Are you one of those people who keeps avoiding facing up to difficult things?
If you’re avoiding public speaking and presentations because they feel too scary then you might not be surprised to hear that avoidance actually grows the problem. Dwelling in fear for any length of time isn’t the answer. Maybe if we could look at avoidance right between the eyes we could see that it is trying telling us something really useful. My experience of teaching this over 18 years tells me is that if we face our fears in the right way, by taking the small steps outlined below, we CAN face that fear, we can liberate ourselves and we can live full, meaningful lives.
You probably know that by now that human beings are strange creatures. As a human being myself, I also do strange things. I’m not proud of myself. For years, I have actively avoided doing my tax return from September onwards. I say "active" as it’s always lurking at the back of my brain, I know I should being do it. Shortly after Jan 31st deadline I pay the £100 fine for a late return. Then on March 1st when the pressure is too much, I spend a week preparing to do my tax return. So I sort out my papers, tidy my desk, organise my music collection, and then on the 8th day of March I get down to doing it. Once I get started it's actually much easier than I thought it would be and two days later I’ve done it. It has only taken two days but I’ve been thinking about it for at least 9 months. And I also have to pay the late fine and any interest and possibly further penalities. I say to myself “next year will be different”. And of course for years nothing changed.
So I know from both personal experience and from 18 years of teaching that avoiding things we find challenging really can really get in the way of our leading full and happy lives. It can affect our relationships and our self image. Take this kind of email that I get quite often: “I have managed to avoid presentations most of my life but I have recently started a new job where I have to undertake presentations regularly. My first presentation is in two weeks and I already can't sleep and feel sick at the thought of it.”
Or this from another client "I have always had an intense fear of public speaking and have always made every effort to avoid it at all costs. I even struggle with less formal things like giving updates in team meetings.. This fear really hasn't served me well over the years in terms of work opportunities and job interviews, but I've just brushed it under the carpet, suffered in silence and tried to just accept that it's how I am. However, a couple of weeks ago I completely fluffed a presentation at work and it really, really shook me. I've therefore decided to finally try and do something about my intense anxiety in the hope that I can one day no longer have the horrible, intense fear and physical symptoms I experience in the run-up to and during a speaking event."
Yet another client I worked with never attended university because of the fear of collecting her degree at the degree ceremony.
Sometimes the strength of that avoidance can be brutal. Three different course participants are talking here about how strong their feelings are “I'd rather have a snake thrown in my face than do public speaking” “ I'd rather be in the Congo, with armed guards than doing public speaking” “I’d rather fight the Taliban than do public speaking”
So it’s not just me that is struggling. We seem to want to avoid experiences that are difficult. Even when the avoidance is costly to ourselves. Ironically or perhaps tragically we are spending our lives dominated by the very anxiety, we are trying to avoid. How mad is that? The grim truth is that avoidance doesn’t take the anxiety away, it just makes it bigger.
We avoid discomfort. And that has a profound effect on our lives “the more we try to avoid discomfort, the more we base our actions on how we feel, rather than on what is most important in life. In other words, we avoid doing things that are important and life-enhancing because we are unwilling to make room for the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that show up. And the more we choose action that gives us short-term relief from discomfort, rather than doing what enriches our lives in the long term, the smaller our lives tend to become.” Dr Russ Harris
What if we could change our relationship to avoidance?
What would happen if we became curious about the fear of public speaking rather than avoiding? Pema Chodron. a Buddhist teacher, has perhaps a surprising view on avoidance.
"Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for people who have a certain hunger to know what is true - feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are."
What if we moved from the idea that fear is a signal to stop everything to the idea that fear is the signal to start exploring. It’s actually time to be curious rather than to hide! Fear then becomes a teacher. Telling us where we are stuck and where we need to do some work. But to be clear I'm not suggesting we jump straight in at the deep end. We need to tackle this in small steps, by breaking a complicated thing such as public speaking into small chunks. Then it’s very possible to learn new ways of approaching it. The smaller the steps, the more possible it is to change something you have been worried about for years in a surprisingly short time. We can move from threat to connection. From not wanting to be looked at to comfortable making eye connection with the audience. We can move from panic to ease.
