Why are audiences tricky to work with? We misunderstand what is happening when we are in the audience. Audiences have blank faces when they listen. They listen passivelyRead 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”.
The dangerous definition? The Confidence Trap?
Many people think that to be confident means having a feeling of certainty, where there is no fear, no inner critic giving us a hard time and no whiff of failure. So confidence becomes defined as an inner feeling of calm and a belief in our success. In contrast to the success equated with confidence, fear is equated with weakness. And we want that feeling of assurance BEFORE we do anything. And that’s where the difficulty is…. It’s an unrealistic wish.
Dr Russ Harris calls this unrealistic desire the Confidence Gap. People get stuck in that gap “when they hold on tightly to this belief: I have to feel confident before I can achieve my goals, perform at my peak, do the things I want to do, or behave like the person I want to be.”
Well, we haven’t got a switch in the back of our neck to turn our brain off. Our brain has developed over millions of years to be really good at spotting and reacting to threat. Without this sensitivity to threat our ancestors would have been have been killed by another tribe, tigers, snakes, or even a carnivorous kangaroos (yes, they existed).
We have a brain that is designed by the nature of the threats it has to deal with. 99% of our brain was developed BEFORE we got language. So flight and fight has always been part of our survival tools and fear is naturally part of our lives. If we wait for the fear to go away before we do anything we shall wait forever. Nelson Mandela didn’t talk about having no fear. He talked about “triumphing over fear”
Helene Lerner in her book The Confidence Myth urges us to step away from the first definition. “The myth of the highly confident individual without fear must give way to a more realistic assessment of what confidence involves.”
Towards a better definition
I think confidence is better defined as an act of trust in ourselves. As Russ Harris points out, it’s an action rather than a feeling. We can start to do things without everything being ok first. We can start moving towards things we want to do, despite the fear. We have to do the work. We have to take action. And that action is learning to trust ourselves.
Can I trust that it’s ok :
To look at an audience?
To be the centre of attention?
To stand up in front of people?
To think on my feet?
There may be some fear that goes with that action. We might do these actions with a higher heart rate than normal. Through the years I’ve taught public speaking I’ve talked about building confidence by doing small actions of trust.
We are helping the “threat brain” to calm down. We do this by repeatedly stepping to the edge of our comfort zone. As we get used to being there, we may get those feelings of assurance we want. But we need to act first. (I’d recommend that you find a course or a speaking club to help you do this where you can try things out without anything at stake.)
Russ Harris writes “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later”.
I couldn’t agree more.
We need to learn to take action. That action might be standing in front of a group, learning to look at people with our hearts beating. What do we see? Do we see judgement on their faces or can we trust that blank faces are just listening faces? If you are trusting yourself there, those faces become normal, and you are building confidence by taking action.
One step further
Victor Frankl encourages us to go beyond thinking about the fear: “Courage is the realisation that there is something more important than fear”.
What’s more important than fear to you?
Nelson Mandela could have stayed in his fear. The man on my course who had waited for 15 years to ask his girlfriend to marry him could still be waiting to ask her. But they didn’t let fear win.
So what’s more important than fear for you tomorrow, next week?
Thank you very much for reading this. Let me know what you think.
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.
Public Speaking Avoidance doesn’t help. Actually avoidance is really the problemRead More
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
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)
There are lots of wrong beliefs around public speaking. I’d like to challenge six of them. There are many other myths that get in the way but these six are all about anxiety. So many people are stopping themselves living a full life because of this fear.Read More
About 10 years ago, I interrupted a burglary.
From my office window, I saw two men carrying things from a house in the distance and somehow I knew straight away that they were up to no good. I jumped out of my ground floor window (the door would have taken too long) and shouted as I ran towards the men ‘Burglars, somebody help me” very loudly three times. I have a very loud voice for emergencies. And a neighbour joined me in pursuit. The house being robbed was occupied by two women, an elderly mum and adult daughter and they had been worried about security. I didn’t sit back and think what happens if I confronted the burglars. I just ran towards them.By the time we had almost caught up with the burglars, we were chasing them into the church car park. The burglars got into a car and wildly accelerated their car towards us. We dived out of the way but my heart was racing out of my chest and it felt like a very surreal intense experience.We said to each other “remember their number plate” as the car left. I repeated it to myself two or three times.
But within minutes, I couldn’t remember the number plate at all, we both had vastly differing accounts of how many men were involved and what had happened. We couldn’t even remember what make the car was.
However for a couple of months I would remember the intensity of the chase and still be in shock. Unexpected tears would come. Not surprisingly we had gone through an extreme flight, fight, freeze reaction. The flight and fight reactions are instinctive, it’s a set of survival responses that primes the body to respond to threat, so you go through neurological, behavioural and hormonal changes and its accompanied by negative emotions such as anxiety fear and anger.
