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If you’re stressed by public speaking…there’s nothing wrong with you!

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By Daniel Kingsley

Empty chairs public speaking

 

One of the most painful aspects of being scared or stressed out by public speaking is the thought that this shouldn’t be happening…and there’s something wrong with you. That you are somehow broken, defective, less than other people because you find this difficult.

This thought is made worse by the fact that it’s common to look around and see lots of other people who seem to be speaking well and seeming to find it easy.

I’m here to tell you that these beliefs are (mostly) untrue.  It’s completely normal to find public speaking stressful, for some very good scientific reasons.  I’m going to explain to you what some of those reasons are, and crucially what you can do about it, so you don’t find it stressful anymore.

By the way, many of the people who seem to be finding it easy, simply aren’t.  They are just good at hiding it.  I have had dozens of clients over the years who are regularly told by their colleagues what great speakers they are, but in truth, they are suffering – dying on the inside.

It’s a taboo in many organisations for leaders to admit their weakness or vulnerability, so understandably people conceal this.  Imagine ten people all sitting round a table all scared of public speaking and presentations and all hiding this fact from each other and putting on a brave face.  They are each trapped in their own private hell, whilst they sit next to nine other people doing the same.

When we believe that we aren’t very good at something we also tend to compare ourselves to people who are apparently better or much better than us, rather than comparing ourselves to the average person.  As I’m sure you’ll be aware from the statistics, public speaking is well up there in terms of most people’s greatest fears.  So it follows that the average person is as fearful or stressed by public speaking as you are.

So, now we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s look at why public speaking is stressful and what you can do about it.

 

Why public speaking is stressful

There’s a wonderful book that almost no-one I’ve met has read.  But they should.  It’s called Social, Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect by Matthew D Liberman.  The reason why everyone who wants to speak in public should read this book is that it explains the brain science behind a lot of human interaction, and it holds the key to understanding what happens when we stand up and see an audience.

The book contains loads of great brain science, but for our purposes today, there are just two things we need to take from this book.  One is a theory (amply supported by evidence) and the other is some hard-nosed scientific research.

The theory deals with why human beings have such big brains.  (We have the largest brain relative to our overall size of any creature on the planet.  Blue whales do have bigger brains than us, but they weigh a lot more than we do).

According to Social, the reason we evolved to have such big brains was not so that we could invent tools or even (eventually) the internet, but so we could exist in larger tribes.  A tribe of 150 has an evolutionary survival advantage over a tribe of 10.  But in order to have a tribe of 150 you need to have hierarchy.  You need to have leaders and followers.  The leader needs to be able to look into a follower’s eyes and figure out: “Are they with me?”  The follower needs to be able to look into the leader’s eyes and figure out: “Are we OK together?  Do they like me?”

This is what psychologists call “mind reading”.  This isn’t Derren Brown style “magical” mind-reading, but ordinary wine-bar-style mind reading – “Do they like me, do they hate me, are they bored?”

Now here’s the science.  So important for our evolutionary survival was this strategy of looking into another person’s eyes and asking “are we OK together?”, it has become your brain’s default program in any social situation.

The moment you see another human being in any social situation you will want to (a) get eye contact with them, (b) establish that they are friendly with you and (c) establish that you are friendly with them.

It’s like we have this unticked box in our heads that contains this “Are we OK together?” question.  And there’s a part of our brains that cannot rest until that box is ticked in a way we find reassuring.

This is why we smile and nod to each other when we are starting an interaction with a new stranger.  I tick that box for you.  You tick that box for me.  And that part of our brains can relax.  It’s OK.  It’s safe.  Phew!

This is all fine, until we meet an audience.

 

Meet the audience

Here’s the thing.  Audiences listen with blank expressions.  Even when they are interested.  There are exceptions of course.  If you tell them a joke they find funny they will laugh.  If you really connect with them at a deep level they may nod.  If they very strongly disagree with what you’re saying some people may shake their heads.  But otherwise audiences give you very few clues as to what’s going on inside their heads.  Freed from the social constraints of one to one interactions, they feel no need to smile or nod.  They aren’t here to take care of you.  You are the speaker.  You are there to entertain and inform them.  They are there to relax and (hopefully) enjoy the experience.

This lack of feedback is driving that part of your brain that really wants it, absolutely crazy.  Its safety strategy depends on giving and getting positive and reassuring feedback to anyone they meet, and the members of the audience simply aren’t playing that game.

