blog where she got asked “What makes her talks compelling?”
“When I speak I really just try to connect to the people in front of me and just try to be human and try to forget that is there is film rolling.
I feel like the best way to honour people who have shown up to be in the audience or watch something is to be vulnerable and to be authentic and tell them what I believe is the truth of my experience.
I haven’t always had these experiences earlier in my career. When I use to give talks on shame they were called “variables predicting self-conscious affects”. I used a lot of 25 cent words (academic words) and I used a lot of research and data and I never told a story about myself because I stayed really armoured up behind my research and behind my data.
So I think (speaking is about) maybe just showing up and being seen. I’m so desperate to seethat in other people. And when I see someone talk when they are real, and they are vulnerable and they are honest and I see myself reflected back in that struggle, in that laughter and in that success - that’s what I love.”
She’s being herself, serving the audience and she has the courage to be vulnerable. The vulnerability here is about taking the risk to say “this truth is important to me”. Rather than hiding behind big words she is being clear about what matters to her. What she doesn’t say but is clear to me – she is having a conversation with her audience. When they laugh in a particular way she responds in the moment. She honours the audience by being fully present.
In my eyes she is fully taking her place in the world and making a difference to people’s lives.
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.