A quick guide to avoding avoidance….
Understand: • that avoidance is normal. You are not unique. It’s what humans do. • anxiety makes us self-conscious and self focussed. And it distorts reality, not in our favour. • the Evolutionary component of public speaking . We are evolutionary biased towards noticing threat. We needed that skill for survival. And we are very good at it. • that is nothing wrong with you if you are fearful. 70% of population have fear around public speaking. Fear is normal • that you really don’t know what people are thinking, even if you think you do. You do not have that super-power.. They are as worried about themselves as you are about yourself. So you are special but NOT that important. • that it’s us holding us back. Me stopping Me. It’s 97% about our own thinking and we have the power to change that. • the idea that confident people don’t feel fear is a myth. Confident people have a different relationship to fear but they still have fear. They may call it excitement or they know it’s just part of the deal. • confidence is something you need to practice rather than it just arrives. Confidence is really about trusting ourselves more.
Reframing See the bigger picture – take the focus away from being centred on you • focus on how life could change if you could make these steps. What’s more important than fear? I have had clients who took up dancing again, or became teachers, change their jobs, or ask their partners to marry them • Move the focus away from yourself. Move your focus on to serving people. Be more interested in a cause or the issues than yourself.
Deeper Learning • Learn about Mindfulness. Learn about how we are NOT our thoughts and that we don’t need to get entangled with every single thought. That we can say “thank you but no thank you to our thoughts”. Books and courses
• Learn about Public speaking. Find a course where the emphasis is on re-thinking the psychology around public speaking. That includes my courses, naturally but there are other people around the world. I can't be everywhere! I’ve been running these courses for 18 years especially for people who have been avoiding public speaking. We can do this in small steps too; Read my website, Talk to me and ask me questions (that’s why I run 30 minute free sessions). And then the whole course is broken down into small steps as you can read in these two bits of feedback. “The course made me realise there are steps to achieving more confidence and the way they were broken down was really achievable and encouraging”. Rachael
The course somehow seemed to challenge me without it feeling like much of a challenge. I had a brilliant group who were very supportive, which made me want to step outside my comfort zone. You are never pushed to do anything and it is hard to believe how such a gentle approach can be so effective. Sometimes small steps are massive... Angie
Finally I can’t make you stop avoiding, that’s completely down to you. But I want you to know that it’s very possible for anyone to change and take their place fully in the world. You really don’t have to live in fear and avoidance.
"If people really knew what I was like they would find out that I’m fraud" Ever had a similar feeling that you are going to be found out? That you don’t really deserve your job or to be standing in front of an audience? Or even if you really know your subject somehow you know far less than the audience? "Everyone else" we seem to think "is better than me"
In every group I run on public speaking these feelings are expressed by lots and lots of people
In her book Presence, Amy Cuddy expresses like this; It’s not simple stage fright or performance anxiety; rather it’s the deep and sometimes paralysing belief that we have been given something that we didn’t earn and don’t deserve and at some point we’ll be exposed”
When I was on a leadership course some years ago with 60 managers from the public, private and voluntary sector that I was amazed to find that every single manager talked about this feeling. They were going to be found out. The trouble is with the impostor thinking is that it can undermine our confidence massively.
However the research quoted in Amy Cuddy’s book shows that 70% of people experience this feeling. This impostor syndrome is incredibly common. It’s so normal that it should be renamed as the “impostor experience” . And lots and lots of people have it. So relax, let go of that worry unless you really really truly are a fraud!
