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.
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
We focus on the wrong things when we speak publicly. We need to shift our focus away from the fear onto different things. I offer 6 re-thinks for public speakingRead More
Many people come to my public speaking courses and talk about the power of their inner critic. The harsh voice inside their heads. Lots of people think its a fundamental fixed part of themselves. The inner voice that says "I'm crap, but everyone else is ok".
Tara Brach, the Buddhist teacher calls this lack of self-esteem "the trance of unworthiness". Many of us are in this trance - we carry a belief that there is something deeply flawed in us. That there is a part of us that should not be seen.
I'm not _______ enough
(in that space put thin, tall, rich, fluent, clever, good, perfect etc.). The inner critic seems to rule with ease. If we are not careful it seems that we have a basic sense of badness. We are ashamed of who we are. And we are incredibly harsh on ourselves. I'm not sure who said this but I know the following to be true "If we treated our friends like we treat ourselves we would have no friends"
One of the biggest gifts we can do for ourselves is to end this war with ourselves and start having compassion for who we are. That takes a practice of noticing the inner critic and radically changing our relationship to it. Saying thanks but no thanks to that thought.
It might mean we develop other voices such as the inner ally (a voice of a really good friend/ your best teacher at school) and perhaps an inner expedition leader (the wisest, most loving part of ourselves and the one that sees the bigger picture for our own good). These voices would be encouraging and supportive rather than always spouting poison. You can still aim to do well but by support rather than criticism
We need to get a bigger sense of our being and we need to cherish ourselves more. Can we, perhaps, get close to liking ourselves sometime before we die? Be at peace with who we are.
The work of Tara Brach and Brené Brown are worth looking for if you want to follow this up.