I teach lots of scared people to face their fears and to change how they see public speaking. So I’m fascinated by how we as humans react to fear and threat. I think it’s really worthwhile exploring how other groups of people deal with far more intense fear than public speaking so we can learn from them.
So let’s just imagine guns being involved in that story. What would what would have been my body’s reactions then. Last week I read about how American police react in a UOF (Use of force) situation and how the police can work better in high stress situations. (A Training Method to Improve Police Use of Force Decision Making, Judith P. Andersen, Harri Gustafsberg)
And I’m not talking a lot about the politics of their policing. How they react in extreme stress situations is of course very political, because of the amount of people that are killed by the police.
But here I’m just talking physiology.
When there is a real threat, or a perception of threat, our flight and fight reactions can start. Studies show that our perception gets massively affected as our heart rate increases.
We have changes in vision, sense of time changes and we hear less. Vision can be affected in three ways
- Reduced peripheral vision (tunnel vision).
- Distance only eyesight
- And forced binocular vision.
All three have dramatic consequences when you add guns. Tunnel vision is caused by restricted blood flow to the eyes and eye muscle contractions. The eye focuses on the source of threat with increased attention to detail while ignoring near objects.
Peripheral vision can decrease by 70%. And when that happens it takes 440% longer to react. That’s scary. This starts to explain how the police (or anyone) start to make poor decisions when their flight and fight kicks in. The arousal also disrupts monocular vision, so a police person cannot close one eye to aim like they might do on the firing range. They can’t focus on the gun sight because they can’t do near vision. They can’t aim properly. They have slower reaction times.
During fight or flight, heart rate increases, people either hyperventilate or hold their breath which affects the brain areas responsible for our fine motor skills. We lose dexterity, we get muscle tremors and loss of blood to our extremities. So aiming a gun becomes even harder. However the blood flows to the large muscle groups which means we get stronger - ready for the fight so we can kick, punch and run better.
The more you read about what happens at high heart rate the scarier it becomes. For the first time in my life I start to have some sympathy with American police! It’s not surprising that the wrong things happen when we are operating at such intense heart rates and flight and fight reactions. “An officer may even look in the direction of the threat but not actually see what is going on or may repeatedly pull the trigger of an empty weapon, misidentify innocuous items as weapons or not see or hear innocent bystanders in the line of fire”.
So we really need people like Professor Andersen who research approaches to calm the flight and fight reactions and train police in calming themselves down in a use of force situation.. I haven’t been on her courses - I wouldn’t be allowed! (I am in correspondence with Professor Andersen so I will be fascinated to hear more of what she has to say).
The training for the police consists of education about stress, biofeedback and breathing techniques, group instruction about how to use mental focus and visualisation to enhance situational awareness, practise in realistic scenarios, slowly to begin with and then becoming more realistic. I don’t know her work in enough detail as yet but it makes a lot of sense when I compare how I train and what she does. But I don’t hand out guns during my training, sorry if you are disappointed! (I did have a military participant in one group who said "I'd rather fight the Taliban than do public speaking")
What really struck me is their work on focus.
A small but important part of my coaching is to get people to move from a hard fear-based intense almost laser like focus (getting close to the tunnel vision) which is what happens to a lot of people whey they stand in front of an audience (or they can’t even look at people) to a softer wider focus. So although you are still looking at people’s faces you are also getting a wider focus so you are aware of the periphery around them. We’ve known this helps people relax in stressful situations for 17 years. What the police research seems to show is that it’s counteracting what the brain instinctively wants to do which is to narrow focus when we are stressed. So part of the answer to public speaking stress is to relax our vision, with more peripheral looking you can help our natural flight and fight system to calm down.
I’ve just been reading another book called “Deep Survival - Who lives and who dies” by Laurence Gonzales. And that’s all about how we react when things go wrong in the wilderness. He writes:
“Everyone begins with the same machinery, the same basic organism and when it’s threatened whether in pursuit of pleasure, for duty, for honour or by accident, the organism reacts in predictable ways. It is only by managing and working with those predictable inborn reactions that you’re going to survive. You can’t fight them, because they are who you are”
So of course public speaking isn’t as dangerous as police work or the wilderness (it might feel like it is). But we all need to manage, work with and accept our inbuilt reactions. We can think “it’s just me who is broken” and that makes us feel smaller. But it’s important and perhaps liberating for us to understand the big picture about fear. Fear is a human species story we all share. Fear is normal and we need to learn how to handle it better.
When I was 8 years old, I wanted to wage World War II with the help of my friend Michael up the road. (Like lots of boys at that age we were both loved guns.) Now it’s quite shocking to think that I was born only 14 years after that war ended in 1959. It meant that my weekly comic ‘Victor’ – there is a clue in the name - was full of war stories. Thankfully I’ve moved on, I am now firmly a peace lover but it occurred to me recently that lots of people see public speaking as some kind of battle with the audience and so when they present something they often employ warlike ‘defensive strategies’.