I got some really nice feedback today about last week’s course on re-thinking presentations “What I liked best was that you exceeded my expectations yet again and proved to us that WE are the presentation and that allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, rather than hiding behind a PowerPoint presentation, gives the talk more power and really engages the audience” Of course it’s lovely to get such feedback but this blog is not about showing off. I really want to pick up on Petronella’s point that it’s the person not the PowerPoint that matters in a presentation. When presenters start to really engage the audience (which surely is the point of a presentation) they tend to use less and less technology. Or even no slides at all! I’m not totally against PowerPoint but having too many slides can get hugely in the way of your relationship to your audience. And standard slide presentations often constrain a speaker to a fixed path rather than being able to respond to what the audience wants. My wife was in an audience as one nervous presenter said “As the previous person has run over and taken nearly all my time, I will have to show you my 120 slides in 20 minutes rather than 45 minutes” And off he went at high speed, showing the audience his slides in record time. In the process he completely lost his audience. He had delivered his slides but he didn’t get his ideas across to the audience. He hadn’t communicated. Presenters should really serve their audiences rather than being subservient to their slides. Of course it takes confidence and a bit of creativity to think differently about presentations but for the audience’s sake it’s really worth it. When presenters have the courage to allow themselves to be fully seen and to bring their authentic selves to the presentation then very powerful things can happen. It’s not the polished presenters that audiences really want, it's real human beings that they can trust. We have to stop thinking that all presentations just equals slideware And start thinking that our job as a presenter is to make our ideas really stand out and to really connect with our audience.
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves around delivering presentations and public speaking. The more pressure we put on ourselves, the more uncomfortable we feel. In my public speaking workshops I regularly come across five really common beliefs about presentations that really don't help. And some rethinks are in order.
I've got to know everything about a subject before I can present If you had to know everything then every presentation would take 17 years to prepare (just a guess - not scientifically proven). That's plainly ridiculous! And to be honest there is far too much information in the world anyway. So what do you do? Well, I'd love you to see presentations as your contribution to the subject. This is your particular take, your own angle rather than the whole encyclopaedic explanation. Your job is to digest the information in a way that the audience gets it rather than overwhelming your audience. You might have a massive report to present on. You could frame it it like this: “ It's really important for us to concentrate on, is this bit of the report, it will have profound impact on our department… Or maybe you could see your presentation as starting the debate rather than being the complete answer. So you could do a quick presentation and then start a group discussion! So less material to handle, less to remember and better for your audience.
I've got to tell everything I know about presentation in order to give my audience value You open your laptop, fire up PowerPoint and the first question you ask yourself “What do I know about this subject?”. And it all goes on your slides. Your 120 slides! What you have forgotten is what it's like to be in your audience receiving all that information. It's tough to stay awake. Presenters seem to forget about audiences. Presenters give too much information. If you say 10 things in your presentation you're probably not saying anything at all. They won't remember it. So the radical re-think question is “What is the ONE thing you want the audience to take away or to act on?. That's right, just one thing.
Part of your job is to rebuild your one idea in their brains. In order to do that you need to work out why they should be interested in your idea and speak to their interests.
If I pause, they will think that I’ve dried up and/or about to collapse Pauses seem to be a real stumbling block for presenters. Nervous presenters think if they deliver their presentation really fast then they will get off really quickly and perhaps hopefully no one might notice them. Pauses for them are full of panic. But I'd love you to do a rethink about this. The most powerful part of the presentation is the audience thinking process. They need to be able to think about what you're saying. If you give them a machine gun delivery there are no gaps for them to think.
Audiences need pauses.
And you can see pauses as thinking time for you.
So I'd love you to move from panic pauses to Jacuzzi pauses, pauses where you can relax and think. (I know this will take practice but good pauses are about putting your audiences needs first)
I can't make a mistake The flipside of I can't make a mistake is I've got to be perfect. Anxiety around public speaking is full of excessive pressures on ourselves. This combination one is a biggie!
Organisations that have really good customer service know that they are going to make mistakes so what they do is get better at recovering from mistakes. They will treat you really well, they will apologise and remedy the situation quickly and maybe even give you something extra.
What public speakers need to do is to get better at making mistakes and more especially recovering from mistakes. This probably means being fully present and dealing with what's happening in the room. So when Steve Jobs’ presentation clicker failed during an apple presentation, he came up with a story about the beginning of Apple whilst someone got a new clicker for him.
