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Public speaking – it’s all about you (but perhaps not in the way you think)



by Daniel Kingsley

Its-all-about-you-360pxSome people think that public speaking mostly about your audience – giving them what they want and what they need, and they are partly right.

Other people say that public speaking is all about your relationship with your audience – really being present with them and really being available to them, because if your audience feels in rapport with you they will be much more willing to pay attention to what you have to say.  And this is absolutely true, and closer to the truth.  But it’s not the heart of the matter.

Livingston Taylor (who teaches a course in relational performance at Berklee College of music) gets closer to the truth when he says:

“This is a big game of Simon Says.  The audience has hired you to take control.  They want to enter your reality.  If you are still, they are still.  If you are tense, they are tense.  If you are at ease, they are at ease.  If they trust you, they will put themselves in your hands.”[1]

This is beautifully put and very true – the way we show up as a speaker, our internal state, does fundamentally impact the way an audience experiences a talk and how they relate to us. But even this isn’t  quite the end of the story. Because what if you’re not calm, relaxed and at ease? What if you’re tense and stressed? What then?

And this shows us that the most important piece of the jigsaw is still missing.  This is the piece about your inner game.

There was a hugely influential book in the 1980s called The Inner Game of Tennis.  The powerful realisation set out in that book, was that what set the best tennis players apart from the technically excellent ones was the way that players managed the mental challenges of the game.  As a current description of the book on Amazon puts it:

The Inner Game of tennis is that which takes place in our mind, played against such elusive opponents as nervousness, self-doubt and lapses of concentration. It is a game played by our mind against its own bad habits. Replacing one pattern of behaviour with a new, more positive one is the purpose of the “Inner Game”.

And yet in public speaking, the inner game isn’t about replacing patterns or changing bad mental habits, it’s simpler and more fundamental than that.  It’s about our relationship to our experience.  Or to put it another way, it’s not about what we are feeling, but our relationship to what we are feeling.  Let’s examine this.

We often say of someone (including a presenter or performer) who appears naturally confident, that they are “comfortable in their own skin”.  This phrase holds the key to understanding the inner game of public speaking.

Where is the person?  They are in their own skin – their attention is inside themselves.  This means that at the moment of delivering a talk or presentation to an audience, they are not imagining how they are showing up from their audience’s point of view.  They are inside their own skin feeling their own feelings.

Many people who give themselves a hard time in public speaking or presentations, imagine that the audience is seeing them (including their feelings) and judging them.    Although this is a completely understandable and very human thing to do, it’s actually really unhelpful. The main reason for this is that whilst you are imagining what your audience is thinking about, you are unable to see and feel what your audience are actually doing and you are unable to be inside your own body feeling your own feelings.  Psychologically, you have temporarily jumped out of your skin.

So, what to do when you catch yourself mentally outside your body, making up stuff about what your audience is thinking about you?  Simple.  Drop it.  Choose to assume that your audience is supporting you unless you have any hard evidence to the contrary. You will usually be right.

And what of being comfortable in your own skin (once you get there)?  Perhaps surprisingly, this is not about having comfortable feelings, but rather about feeling comfortable with whatever you find when you pay attention to the feelings you’re actually having.

Our tendency when we feel things like tension or nervousness is to make it into a problem. “Oh no!” we think, “I’m tense and nervous!” But when we are in a position to ‘make friends’ with these feelings, accept them as they arise and make no more of them than they are, then we are able to relax in relation to the part of us that isn’t relaxed.

The most important thing to notice about feelings is that they are like waves.  They arise (sometimes from nowhere, sometimes in response to a situation), they hang around for a while, and then they subside. It is inevitable that a wave will rise, and it is just as inevitable that it will fall.

And like the waves on the ocean you can’t stop feelings.  But you can learn how to surf.

Surfing feelings is actually much like surfing waves, rather than treating them as a problem you treat them with curiosity.  Rather than waiting for them to go away, you discover how to ride them.

When we stop fighting our feelings and waiting for them to go away, we can return to being in an easy relationship with ourselves, which our audience will perceive and quickly copy.

The art of authentic and confident public speaking is this ability to gracefully play the inner game: get back in your skin, make friends with what you’re feeling, and surf the waves. You’ll feel much more confident and relaxed (in the midst of whatever else you’re feeling) and so will your audience.  You’ll be ready to take them on a journey, and they’ll be ready to follow you.


[1] Livingston Taylor – Stage Performance – p.31 – 2011 Mentor Publishing


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Daniel Kingsley
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