If you get nervous about speaking in large groups, you’re not alone. We all feel like that from time-to-time. However, you’re probably missing out on some great opportunities and being overlooked as a result.
If you could imagine your dread as a mass, how big would it be?
Unfortunately, the fear doesn’t get smaller. Life just gets a lot bigger, making it seem smaller (that’s if you let it).
I think of the mass of fear as a circle in the middle, with layers of scar tissue on top, which are experiences, training courses, failures and successes.
There are lots more experiences, some good, some terrible – but all useful.
The most difficult learning, was when I sang Dido's White Flag in a performance workshop through tears, whilst the audience willed me through it. The teacher telling me to sing through it and finally being able to look people in the eye and see them connecting with me, I saw the tears in their eyes and finally realised that I'd been missing out on that deep connection in lots of ways. I felt a rush of adrenalin and wanted to do it again.
I’ve learned that if you’re open to new experiences, you can learn skills and build a kind of kitbag of tools to carry around and pull out whenever you need them.
Over the years, I’ve picked up some tools to help me get better at being myself. This is important when it comes to speaking in public, because if you can really be yourself, it doesn’t matter how many people are watching.
If you can be yourself then it doesn’t matter how many people are watching
I now run short courses to help people feel better about public speaking, but really it’s about hiding the symptoms of fear and enabling you to feel like yourself – without the crippling nerves and anxiety and truly understanding the value of connecting with other people, whether it be a barista in the coffee shop or 2,000 people in an auditorium.
1. People want you to be awesome
Take energy from the people in the room, they want to hear your story.
Close your eyes now and try to remember what your partner or house-mate wore this morning. Try to imagine the person next to you on the tram, what colour their hair might be? It’s hard to remember right? That’s because you’re mostly walking around with your own internal dialogue, worrying about yourself. You’re not really paying attention to everyone else that much.When you go to see a band, you don’t secretly hope they’ll be awful. You’re hoping it’ll be great, that you’ll be moved in some way. That you’ll catch their eye and have that moment where your heart stops for a bit. You really want a connection. No different to going to see a seminar or conference, you usually admire the speaker and really want to hear their story.There is a lot of energy in that, if you can harness it, it feels great. That’s why performers feel exhilarated afterwards, it’s actually rather addictive. Even though it takes the same amount of effort and courage to do it again, they want to.
2. Avoid Negative Self Talk
Do something physical to take yourself out of your own head before a meeting.
The more you tell yourself how terrible you’re going to be, how awful you feel and how useless you are - the truer it becomes.
Whether you can, or think you can’t, you’re right. Henry Ford.
But it’s a very difficult mindset to change. I find that before a presentation or important meeting doing something that makes me stop thinking really helps.
Wash up, tidy up
Rearrange the conference room to your requirements
Focus on a task that is physically challenging - play pool, darts, throw a ball in a net
Read a book out loud (this is also a useful technique to use if you have to speak in a second language)
Sing out loud
The key is to really focus on doing it well and stop obsessing over the details of your story and how you’ll perform. It buys you some time to get your breathing regulated and generate a sense of accomplishment in finishing the task, for a free hit of happy hormones.
These are small things, that may not seem to make a huge difference. But often, lots of small changes can really make a big difference.
3. Be Bigger, Feel Bigger
This is my favourite tip from Amy Cuddy, check out her Ted Talk here. The basic premise is that your physical position can change your brain chemistry. It all goes back to the flight or fight response and how we release hormones to get our body ready for each attack. If we curl up into a ball, we actually tell our brain to hide, to be fearful. Not a great start to a presentation. On the flip side, you can make your brain release lots of fighting energy by making yourself bigger.
Here’s some ways you ‘can try it out, Amy suggests for 2 minutes:
Don’t do these:
Curl up in a ball
Hold your hands across your body
Put your head in your hands on the table
Twine your legs together.
If you’re not convinced, think about the way you feel when you drive a car. Observe other people’s sudden rush of confidence as they enter a confrontation with ease, which would otherwise be avoided at all costs. The car is helping them feel bigger.
4. Own It
Use the platform you've been given.