The research shows that if an organisation handles a mistake well, then the consumer often has more trust in that organisation afterwards. I think it's the same for public speakers. The audience will relax if you take mistakes in your stride. Have the courage to be imperfect. It certainly helps me!
I won't be able to answer people's questions (see bonus tip below as well) Maybe you won't. I was in the audience for a lecture by Daniel Pink in Bristol awhile back. Some very clever person (i’m being polite) asked a very clever question. He paused, he thought and his reply “mmmm, I haven't done the research on that. Has anyone else here done the research on that?"
He look around and waited.
“We don't know, none of us knows. Next question please”.
He didn’t fluster or bullsh*t. He wasn’t rude to the questioner.
It’s okay not to know, in fact it's far better to be honest. You can always add "Normally I would know but I've got my stage fright head on. Talk to me at break"
I found another elegant addition to this approach in Simon Raybould’s blog. He gave a formula for answering a question you don’t know: a. I don’t know, but it’s a good point b. so I’ll find out c. and if you give me your email address I’ll get back to you about it d. by lunchtime on Thursday
Bonus tip about questions is one that I use all the time. When I ask an audience “Have you got any questions?”, quite often no one says anything. So I wait. Audiences are slow to do most things. I'm not blaming them, its just what audiences are like. And then I say "normally at this stage I get asked this question” I have a couple of questions up my sleeve and that gets things rolling. It also gives the audience time to think about questions.
It's very simple, it's very useful.
My two day re-thinking presentations course is coming up in early November. I only run two of these a year and I really enjoy doing it. If you want to re-think your presentations have a look at the course here. This course is not for people who are very scared of public speaking (like my normal courses). It's aimed at people who want to connect better with their audiences
Quite a lot of you may have come across the top five regrets of the dying before. These were compiled by Bronnie Ware when she worked with terminally ill people in a hospice: 1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me 2. I wish I didn't work so hard. 3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings. 4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. 5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
I was on a public speaking conference last weekend and some friends of mine Koos Wolcken and Jennet Burghard talked about what lessons we can learn from them?
They turned the list upside down. It’s a very simple but powerful re-frame so the list now becomes an encouragement. Which one resonates for you?
1. I have the courage to live my Life True to myself (instead of the life others expected of me)
2. I spend my energy in a good balance with what is truly meaningful for me (instead of working too hard and spending so much of my life on the treadmill of work existence
3. I have the courage to express my feelings (instead of suppressing my feelings in order to keep peace with others)
4. I stay in touch with my friends and maintain contact (instead of becoming so caught up in my own life and that golden friendships slip by over the years)
5. I let myself be happy (instead of getting stuck in old patterns and habits )
I’m learning that I have to get a lot better at number 4. Staying in touch with friends. And number 2!
Why the photograph of the young girl? When I run my public speaking courses I work with a lot of adults who are scared to to be seen. Sared to speak up. Apologising for taking their space. So I love this young girl's energy and the "don’t mess with me pose!” aka as the I have the courage to live my Life True to myself pose.
I took this photo in New York this summer visiting my wife who is working there for awhile . She has a job offer that she couldn't refuse (but not from the Mafia!) and although I miss hugely we are both seeing it as an adventure. if you want have a look at my other photographs taken in New York and Northern United States have a look at my flickr album here
I often ask my participants; “What makes a good speaker?” I get replies which include;
being self assured,
comfortable in their own skin,
good with eye contact,
a speaker who respect the audience’s time (and thinking process),
not overly slick,
a sense of humility, keeps the ego in check!
engages the audience - the speaker tells us some something new,
the speaker is relaxed about recovering from making mistakes (rather than worried about making mistakes),
they are conversational (and not formal),
they have the ability to be present, in the moment and deal with what's happening in the room,
good with pauses/silences, they use stories (often personal stories),
and they are not scared to talk about failures or to reveal something important about themselves - what they are passionate about.
What they are really talking about is authenticity. They want the speaker to be comfortable being themselves. And the audience want to be able to trust the speaker.
