I know that’s a strange title but bear with me.
I see part of my job as a public speaking trainer is to think about how I can break the problems of public speaking fear into small enough parts so the complex knot of problems actually becomes simple to solve. So my teaching is full of tiny steps.
What I've noticed is that lots of people who come on public speaking courses are not actually that scared of the speaking part of public speaking, they are really scared of “public being”. Public being is the most basic stage of being in front of a group. It may sound obvious but you'd be surprised how much fear it provokes.
For 16 years I had been teaching about presence. Then I came to realise that presence is a wonderful concept but it’s hard to grasp if you are really anxious - and I work with a lot of people who are very anxious around public speaking.
Amy Cuddy defines Presence as “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential”. (Presence by Amy Cuddy 2015). Koos Wolcken and Jennet Burghard define presence as “the ability to be fully present in the here-and now when communicating with someone else”. (Present – the Essence of Authentic Presenting, 2015)
Presence is a great thing to aim for, but when you are overwhelmed by fear these concepts can appear too abstract. If you are anxious, things need to be simple otherwise you can’t take them in. Anxiety makes the brain smaller!
Nine months ago, I changed my teaching and started to explain the importance first and foremost of “public being”. It’s the stage you need to get comfortable with before you worry too much about the speaking bit of public speaking.
I often define “public being” as a series of questions
Can I be in front of people with ease? (For some people it will be at the level “Can I actually exist in front of people”)
Can I breathe in front of people?
Can I look and be looked at?
Can I be silent?
Can I just stand in front of the audience?
Can I take my space?
Really fundamental stuff.
And this also expands what we can tackle on a public speaking course. It’s not just speaking.....
A woman came on my course who hated walking across the office because she thought everyone was looking at her. Another client didn’t enter a church cake competition in case she won and had to go up to collect the prize. And then there was the doctor I worked with recently who hated going into a meeting by herself and would wait for a colleague before she went in. So the fear of being in public is often at the root of this fear.
If you can get more at ease with public being then
1) you start to get your brain back.
2) you start to calm the threat response down (the adrenaline surge)
3) you realise that actually the audience is not out to get you
4) you are starting to practise that you don’t need to put on a show, that you are enough
The response to this change in teaching has been a significant change in people’s own understanding of their public speaking fears. Below I’ve taken the liberty of sharing some of the feedback from course participants I’ve had since changing my teaching.
Here's how some of my course participants have taken to the idea of tackling 'public being':
I think you hit the nail on the head when speaking about ‘public being’. That is exactly what I need to be more comfortable with to achieve what I wanted from the course. The course made me realise there are steps to achieving more confidence and the way they were broken down was really achievable and encouraging.
Something profound happened to me in your course which I think was your message about 'public being' rather than public speaking, alongside your modelling of vulnerability and connectedness - simply sharing yourself with your audience. I did feel slightly nervous on both occasions, but then relaxed and stayed with myself throughout the sessions - I even enjoyed it!
It's been a revelation and has stayed with me in a simple but very experiential and immediate way.
You understand it like no-one I have met before and realizing it is the fear of “public being” and not speaking was a revelation to me. Enlightenment!
The course started out from the most basic stage of being comfortable with Public Being, which so many other courses completely overlook. It didn't take much to make a huge difference, but taking things back to basics isn't feasible in normal life and your course did this in a safe, positive environment which broke so many barriers for me. By the end of the two days, I was looking forward to talking in public and really can't wait to stand in front of an audience. I never thought I'd think that.