Raising a barricade – I will use a lectern as something to hide behind. It feels safer.
Guerrilla attack – if I say my presentation really quickly and get off at speed and maybe they won’t even notice me.
Camouflage - by showing 70 presentation slides, I’m hoping they will look at the screen and not me. I can hide in full sight. They may not notice me.
Make myself smaller - if I sit down I’m a smaller target and it feels safer
Not taking risks – if I do roughly the same presentation as I’ve always done, it will be safe. It might be boring but it’s safe. I don’t want to stand out.
Not making mistakes – I will use the powerpoint - that is controllable. I shall read from it therefore I won’t forget what I have to say and won’t make any mistakes.
Psychological warfare – Dominate the audience by imagining the audience naked
Big weapons in my arsenal – if I use big words in my presentation they will think I know what I’m talking about.
The Magic Armour – I want to ‘appear’ confident on the outside despite my personal hell on the inside.
But the trouble is that these defensive strategies are just about surviving in front of an audience. “If I grip tightly to the lectern I will get through the presentation”.
This defensive approach comes from our tendency to be overly sensitive to threat – it’s the flight-fight-freeze system kicking in. Defensive presenters are not really thinking about being interesting or different, they are simply focussed on surviving. No wonder we talk about bullet points being lethal!
Underneath this defensive strategy are thoughts such as “they are judging me”, “I have to be impressive”, “I have to perform”, “every one else is better than me”. And it’s not really the audience doing this to us. It’s usually us getting in the way of us. We are putting huge pressure on ourselves. We are almost at war with ourselves.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. We can do other things. We can learn new strategies that move us towards a more peaceful existence in front of people. Towards a place of connection and calm. So I urge you to raise the white flag, come out of your bunker and stand up tall. It’s time to re-think public speaking.
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The problem with the vast majority of public speaking tips and advice is they are centred solely on the speaker. The idea seems to go “Please fix me as the individual speaker in some way . Please help me “control” my nerves.”
For example, the tips for nervousness from the just published TED Guide to Public speaking by Chris Anderson, Head of TED, are as follows
• use your fear as motivation – that’s what its there for
• let your body help you – breathe
• Drink Water
• Avoid an empty stomach
• Remember the power of vulnerability
• Find friends in the audience
• have a backup plan
• focus on what you’re talking about
8 tips and they are mostly about preparing the individual speaker.
I love TED but with the greatest respect (and this time I really mean that) I think the speaker is the wrong place to start. And that’s because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on when we speak.
I think we need to tell a different story.
To understand public speaking, the first place to start is to understand audiences, NOT from the speaker’s point of view. But from when YOU are in the audience.
So next time you are in an audience of over 10 people, I want you to notice what you do and what other people around you do when you listen to a speaker.
I’m going to bet that;
• You listen passively, you nod far less than when you are in a normal conversation
• Your face tends to show few approval signs so your face looks blank.
• You just allow people to take the space when they speak – without too much thought at all. Speakers can just have their turn without you going “They don’t deserve that space” or “They are not worth it”.
• You listen to the speaker for a while but you also think about other things. “Do I need to shop on the way home?” “Do I need to apologise to my wife when I get home?”. (yes is the answer btw) and other thoughts. We occupy a private world in our heads.
• You just look gently at the speaker – you are not actively trying to stare down the speaker
• If the speaker makes a mistake or misses something out we don’t notice or don’t care -unless it’s a significant mistake.
• We are not thinking poisonous thoughts about the speaker. Not usually. We might get bored or frustrated with them but we are not wanting them to die, to fail. We are not criticising their body parts. (By the way I’m not talking about listening to the likes of Donald Trump here but a normal business/organisational presentation).
Being in an audience is a relatively benign place. We just listen or we don’t
But when it’s YOUR turn to speak, suddenly everything changes.
The audience has become hostile, judgemental, bored, is staring at you, is thinking bad thoughts, they have massive expectations of you. Audiences have angry, blank, judgmental faces.
But the audience hasn’t changed – YOU have.
We think we see threats that are not actually there. We assume we can read any audience without any actual proof. If we are afraid we assume they are ALL thinking negative thoughts about us.(inverse ego)
And yet moments before we were just in a gentle audience.
We misread the audience massively. We interpret lots of signs as threats. We forget that we have brains that are hard-wired for spotting threat over millions of years. When we speak we are suffering from evolution! We are operating on false information about the audience because we are anxious. So a yawn is because I’m boring, not because they had a bad night.