So then the advice that is often given to speakers is “just to be you”. But the trouble is with that advice is that it involves being me. I don’t mean just be John Dawson, one of them is surely enough! I mean it involves being really ok being your version of “me” in front of others. And that ’s what gets in the way. Massively. People are really, really good at throwing obstacles in front of themselves. Over the years through working with 6000 people who are scared of public speaking I have seen really clear patterns emerge. Below is a list of how we sabotage ourselves. So I’m not saying all of this is true for you but it might be a good chunk.
The obstacles we put on ourselves around being “me":
We put excessive pressures on ourselves (I’ve got to be…. inspirational, eloquent, dynamic, profound, perfect, someone else, I’ve got to perform, etc.). It’s too much pressure and that really doesn’t help.
We don’t want people to see us fail in some way (go red, stutter, lose our place, shake)
We talk to ourselves in really harsh terms (I’m terrible, I’m crap I’m not good enough, they will find me out). We wouldn’t talk to our friends like this.
We think we know what the audience is thinking - and it’s all negative.
We don’t like to be looked at.
We let fear be a signal to stop rather than accepting it as a normal part of public speaking.
We give ourselves a hard time about having a hard time
The work to do is to let go of these pressures (it's usually us doing it to us) and learn that you are enough. And learn just to BE in front of a room Yes, that needs some work but not that long, to be honest. I saw this process work really well last weekend on a two day course, although the self-talk can be tougher to work on and takes practice. (Learning to be kinder to ourselves is one of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves)
When people get around themselves and stop worrying about who they are, they emerge as authentic speakers. They start to take their place in the world without apologising for doing it. THEN you can then simply say to them “just be you" without them thinking "oh no."
I am deeply moved by the Manchester bombing. I have a 16 year old niece in Manchester so it feels very real. I'm teaching in Manchester in a week's time. So I've decided to give my profits from the course to the relatives fund when it emerges. Taking our place in the world means having the courage to face our fears and to lead lives that reflect our values. Yesterday before the bombing I found this quote: "We don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a wonderful victory" Howard Zinn
I know that’s a strange title but bear with me. I see part of my job as a public speaking trainer is being paid to go away and think how I can break the problems of public speaking fear into small enough parts so the complex knot of problems actually becomes simple to solve. So my teaching is full of tiny steps What I noticed is that lots of people who come on public speaking courses are not actually that scared of the speaking part of public speaking, they are really scared of “public being”. Public being is the most basic stage of being in front of a group. It’s not a profound concept but it’s the simplicity of it that helps. For 16 years I had been teaching about presence. But I came to realise that presence is a wonderful concept but it’s hard to grasp if you are anxious. And I work with lots of people who are very anxious around public speaking Amy Cuddy defines Presence as “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential”. (Presence by Amy Cuddy 2015) Koos Wolcken and Jennet Burghard define presence as “the ability to be fully present in the here-and now when communicating with someone else”. (Present – the essence of authentic presenting, published 2015) Presence is a great thing to aim for but when you are overwhelmed by fear these concepts can appear too abstract. If you are anxious things need to be simple otherwise you can’t take them. Anxiety makes the brain smaller! Nine months ago, I changed my teaching and started to explain “public being”. It’s the stage you need to get comfortable with before you worry too much about the speaking bit of public speaking. I often define “public being” as a series of questions
Can I be in front of people with ease? (For some people it will be at the level “Can I actually exist in front of people”) Can I breathe in front of people? Can I look and be looked at? Can I be silent? Can I just stand in front of the audience? Can I take my space?
Really basic fundamental stuff. And this also widens what we can tackle on a public speaking course. It’s not just speaking. I had a woman on the course who hated walking across the office with everyone looking at her, I had another person who didn’t enter a church cake competition in case she won and had to go up to collect the prize. I had a doctor who hated going into a meeting by herself and would wait for a colleague before she went in. So the fear of being in public is often at the root of this fear.
