I’ve heard from hundreds of clients about their fearful thoughts on public speaking – and listened to my own in the days when I used to get very nervous. And I’ve noticed that there are some styles which just keep popping up! Here are three thinking traps that increase public speaking fear:
- “I must know more than everyone else in the room”
This thought is a recipe for enormous stress and sleepless nights. It’s also something you can’t control (see my post the drive for certainty or factors which reduce speaking fear for my thoughts on the importance of control to our brains).
And it can be a huge time-suck, as you battle away for endless hours trying to add to your knowledge, or revise what you already know. Either that, or the thought is so disturbing that you’ll freeze up and procrastinate, because this belief is also a slippery slope to total overwhelm.
You don’t need to know more than everyone in the room. Think of it like this: you’re giving them your perspective, your ‘take’ on the topic. Think my perspective, not know everything, and you’ll improve the situation. So long as you’ve prepared to the best of your ability, you’ve done enough.
2. “I must engage the entire audience the entire time”
This is also unrealistic, and an element you can’t fully control. My personal slant on this idea is that it’s not a question of keeping the audience engaged, it’s a question of quickly re-engaging them once they’ve drifted. Today’s audiences have short attention spans, and each person also has their own individual issues which have nothing to do with you. Issues from the lower level like “what shall I have for lunch?” to bigger ones like a relationship break-up or health challenge.
They’ll drift – and then if you’re engaging, they’ll come back. This is why it’s so important to add variety to your presentations, from vocal delivery (like pauses, pace and volume shifts) to different delivery methods such as audience interaction, playing a video, using a prop.
Remember that it’s unrealistic for the whole audience to be engaged 100% of the time. Take some of the pressure off yourself on that one.
Another tip: don’t try to force engagement on an audience member who steadfastly refuses. You may tip over into a song and dance routine to try and get their interest! I’ve also seen the occasional presenter who’s come across as a bit needy or pleading as they try to get attention.
Instead, I suggest this: any person who’s not engaging with you, keep them in your general eye contact zone, but don’t try to engage them. They’ll suck energy from you, self-doubt will kick in harder, and you’ll start to go downhill. Look instead at the faces who are engaging with you. They’ll feed your energy.
3. “I mustn’t show any nerves”
Again, this is usually an unnecessary strain to put on yourself; and the more you try to hide or suppress your fear, the more likely it is to leak out – like trying to hold a beach ball under the water: it’s going to bounce up again. It’s just nature.
Remember that how you feel inside is highly magnified compared to what the audience perceives. Our nervous systems become very sensitive to triggers when we’re stressed. It’s not usually that apparent to the audience.
And if it is, most people understand and will have a degree of empathy…and relief that they’re not the one up in front of the group! Public speaking fear is such a part of our culture. Unless you have a hostile group for some reason – and some of my clients do – they will look past the nerves. So long as you have prepared thoroughly, have a logical flow, and attempt to engage with them at some level, they’ll be with you.
You lose perspective when you’re afraid. Strange things can suddenly become magnified, and negative looping thoughts such as the ones above, kick in. Your focus and vision narrows. But if you can imagine yourself on the other side of the presentation, and you’ve survived, you’ll be ok. I’m not saying you’ll feel good – although you may – but you’ll be ok.
And the long-term solution to these unhelpful patterns? You can deliberately choose to change your negative thoughts. It takes time, and focus – and it works. Finally, if you’re interested in more reading about dealing with speaking fear, here’s another post I wrote on overcoming speaking fear roadblocks.