Nervous Speaker? Where Does your Focus Naturally Go?

So you’re a nervous speaker: where does your focus naturally go?

Updated 2019

Today’s video post is around a link to some interesting research on where your eyes and attention go if you’re an anxious presenter. This is assuming you’re able to look up and ‘take in’ your audience – and if you’re nervous, that’s not a given! (I put myself in that category: my eyes used to dart around the room when I was afraid of speaking. Eye contact was way too difficult!)

Nervous Speaker - Where Does your Focus Naturally Go?
Nervous Speaker – Where Does your Focus Naturally Go?

So if you’re a nervous speaker, where does your focus naturally go when you look at an audience? Well, unhelpfully, you look at the more negative audience members. This is according to a recent Chinese study which tracked eye movements as participants gave a 3 minute speech over Skype.

If you’re anxious, either about public speaking or in general, this probably doesn’t surprise you. The study also recorded physical anxiety via heart rate and sweat levels, and asked participants to rate their anxiety level. The study reference in the British Psychological Society Research Digest is here.

The article in part says this:

“Writing in Cognition and Emotion, Muyu Lin and her colleagues describe how they tracked their participants’ eye movements as they gave their speeches, and recorded their physical anxiety via sweating and heart rate. They also asked them to rate how anxious they felt.

The participants with high social anxiety spent more time looking at negative audience members and less time at positive audience members, than did the low anxiety participants.

Moreover, the low anxiety participants showed a bias towards spending more time looking at positive audience members than the other people in the audience. While the high anxiety anxiety participants lacked this positive bias.

The high anxiety participants reported more anxiety, as you’d expect, and this was shown in the physiological measures, especially heart rate.

Finally, the greater their attention to negative audience members, the more anxious the socially anxious participants said they felt.”

Action step:

Now that you know this, your solution and goals are to:

  1. Deliberately focus on the more positive looking audience members
  2. Train this into your system over time.

This will take practice, as it goes against your natural tendency. And you might think it’s just too hard to do in the moment – I promise it’s trainable!

I also talked about this idea from a slightly different angle – around a deliberate mindset choice you can make – in an article I wrote a few years ago now (here). In this post, I discussed making the choice to ‘turn towards’ or ‘turn away from’ our audience when we speak to groups.

So, if you’re a nervous speaker, give this idea a go. Your natural focus and tendency will be to focus on the negative, frowning or smartphone-playing audience members. But you don’t have to stay this way permanently. Best wishes with it!


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Comments (2)

  • Sandra Zimmer Reply

    Hello Sarah! I so agree with you about coaching speakers to focus on the people who are responding positively. That is a great first step towards real freedom to speak freely. The next step is to learn to receive the flow of attention from anyone who is giving attention. Receptive connection creates a two way flow of attention that allows for deep connection with listeners. As a coach, I’d like to see us teach people to build genuine connection with all members of the audience. That requires learning to let people in the audience be who they are without judging them for whether they agree with us or not. This is an advanced public speaking skill but one worth mentioning. Thanks for your valuable insights about public speaking!

    at 11:03 pm
    • Sarah Denholm Reply

      Hello Sandra, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I totally agree with you about that connection flow between speaker and audience…and it’s well worth mentioning. Thanks for adding value to my post, I appreciate your thoughts!

      at 6:55 pm

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