If you can get more at ease with public being then 1) you start to get your brain back. 2) you start to calm the threat response down (the adrenaline surge) 3) you realise that actually the audience is not out to get you 4) you are starting to practise that you don’t need to put on a show, that you are enough
Let me reassure you. What you should know is this exploration is NOT done at the beginning of a course. We’ve done lots of things before we start to explore this because I know to many readers itmay raise questions about being the centre of attention which is a core thing that people don’t like. They will say things like “I hate being in the spotlight”, “ All eyes on me”, “I’m put on the spot”, “All the attention is on me”. Along with those thoughts is the belief that we know what people are thinking about us. And it’s usually negative. A lot of those thoughts have already been tackled on the course by this stage.
The response to this change in teaching has been a significant change in people’s own understanding of their public speaking fears. Below I’ve taken the liberty of sharing some of the feedback from course participants I’ve had since changing my teaching.
quotes from participants
I think you hit the nail on the head when speaking about ‘public being’. That is exactly what I need to be more comfortable with to achieve what I wanted from the course. The course made me realise there are steps to achieving more confidence and the way they were broken down was really achievable and encouraging. Rachel
Something profound happened to me in your course which I think was your message about 'public being' rather than public speaking, alongside your modelling of vulnerability and connectedness - simply sharing yourself with your audience. I did feel slightly nervous on both occasions, but then relaxed and stayed with myself throughout the sessions - I even enjoyed it! It's been a revelation and has stayed with me in a simple but very experiential and immediate way. Emma
You understand it like no-one I have met before and realizing it is the fear of “public being” and not speaking was a revelation to me. Enlightenment! Rebecca
The course started out from the most basic stage of being comfortable with Public Being, which so many other courses completely overlook. It didn't take much to make a huge difference, but taking things back to basics isn't feasible in normal life and your course did this in a safe, positive environment which broke so many barriers for me. By the end of the two days, I was looking forward to talking in public and really can't wait to stand in front of an audience. I never thought I'd think that. Jody
There are lots of wrong beliefs around public speaking. Some have an element of truth in them but are still unhelpful. I’d like to challenge six of them. There are many other myths that get in the way but these six are all about anxiety.
1. “Nervousness is a sign of under-preparation so prepare, prepare, prepare”
Oh, if it was only that simple! If you were to believe this, then all you have to do is prepare really well in order NOT to feel nervous. I’ve many clients who’ve wasted weeks of their lives preparing presentations for this very reason, who would say very different things about this statement. It’s not true. In fact it's almost the opposite. Practising can help lock in the fear! Nervousness is simply a sign that your instinctual flight/flight/freeze system thinks there is a threat or threats. And the threat can be real or imaginary. And that perceived threat could be about lots of things. Fear of the audience, fear of being judged, fear of being the centre of attention, fear of being seen as a bighead and yes, perhaps not being prepared enough and lots of other stuff. But it’s not just one thing.
2. I will always be nervous. I have felt nervous for 5 or 12 or 25 years, nothing will shift this.
If this next bit sounds like an advert, forgive me, but it’s true. In my course reviews there are lots of people saying “I’ve felt this fear for 25 years and I wish had come earlier.”. That’s because we have made public speaking way too complicated. We have been over-thinking it massively. We think we know what everyone is thinking about us. We have catastrophised it left, right, and centre. But it’s possible for even the most scared people to re-think public speaking. And it happens on every course. It’s simpler than you think. And I know that will sound like a con to some people. But it isn’t. These are skills you can learn in small steps and mindsets you can change and it doesn’t have to take seven years therapy. It can take two days. Maybe for some people it’s taken two courses (less than 10 people in 17 years) We need to reduce the fear, and that’s done in very small steps. So if we can start to see public speaking as a conversation, realise people are not thinking about you that much, and change our wonky thinking. Then we can move away from the idea of public speaking being a performance to a simpler world.
