My wife Clare, confidently standing on the top of the world aka as San Francisco's Twin Peaks in 2015. One of my favourite pictures of her. She is taking her space!
I have a wonderfully weird gig coming up in May. I’m talking to a group of women who are focussed on empowering women about public speaking and self-confidence. So it’s an interesting challenge for me to tackle - mansplaining or what? So a part of me is a little scared, not of the public speaking, but of taking that space. I once appeared in front of a women’s committee at my Student Union in the late Seventies. They were fairly radical feminists and it didn’t go well. I should have been better prepared. I was only 19.
So this Bank holiday weekend I’ve got myself a pile of books on women and confidence and started to make notes.
Tara Mohr’s “Playing Big, A Practical Guide for Brilliant Women Like You” is a great book. What I find compelling isn’t just about women and confidence, because most of what she says also applies to men but she’s really opened my eyes to a “new old” way of thinking about fear.
She writes about how the Hebrew Bible uses two different words for fear. The first is Pachad: this describes the fear of what might happen, the over-reactive irrational fear, which we know as anxiety. Our lizard brain is reacting. Most of us know this fear well. We want to avoid taking emotional risks. It’s one of the main reasons why people come on my courses.
The second word is “Yirah”and we don’t name this very often, if it all. And this is where it becomes really interesting. “Yirahis defined in three ways: 1. The feeling that overcomes us when we inhabit a larger space than we are used to. 2. The feeling we experience when we suddenly come into possession of more energy than we had before. 3. What we feel in the presence of the divine.”
So it’s the fear of standing tall, of moving into a new space or way of being. The feeling of “OMG, am I really here to do this?” The fear of moving towards something you really want. The fear we experience when we step into our own power.
Tara writes “Yirah is the fear that shows up in those moments when we uncover a dream, access our real feelings about an important situation, or contemplate taking a big leap toward a more authentic life. We feel sacred awe, which has a kind of trembling in it.”
Of course we often experience Pachad and Yirah together but it’s worth unpacking them. So how do you do that? Tara writes “1. Ask yourself: what part of this fear is pachad? Write down the imagined outcomes you fear, the lizard brain fears. Remember they are just imagined, and that pachad-type fears are irrational. 2. Savour yirah. Ask yourself: what part of this fear is yirah? You’ll know yirahbecause it feels different. It has a tinge of exhilaration and awe –while pachad has a sense of threat and panic. You can savour it, knowing it’s just a signal that tells you are touching sacred ground within. You can keep leaning into – even looking for – the callings and leaps that bring yirah.”
There is a spiritual language here that I wouldn’t normally use, but I think it is a really helpful way to re-think fear. I see this fear quite often on the second day of my courses. A participant might say: “Damn you, if I’m no longer scared of public speaking then I have no excuse, and there is nothing stopping me from doing what I want to do. That’s differently scary!” Now I can put a name to that fear. It’s Yirah and it’s a fear we need to move towards. And I will be standing in Yirah for my speaking gig in May. Wish me luck.
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."