There are thousands of tips about how to move away from public speaking anxiety.
“Prepare, prepare, prepare”, “Imagine the audience naked”, “Know 100 Words for Every Word That You Speak. You must know 100 words for every word that you speak.”
Yikes –that’s a lot of work and huge amount of pressure. But the trouble is that they mostly don’t get anywhere near the issues.
So after 19 years of teaching I want to reveal my ultimate tip for changing our anxiety around public speaking. Cue drum roll.
It’s the simple one; you need to change how you think about public speaking and being the centre of attention.
“Is that all I’m getting?” you might say to me.
It may not sound much but it’s a fundamental step. Or a series of steps. And it can be long lasting. The thing about re-thinking is that once you have got it – you don’t need to relearn it.
Tim who came on my one day course in 2011, wrote to me last month about a broken link in my new website. He’s a kind man. He also put on his email “I’m still hugely grateful for your help. Years later I still marvel at the change.” So whatever happened on one day, five years ago, has lasted. What happened was Tim changed how he thought about public speaking. And it’s stuck with him.
Let’s take one step back and take a quick look at Dr Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets. Her research shows that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.
She talks about two different ways of thinking about ourselves:
The fixed mindset
We only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality and a certain moral character. Will I succeed or fail? Will I be accepted or rejected? Talent alone creates success—without effort. I have to limit risk
The growth mindset
Based on the belief that that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts. Everyone can change and grow through application and experience. A person’s true potential is unknown . brains and talent are just the starting point. This view helps to create a love of learning and a resilience to “failure” (it’s where we see setbacks as learning, and not failure)
So a C+ in a student essay could be seen as a failure, or an opportunity to learn more and to understand essays differently, depending on our mindsets.
Dweck’s research shows that just that difference in thinking about what we believe about ourselves can make a huge difference to our love of challenges, belief in effort, resilience in the face of setbacks and greater success.
People coming on my course have a belief that is possible to change. It might be a very small belief at the beginning of the day. But it’s possible. And that’s where the re-thinking and the new learning starts.
So what other shifts of thinking do we need to do with public speaking? There are lots that we can make so here are just a few.
from struggle to learning
Imagine going from the fixed mindset idea "I will always struggle with confidence"
a growth mindset one of"I'm learning to be confident, it might take awhile and there might be some tricky times on the way but there is a whole bunch I can learn".
It’s only me to it’s normal
“I'm the only one who feels this fear of public speaking. I’m in some way abnormal and broken” to
“I'm a human being and fear is normal. It affects everyone else too. I need to learn how to be with fear, and how to think differently about it”.
Olympic athletes change their relationship to fear by describing it differently for example “I’m in the zone”.
Of course I’m not saying that is ALL you need to do around fear. There are a number of re-thinks around fear that are really important. This is what I write about in my other blog entries.
Silence is terrifying to pauses are good
Speakers often think “pauses are horrible, full of panic and the audience must think I’ve forgotten the words”
Good speakers are really comfortable with silence AND they know that audiences need time to absorb what a speaker is saying. Pauses really help people think! So pauses are good and not a sign of weakness. Honestly!
Audiences aren’t doing what you think they are doing
You can of course see audiences as hostile. They have blank faces, they look bored, they are judging me. everyone is thinking about me and it's always critical
For example I was working with a man on a course last week who saw his audiences as giving him “a broadside”. For those who don’t know your naval history, a broadside is a ship firing ALL their canons on one side at you at once. Audiences for him were pretty devastating.
Regular readers will know that I bang on about audiences a lot. The shift I want people to get is that blank faces are normal in an audience. It’s just how we listen in an audience. This shift in thinking that audiences are passive listeners rather than full of hatred/judgement is one of most useful shifts people make on the course And that they are thinking about other things other than you (e.g. mortgage, a row they have had at home, athlete’s foot cream or should I go shopping on the way home).
From hating being the centre of attention to being ok about being looked at
This a biggie. We can make the centre of attention mean far too much. But we let everyone else be the centre of attention with ease. So a lot of my work is to help people soften around the harshness of being the centre of attention. We need to change our beliefs about what it means.
From disaster to recovering
From “I can’t make a mistake, I have to be perfect otherwise people won’t like me or it’s unprofessional”. That is a huge amount of pressure on anyone
“Mistakes are normal, most of the time audiences don’t notice them AND what I need to do is be less worried about making mistakes and get better at recovering from them”.
I’m sorry I’m here to taking your space
We might have the attitude that when we stand up in front of people “I don’t deserve to be here, I’m sorry I’m here, I’m sorry I’m wasting your time, I’m just sorry”
an understanding of just how easily you let everyone else take the space when you are in the audience. When it’s other people’s turn we just let them take the space with ease. Everyone else is doing the same for you when it’s your time.
You are special but not that important – re-balancing self-consciousness
From “everyone is noticing everything I do”
“It’s not really about me at all, it’s really about serving the audience and focussing on the subject.”
The fear of public speaking is irrational to you have got a wonky brain – love it!
from “There is something wrong with me, I shouldn’t feel like this “
Actually human beings have only just arrived in civilisation – 98% of our brains were developed before we got language. We have been living as hunter gatherers for millions of years and within a quick burst of 10,000 years we are in cities. A lot of our brain is still stone age and we are animals that used to be hunted! So let’s be curious about our human brain, the “software” is a bit wonky and you need to realise how it interacts with the modern world’.
Acting the part to having a chat
Change from seeing “public speaking as a performance, I have to be something I’m not”
See public speaking simply as a conversation, see it as chat,” At the end of a day's course, one participant saidwith surprise in her voice"Oh, its just normal speaking to normal people!". She'd made the shift.
Public speaking tips around anxiety are to be taken with a pinch of salt if they don’t include elements of re-thinking public speaking. Tackling public speaking anxiety is really not about just about speech preparation or taking sips of tepid water.
Let’s finish with Jane's experience on the most important day of her life...
“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”
Jane had done the re-thinking needed to be the centre of attention, she understood audiences far better. She had said on the course "When I go to other people's weddings, I'm really happy for them". At the church there was a twinge of negativity but the re-thinking shifted the fear.
This blog was first published in 2016 and I’ve updated in May 2019