3. Public speaking should be a polished performance
This belief is one of the key reasons why we find public speaking difficult. If you see public speaking as a performance, it means you have to put on an act, it means you put pressure on yourself to be “funny”, “dynamic”, “impressive” etc. And the more pressures you put on yourself, the harder it is to be there. The pressures can be really tough e.g. “I can’t make any mistakes”. In one way, you are saying that in order to be a public speaker “I have to be someone I’m not. Someone who is better than my normal me.” You are really saying to yourself “I am not enough”. And that thought is incredibly common with lots of nervous speakers. “you might think there is a part of me that is not good enough” But audiences want to trust speakers. They will only trust you if you are authentic. They don’t want to see a false persona, they want you to be you, a real human being. We need to get comfortable being ourselves rather than seek perfection or polish. A polished speaker who has rehearsed his speech for 200 times has nearly always driven the life out of the speech. Authenticity is the key.
4. I can tell what the audience is thinking and it’s always critical/negative
David Dimbleby, speaking last year, on the eve of the referendum edition of Question Time, said “I’ve been working with audiences for 40 years, I still can’t tell who in my audience, is a Labour voter or a Tory. I try to guess but I often get it wrong” If David can’t work out audiences, nor can you. You don’t have that magic, nor do I. Sorry. What is happening when you stand in front of audiences is that you see rows of blank faces. They look bored and judgemental. But normally audiences don’t nod or smile that much or at all. In fact they listen passively. Passive listeners are not active listeners. Blank faces are the norm. But we see a lack of response as critical. Our brain is good at anxiety so we think we know what people are thinking. It’s always negative. It’s our brain making it up, because how can we possible know what people are thinking? So we need to re-learn what we know about audiences and learn to love blank faces! Start learning by observing what it’slike when you are in an audience. And look how much you don't do!
5. The audience can tell when I’m nervous
There are two answers to debunk this myth a) When we are anxious, we often become very self-conscious. Our hands feel like that they have become huge, and when our faces go red we think that everyone is thinking about that part of our body. You are special part of God’s creation, of course, but you are really not that important! People are worried about themselves, just as intensely as you are worried about yourself. So they are often NOT thinking about you all, they are thinking about themselves. On a course that I taught awhile back, six people thought that everyone was thinking about them individually, all at the same time. The maths can’t work. It’s our brain, it oversees threat. It evolved to do that. We need to learn to live with a brain that is a bit wonky. b) I’ve been running courses for people who don’t like public speaking for 17 years (full time for 8 years). So that’s at least 5000 people I’ve seen. I’m running these figures by you in order for you to give credibility to the next statement. It’s hard to see people being nervous. I really mean it. Everyone on my course is scared of public speaking. Very often people will say “Everyone else, apart from me, looked fine when they spoke in front of the group, in fact they look relaxed up there”. And then the reply comes “Well, you didn’t look nervous at all”. And people scratch their heads with disbelief. The hell you are feeling inside is not translated to the outside anywhere near as much as you think it is. Of course sometimes you can tell someone is nervous from the outside but it’s far harder than you think.
6. I’m the ONLY one who feels like this.
I know that’s what it feels like. It’s just you. No else understands just how scary this is. But I’ve been working with anxious people for 17 years. 5000 people have been on my course. It’s plainly not true. We judge our world from our own brain. It’s kind of an obvious thing to say. We can’t see into other people’s heads. If people look ok from the outside, we tend think that they are confident. But you don’t know what they are feeling at all. But we are good at being harsh with ourselves, we undermine ourselves AND we compare ourselves negatively with other people. Our brain is good at keeping us down! There is a special version of this myth: “But I’ve been diagnosed with social anxiety by a doctor, I must be especially scared”. Social anxiety is incredibly common, just most people don’t see a doctor about it. In my experience, the diagnosis doesn’t tend to help. It just gives the whole process a medical label. And may even get in the way. I’m aware that I might be wrong with some people about this. But in my experience the people who come on my course with “social anxiety diagnosis ” are really no different from most of the anxious people on the course. You too can change!
It’s really very possible to change how we feel about fear. Yes, it takes some work and yes, you have to a little courage. But it’s far better than living your life scared to be the centre of attention, scared to get married, scared to change jobs, scared to walk into a room or stand up and speak.
We can learn to take our place in the world.
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