Fear of public speaking is extremely common and it is often the most competent of us who experience the highest levels of anxiety in front of an audience. Why? And what can we do? If thorough preparation and techniques do not help, as they rarely do, the answer is probably to be found somewhere else. Actually, we might all together be asking the wrong questions. How about trying a counter intuitive approach?
Let’s face it: everybody is nervous to speak in public. A famous quote by Mark Twain goes: “There are two types of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars.”
So, what is this nervousness, exactly? Bear with me a second, let’s take a step back and look at what happens in our body. Whether we need to give a speech in front of hundreds of people, express an opinion during a meeting, announce a change to our associates or present our work to management and stakeholders, we recognize that the task requires concentration, clarity and focus. Our brain automatically complies: putting it simply, it sends to our body a message of alert, to ensure that we are well awake and focused. The heartbeat accelerates, muscles are activated, body temperature increases, and we are fully ready for the challenge. Our normal healthy reaction is to become more alert and engaged.
What is wrong with that?
“What is wrong” is our perception and interpretation of this body change.
Again putting it simply, we may not like to feel that our body changes without our control; or we may worry that our state of alertness becomes evident to others, thus “giving away” our “irrational humanity”. We become very self-conscious, self-judgmental, and focused on the self, thus losing connection with the challenge at hand, i.e. the actual task of presenting or communicating effectively.
There are two types of approaches to deal with this: we may treat the symptoms or the cause.
When we focus on treating the symptoms, we remain focused on the self; we ask ourselves how we can control, hide, or minimize the effect of our alertness (is it then surprising that our effectiveness decreases?)
In order to try and fight the fear of losing control, we may become obsessed with preparation, learn our speech by heart, read out loud a densely written power-point presentation, overwhelm the audience with a zillion details, speak fast to avoid interruptions and in case of questions recite a rehearsed pre-packaged answer and deliver it with a defiant attitude of “this is the unequivocal truth”.
In order to try and mask any potential signs of our discomfort we may pretend to cough to mask shivers or blushing, take the classical deep breath, avoid looking at the audience, or use various tricks to tense other parts of our body to diffuse the tension (fidgeting with a paperclip in our pocket, tensing leg muscles, or snapping an elastic wristband).
When we go deeper inside the cause, we may discover the usefulness of our state of alertness and use it to be more effective; we are then able to shift focus from ourselves to the task at hand and the audience and start to ask very different questions: how we can best reach out to people? Did they get my point? What are their doubts? Do they really need additional details? And so on.
But how do we manage to make this shift?
First of all, the preparation: instead of preparing to the last little detail, we can learn to accept our state of alertness and its potentially visible signs; for example, instead of waiting to be breathless (in which case taking a deep breath is only counterproductive), we learn relaxation exercises upfront. We may also learn to be kinder with ourselves and accept our unique reactions, which always appear worse to ourselves than to others (I once asked a participant after my presentation at a conference if he had noticed that I was shaking and my voice was at times trembling; he quickly dismissed my question by saying that of course he noticed and it was “a nice sign” that I cared for a subject that he had found provocative and interesting. Nice? Not the word I would have chosen myself! So I learnt to accept my shaking and, surprise-surprise, I shake much less now, if at all).
The second step is to actively work on an attention shift: from self-consciousness to self-awareness. The reason why we are alert is that we care for what we are going to say and we would like to be effective; so thinking too much about ourselves and our reactions is a distraction from our real motivation and interest; learning to focus on our real intention is a sure way to move away from worrying too much about ourselves and we are more likely to become absorbed in the real task at hand (ideally reaching the classical “state of flow” where we entirely forget ourselves and breeze effortlessly without any concerns other than the focus of the discussion). We need to explore our intentions in depth and maintain awareness of intention throughout.
Third and last, we work on sharing the responsibility; yes, we always only have one part of the responsibility: the others need to listen and understand and it is not only up to us, our delivery, or the thoroughness of our presentation; the audience needs to be active. This train of thought allows us to take breaks, look at the audience, call for their attention, invite comments, ask questions and stay open to the possibility that we may not have all the answers. Think about those great comedians who seem to keep audiences of thousands seamlessly glued to their words; of course they have great stories, but notice the interactions: pauses, questions like “this happened to me in Ireland, any Irish people in the audience? I see many hands ” or even showing vulnerability “oops, no this was not planned, I just stumbled for real” ( big laughter and applause). Being aware of the shared responsibility may also help release some of the pressure that we put entirely on ourselves. We become more aware and tolerant of external circumstances (it might be late in the day, there might be an overly-stressed person in the audience with a toxic behavior) and we may find creative alternatives (e.g. declaring the issue “I see we are getting tired, let’s take a moment to get up and stretch” or “I see that we are touching some sensitive subjects, shall we reconvene on those separately or accept to stay on these, which means we might not tackle the rest of the agenda?” thus making others co-responsible for outcome)
If you have read through the above description of both approaches, you may have identified some clues of why some speakers or negotiators are more effective in engaging your attention: we are more willing to carefully listen to and respect, someone who shows a genuine interest in the subject and a generous attitude to sharing their opinion; they give us time to think and absorb, they interact and make us feel valued, they actively call for our attention by looking at us, and they pay us the courtesy of being genuine and authentic by not hiding their nervousness and admitting not to have all the answers. In a nutshell, they focus on the communication rather than on themselves.
How can we get there? Coaching is one of the best and most effective tools to learn how to make the shift from Self-Consciousness to Self-Awareness. Group Coaching is also very effective in practicing within a safe environment, where we can fine tune our individual approach and calibrate our impact with feedback exchange
Copyright © 2015 Laura Lozza
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