This one is a simple confidence trick. You’re often forced to stand at a podium to deliver your message. My suggestion is to try setting it up so there is a chair or stool at the side. When you walk on, don’t speak at all. Just calmly walk to the chair, grab it, bring it to the centre and sit there.
Then, tell the audience that ‘that’s a lot better don’t you think?’
You’ll look like you own that stage and you’ll be doing something physical and so you’ll get through the first 30 seconds of the presentation without even speaking.
I find sitting down on a stool to present a nice way to ease my shakes, if they arrive unannounced.
The stage itself is something to behold. It can span metres.
If you’ve chosen the chair option, it’ll be hard to visit the rest of the stage. But if you’re at a podium and you’ve got a mic, try to slowly walk to the other side of the stage and talk to the rest of the room for a few minutes - at least once.
If you nail it once, you might find next time you present, you’ll get around to doing it twice.
Little by little, small changes, will make a difference and remember you still want to be yourself.
5. Don’t Apologise
I’m sorry, I’m nervous.
Sorry, I forgot what I was going to say.
Sorry I’m just so useless.
Well, you may well be, and by announcing it - we all know and you’re believing your own voice more and more.
Avoid calling out your mistakes, instead just take a breath and move on. Nobody knows what was meant to happen.
The final trick to avoid apologising is to pause and take a look at this video about how you could look, if you didn't.
6. The Power of Pause
Instead of filling spaces with rambling, just take a pause. Use it to gather your thoughts and catch your breathe. It feels like a minute to you, but will only be a few seconds to your audience.
In this series of posts, I share some tips on how to feel better when public speaking.
Some of us just speak to fast when we’re nervous and end up racing through important details. Others tend to fill empty space, because think they should.
The thing is, there is a lot of power in taking a moment to stop. Breathe, look around and start again.
Try reading this sentence out loud and then count to 3 in your head, before saying the next one.
This is the sentence you're reading out loud.
(silent counting 1, 2, 3)
This is the next one.
It may feel like a whole minute to you, but in reality it will be a few seconds.
This pause gives you a moment to think, to slow down, to catch your breath. But more importantly it adds ‘dynamic’ to your voice.
If you forget about the Pause, remember Joey from Friends? He once shared acting tips with Monica. He told her that to look wistful, he would pretend to sniff an imaginary fart and follow the smell with a gaze out and a turn of the head, gently sniffing the air.
I’m not suggesting you let one go, but this may remind you to slow down and smell the farts.
7. Connect With The Audience
This is where you need to forget all previous advice you were given about presenting. Like staring at the back of the room and imagining everyone naked.Imagine if your favourite speaker walked in and started to stare at the back of the room and never looked at anyone?
What if they seemed disconnected from what they were saying, as if it were memorised and not heart-felt?It’s so important to connect on a human level. You want people to get the right first impression and will you on throughout."Gosh they’re funny or smart, or clever or enter desirable attribute - I like them, I want to hear their story, I’m listening"Nature’s response to fear is to release hormones which make your brain act differently than it would under usual circumstances. It wants to run away, curl into a ball and rock gently. Or it may want to stand up and fight a lion. Either way it clouds your logical thought processes. It’s primal and you can’t fight it. But you can be sure that it’ll pass and you’ll feel more in control within about 2 minutes.
So, try to use those first two minutes to harness the energy in the room and connect with the audience. Make yourself feel at home, help them help you make this awesome.
It’s easier said than done, but there are a few things you can do to get you over the first minute or so.
A great way to do this, is to ensure that whoever introduces you, builds you up. Both to you and to the crowd. This gives you both confidence and a much needed boost of happy hormones. A humble thanks and acknowledgement of their kind words goes a long way too.
If that’s not an option, perhaps play some music whilst everyone is coming in, a clever link to what you’re going to talk about that you can comment on for the first minute. E.g. A talk about Superheroes and you play ‘We Could be Heroes’
Making people laugh is the perfect way to connect with the audience, but don’t be false or self-deprecating. And, if you’re not usually a joke teller, don’t get up there and start doing the interrupting cow. However, if you’re used to making people laugh and feel comfortable making a witty quip, go for it.