So when we speak we need to understand that speaking to audiences is different from a normal conversation. Audiences have blank faces – and that is normal. We may need to practise seeing audiences in this different way before a big event. So it’s worth finding a safe place to practise seeing the audience in this way. You can start of course by looking at what you do when you are in the audience.
The idea then is to understand more deeply what is really happening in an audience. We can learn to connect to those rows of people in front of you with more ease. We can be more ourselves because we are calmer. And then we have more chance to change the world.
Now I think that’s the idea worth spreading.
Yesterday I responded to this question from Yolisa Bam on a website called Quora.
The simple answer is that public speaking can create a strong flight, fight or freeze response in us. We see it as a threat in someway to us. We can feel easily overwhelmed by our thumping hearts and the departure of our normal brain function. I had a soldier on one of my public speaking courses once who said “I’d rather be fighting the Taliban than doing public speaking”. He wasn’t joking
The more complex answer can be broken into at least five areas;
- Misunderstanding what is happening in an audience when we stand up in front of them and getting it radically wrong,
- our evolutionary bias towards over-seeing threat,
- the excessive pressures we put on ourselves,
- The tendency to dwell in fear,
- and finally the lack of speaking experience
1. Audiences listen in a different way to a normal conversation. Audiences listen in a passive way rather than active way. So in audiences you see blank faces EVEN when the audience is really interested. Blank faced audiences are normal. Check it out next you are in the audience. What do you do with your face? You probably don’t smile and nod all the time. You just listen. But speakers see those blank faces as threatening. They look bored or look like they are judging you. People say that they can work out what the audience is thinking. And it’s always negative. A yawn becomes proof of the speaker being boring (that audience member may have young children, or had a bad night or done a long working week).
So those blank faces create a difficult environment UNTIL you see them as just listening faces and get used to the change in listening styles from a normal conversation to an audience style.. And that goes hand in hand with the next point.
2. 99% of our brain was developed before we got language 70,000 years ago. It took awhile to get language. We emerged as mammals 300 million years ago. So that’s a bit like travelling the roughly 300 miles from Edinburgh to Bath where I live and only getting language capabilities just as we reach the door knocker on my front door. Language is very new.
So we have a developed a brain in the time of huge threat – the land of “Will I have lunch or will I be lunch?”.
We had to be really great at threat detection otherwise we would be gonners. We developed colour vision, not to see a beautiful world but to see snakes better. The primates who saw snakes better survived.
So our brain is good at threat. Too good at threat. We oversee it massively. We think we know what people our thinking about us an dit’s negative. So put the threat biased brain in front of a blank faced audience – then not surprisingly we get the threat response going. Even if the threat isn’t real – we are good at making it up. We need to calm that threat response down but we don’t, because of the next point.
3. We put excessive pressures on ourselves. We massively over-think the whole process. We give ourselves a hard time about having a hard time.
So we say to ourselves
• I can’t go red. They will judge me. They will see my weakness
• I have to be fluent and speak like I write
• I’ve got to be funny
• I can’t make a mistake – I’ve got to be perfect.
• Everyone will notice everything I do and the bits of mybody I don’t like.
• I have to be someone I am not. I have to perform.
We treat ourselves harshly. If we treated our friends like we treat ourselves – we would have NO friends. The inner critic is in charge. And the trouble is that we believe our own thoughts. As David Bohm points out “Do we have thoughts or do thoughts have us”. So we feel like we are not _________ enough. Not good enough, not together enough, not handsome enough, not interesting enough.
In many ways we feel lacking, and we feel vulnerable. It’s very close to feeling shamed.
Points 1, 2 and 3 make a toxic soup for public speaking. It's no wonder that 70% of us feel anxious around public speaking. And yet there is more to add to this bad tasting recipe.
4. We dwell a lot in fear. We are great at worrying. We have anxiety about the future and we ruminate about past disasters. We catastrophise about our presentations and imagine the worst. As our brains got bigger we got better at worrying. We have the cinema of humiliation in our heads, the cinema of failure etc. We remember previous bad memories just before we speak.
5. It’s a simple point. Lack of skills and practice. We are not used to public speaking because we want to avoid it. So we do it and then feel grim about it. And when we practise and practise – we can just feel even worse. Because if we are not careful, we are locking in the fear.
We need to practise differently. We need to see it differently
We need to learn a new set of skills before we get to making speeches. We need to learn to be the centre of attention and learn to BE in public before we learn to speak in public. We need to re-think what we are doing. The audience are NOT bored – they are just listening. You are special but NOT that important– everyone is NOT thinking of you or even staring at you. They are just listening to you a bit or maybe they are thinking about Leicester becoming Premiership champions or an old boyfriend or their next holiday. In other words we need to move from being overly self-conscious to being ok being the centre of attention. We need to move public speaking from the land of performance to the land of just having a chat.
We need to make it simpler. And that can be done.
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