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