Use a beautiful image on screen to help demonstrate a point, people will be looking at that, whilst you talk, taking the pressure off you for a little bit - it’ll also get their imagination working and that’s connecting with you and what you’re saying at a different level, working their visual brain - they can also be a way to inject humour.
To be genuine, you need to talk to the audience as if they were a friend. Not like a room of scary monsters with no clothes on that you’re scared to get eye contact with. Employ the mid-forehead gaze for a fraction of a second, moving slowly from person to person. I’m saying you don't have to stare them down, you don’t even need direct eye contact - just look between their eyes softly. It’s less intense and you can gently move your gaze from one person to the other. If somebody smiles, smile back as a thanks for their support and move on - don’t keep staring at that one nodding supporter
We want to meet you and hear what you've got to say.
8. Throw Questions Back
This is a quick and easy tool. People often ask hairy questions because they in fact have the answer. How many times have you sat in a crowd at question time, trying to think of a smart question to ask, that won’t make you look stupid?
So if you get asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, thank the person for bringing it up and it’s an interesting view, and if they seem game, ask them what their view is.
They’ll feel acknowledged and it gives you time to think about how you get things back on track.
9. The Two Ronnies
What is worse than sitting through 100 PowerPoint slides?
Listening to somebody read them out.
Your presentation should be your partner. Think of it as your side-kick. Your cheerleader. You should be saying something different and complementary to what is on your slide.
Let’s imagine that you want to tell your company about the latest employee engagement scores, there are 60 criterion. You know they’re all important numbers, but you can’t just read them all out.
Remember that the audience will only remember 10% of what you say and it’ll probably be sound-bites. What do you want that to be? Pick three really important trends and figure out the best way to get the to take notice.
Your team are more interested in your insight about the reasons for any changes against last time, how they compare to the industry and what it means. So try finding some pictures that represent some of the things you did well on and some you didn’t.
Picture: A smiling dog with a bone
You say: People here feel totally rewarded for their efforts, with a score of 90% up 10 points on last year, we think this is because we reviewed the customer service team in April.
Picture: A picture of a set of scales off balance
You say: People of a certain group feel that we’re not treating them fairly. We think this is because there are not many older people in the company. We don’t know what to do about it, we’re going to be asking for your help.
Check out Unsplash.com for some royalty free and beautiful images to get your imagination working.
Using the same example and perhaps in the same presentation, you could do a quiz.
Everyone please stand up. Put your hands on your head if you think that we did better in fairness this year over last and your hands on your hips if you think we didn’t.
Keep asking questions until there are two people left.
What you’ll find is that people are really listening to and thinking about the question.
Did we do better in fairness? What do I think? What was the answer? Dang.
Interview or Panel
If you’re really nervous, but have to do this, then ask somebody you trust to interview you. It is so much easier with a friendly, supportive person helping you, by asking questions that you’ve already agreed. You can answer with your instincts, and only you know the answer, so there is no worry about getting it wrong. You can have the stats on some paper to refer to. But you’ve probably got them all in your head, since you care about them so much.
Alternatively, you can run a panel. Get two-three people on stage and you can tell them the top three issues in advance and then ask them questions about what they think could be the cause and some of the things that need to be put in place. This helps with ownership too.
10. Tell Stories
If I asked you to tell me what my second tip was, you’d never remember. But you might remember the time I cried singing a Dido song. People remember stories and so if you can figure out a way to make your message a story, you’ll go a long way in building something engaging and memorable.
But what is a story?
It is more than a beginning middle and end. It usually includes some characters talking about something, usually somebody else, but that’s not it...
There has to be a ‘“then something interesting happened”
I bumped into Carl the other day, he was fine. Is not a story.
I bumped into Carl the other day and he is getting married, to Linda from accounts. Ooh, juicy.
One of my colleagues once wrote a ‘ye olde’ fairytale about a project he’d recently completed, he and another person took turns to read it out in am-dram voices. It was funny, memorable and it was a safe way for them to experiment with different ways of telling a story in front of others - and they nailed it.
And remember, the best way to feel more comfortable when pubic speaking - is to be yourself.
I hope you’ve found these tips useful, take them gently and just try one thing at a time. See what works for you, some day you’ll come off that podium with a rush of energy and a huge smile and be putting your hand up for more.