 

It gets worse before it gets better

To make matters worse, our minds have evolved to be threat based or have a negativity bias. In a potentially threatening situation our brains have evolved to assume the worst.

You can see the evolutionary advantage of this if you consider the following scenario.  Imagine that you are in the jungle thousands of years ago.  You hear a sound in the near distance.  It sounds like it could be a tiger.  Those of our ancestors who thought “Crikey!  A tiger!” and ran like hell, got to survive to live another day and potentially reproduce.  The ones who thought “Chill out…it’s probably nothing” were lunch.

So now we have two parts of our brain – one of them is looking at a sea of blank faces, desperate for signs that they like us, and not getting that confirmation.  And the other part of our brain is assuming that this means that the audience members hate us or disagree with us.

The final insult is that in ancient times, when we were completely dependent on our tribe for survival, the disapproval of those around us could lead to ostracization – being cast out of the group. And that could often lead to death in the wilderness.  So, getting the approval of those we are speaking to feels like life or death.  And not getting that approval can feel life-threatening to parts of our brain.

Now you can see why it’s normal to find public speaking seriously stressful, scary or both.  It’s evolutionarily hard-wired into our brains, in a situation where, due to social convention, we aren’t getting the feedback we have evolved to want and need.

So, like I said, there’s nothing wrong with you.  This isn’t just normal, it’s an evolutionarily normal response.

 

So, what can we do about this?

The good news is that there are quite a number of strategies that we can use to manage this really effectively.

The one I’m going to foreground in this article is a strategy called assuming support.

I’ve chosen this strategy because it’s quick and easy to learn, and also really quick to execute whilst you’re standing on your feet looking at an audience.

Here’s the thing. There is a mismatch between what the audience is experiencing and what they are showing on the outside.

Most people in most audiences are at least interested in what you have to say.  And yet as I’ve discussed above, they don’t feel obliged to let you know that.  How do we know they are interested?  They are there, sitting in their seat.  They haven’t chosen to leave the room.  Even if they are looking at their phones, they are at least hoping you’re going to say something interesting or helpful to them.  (Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but it’s a really good rule of thumb).

So, we need to find a way to bridge that gap, between a part of our brains desperate for reassurance and an audience that doesn’t believe that they are required to offer it, even though they are (mostly) interested.

We do this by talking to ourselves!

 

Talk to yourself

We talk to ourselves in our heads all the time.  The difficulty is that most of this is subconscious – we aren’t choosing the music that is playing in our heads.  The other difficulty is that most of these conversations are negative.  “You’re going to screw this up!”, or “Oh god – they hate me!”.  All I’m suggesting is that we do this strategically, consciously, positively and effectively.  It’s not a question of whether we talk to ourselves (that’s a given).  It’s a question of how we do it.

I’ve written extensively elsewhere about what I call the LEVER method, where we find a part of our brains that is feeling fearful and interact with it the way that we would speak to a scared child.  It may sound weird as a thing to do, but it’s pretty easy and it really works.  Like I said, we are just changing the record in our heads to some more upbeat and helpful mental dialogue.  

The stages of the process are: Listening, Empathising, Validating and Reassuring (hence the LEVER method – the second E is silent).

We can use a shortened version of this method when we are facing a sea of blank faces.

We recognise that there is a part of our brains that is scared by the audience and their lack of positive feedback, and we treat that part of our brains like a scared child and speak to it accordingly.  In the manner of a kind, rational adult.

E.g.  “I know it’s really freaking you out that you’re not getting the feedback you want, but let’s assume that they are all (probably) interested, even though they’re not showing it.”

If you think about this, this makes good sense.  If we assume that the blank faces mean that my audience hates us, we’re going to speak worse and that will create a vicious circle.  If we choose to assume that even though the faces are blank the audience members are probably interested, we will feel more confident.  We will probably speak better, which of course will make it even more likely that our audience will be interested in what we have to say.

I initially learned a variation on this method from the wonderful Lee Glickstein and I’ve used it for over 12 years.  In that time, I’ve taught this method to thousands of people, with great success, so I feel very confident that it will work for you.

Give it a go and let me know how you get on.

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If you’d like to learn this method and many other equally powerful techniques in person, come and join us on one of our Foundation Public Speaking Courses in London, or contact us to discuss one-to-one coaching.

Daniel Kingsley
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