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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.
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
I work with people who hate public speaking. It’s clear that we think far too much about it. Especially if we are scared and anxious when we are the centre of attention.
We think about; where to put our hands, what people are thinking about us, we remember the times we got it wrong, we worry who is in the audience, we catastrophise what might go wrong. To adapt Mark Twain “My speeches have been filled with terrible misfortunes – most of which never happened!”
To cap it all, we often have an internal observer giving a commentary about how badly we are doing in the moment. Let’s listen in;
“You’ve just pronounced that word wrongly, why are you speaking about this right now, omg they can see that I’m nervous, my feet are too big…”
The more we act as our own highly critical commentator, the more we sabotage ourselves.
That is a lot of “stuff” to take up with us. No wonder its hard to be there.
For me, it is obvious that the fear of public speaking is layered – its not just one thing. It’s not just a matter of changing feeling nervous to feeling excitement – although later on that can be a useful.
I think we have to calm ourselves down, to learn how to be in front of people and get used to the fact that our brain that has an evolutionary biased for spotting threat. Over-seeing threat is something our brain excels in. Our brain is evolutionary designed over millions of years to over-think, to spot patterns of danger, to react quickly to them.
Often we blame ourselves for our weaknesses around public speaking. I think we should be kinder to ourselves – we are still using a brain that’s defending us from potential threats from million years ago. When did you last get attacked by a lion during a presentation? But we behave as if the lion is there in the audience. This is our evolutionary legacy rather than something broken with us as individuals.
Part of the answer to the fear of public speaking is to learn how to be ok with lots of people looking at us and how to calm our inner storm so we think a lot less.
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.
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.