When your Negative Voice Gatecrashes your Presentation

Audience listening face
Negative inner voice during presentation – typical audience listening face

Have you ever had the experience while presenting of looking out at the audience and seeing only a sea of blank faces? You look at them and immediately get discouraged; the negative self-talk kicks in: “John looks bored, this must be really bad” or “that woman’s just looked at her watch again…I’d better speed up!” (which is usually a bad move, as we tend to accelerate when nervous anyway). I

Hearing my negative inner critic voice during my presentation used to be an issue for me, especially when I was a beginning speaker. For example, I once did a 40 minute presentation to a business group where an audience member in the 2nd row looked truly disapproving throughout the entire presentation (actually that’s an exaggeration, it couldn’t have been the whole presentation; but I thought he was judging me negatively every time I looked at him – which of course I was drawn to do!).

He then came up to me at the end, told me how much he’d enjoyed the talk because it made him think, and booked into my 5 week course.

He must have had on his ‘listening’ face!

This is well worth taking note of. An audience doesn’t usually give you back the conversation-like responses you’re hoping for. They look blank, or disapproving, or bored. Trust me, this is their passive, listening face. That’s all. You usually don’t need to read any more into it than that.

Here’s my advice: 

Do not second-guess any audience member’s reaction to your talk. During a presentation you probably feel quite certain you know exactly what the responses to it are by your colleagues, critics or – usually worst of all – your boss or someone else higher up in the organisation. Especially if you didn’t know they were going to be there, and you suddenly spot them  in the audience; this is always a nasty shock. More often than not, these thoughts prove to be entirely, sometimes ludicrously inaccurate and only disconnect you from the present moment, which is obviously where you need to be while giving a presentation.  It’s also an incredible waste of energy and mental resources, and you need every one of these while giving a talk: public speaking is a complex activity.

By all means ask for feedback afterwards, but don’t make it up yourself as you’re presenting.

You might now be saying “well that’s all great in theory Sarah, but not so easy to do”.

True. And I have a solution for you.

Here are the action steps to take:

1. Firstly, just be aware that audiences don’t usually look animated when they’re listening to you. They may look bored or disapproving. It doesn’t mean they are.

2. Prepare beforehand for just this eventuality, where your negative voice might start commentating inside your head while you’re speaking. Prior to your speech, do this:

Choose one of these options:

1. One or two words which sum up your core speech message on that day: e.g. ‘influence’ or ‘security’ or ‘health’. No more than 2 words, you need a very quick mantra
2. One word which sums up your goal for what you want to embody as a speaker on that day: e.g. ‘calm’ or ‘confident’ or ‘focused’
3. If you prefer to work with your body’s senses, practise feeling your feet solidly grounded into the earth
Choose only one of these options per speech (experiment over time with which one you prefer if you’re not sure). Whenever your negative voice does start up, or you get thrown, go to this option; it needs to become your ‘default’ setting. This lets you get back on track, and not drop into a negative mental spiral. And yes, you may need to do this more than once during a talk, sometimes multiple times. It’s simple but not always easy initially. However it does work brilliantly with practice, and stops you from being at the mercy of your inner critic during your presentations.

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