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What every public speaker needs to know

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By Daniel Kingsley

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I’ve written quite a lot of long articles recently, so I thought I’d write a shorter one.

And a question popped into my head… What are the five things that every public speaker needs to know?

Now, five is clearly an arbitrary number. And there are almost certainly more than five things that every public speaker needs to know. (If you look through my blog posts over the years, you’ll find a lot of them).

But playing “Desert Island Discs”, if I could only choose five things to tell you starting out in public speaking, these would be the five that would probably make the biggest impact for everybody.

 

1.  It’s normal for audiences to listen with blank expressions

One of the biggest challenges in public speaking is looking out on a sea of blank faces.

This is a massive challenge because (a) our brains are wired to need feedback from other human beings (b) if we are in a situation of ambiguous information human beings are evolutionarily programmed to assume the worst and (c) audiences listen with blank faces even when they are interested.

The solution is, firstly to recognise that a part of your brain is freaking out about this and that it’s completely normal that it should be doing that.  (There’s nothing wrong with you that you’re bothered by this).

Secondly, for a more logical part of your brain to reassure the part that’s freaking out by saying something like “I know you’re freaking out that you’re not getting any feedback from the audience, but let’s assume that they are probably interested”.

The truth is that most people in most audiences are at least interested in what you have to say.

If we assume (as is our default) that a blank expression means that they hate us, it massively undermines our confidence and we end up speaking badly.   If we assume that they are probably interested we will speak more confidently, and people will be more likely to be interested anyway.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This principle is called “assuming support” and I’ve written about it in more detail here.

 

2.  If you don’t look after the emotional parts of your brain they will be running the show.

It’s normal for parts of our brain to worry in certain situations – see above.  And to feel other strong emotions – fear, anger, sadness.

Here’s the key insight – those emotional parts of our brain are 5 times stronger than the rational parts of our brain.  This is why you usually can’t reason yourself out of being upset or out of being in a bad mood.  Your rational mind has become hijacked by your emotions.

This means that our emotions will be running the show unless we can find some way of calming them down.

Fortunately, there are some really effective ways of doing just that.  They will allow your strong feelings to subside so your rational mind can regain control.

I’ve written about this process here, and I offer some additional powerful solutions here.

 

3.  You don’t need to listen to your inner critic

Nearly everyone has a critical voice in their heads.  The one that says “you really screwed that up” or “it’s all going to go wrong – they’re going to hate you”.  You know the one I mean?

(Apparently some psychopaths don’t – good for them!)

So, most of us need to find some way of dealing with this voice.  Because it’s loud!

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they need to listen to this voice because it appears to contain some insight or wisdom.   But the problem is that it comes with so much negativity and doom, that listening to it torpedoes our confidence.  I like to say that the “net value of listening to this voice is negative”.

The secret that most people don’t know is that if you can find a way of making that voice quieten down, the same information is available from elsewhere in our heads without the side order of poison.  This is probably preferable.

The short version of the solution is that: (a) This critical voice is actually a primitive emergency mechanism that kicks in when a part of us is feeling vulnerable and (b) if we can find a way of calming down and comforting this vulnerable part, our critics will become quiet, allowing us to hear our inner wisdom without the negativity.

You can read about this at greater length in my article here.

By the way the inner critic is also at the root of Imposter Syndrome and you can read about that and my recommended solutions to it here.

 

4.  It’s possible to be nervous and confident at the same time

Often people come to me because they think they need to get rid of their nerves.

The truth is, it’s normal (and even rational) to be nervous when you speak in public.  You are saying something that matters to you, you want to get a “good” result, and you don’t know how it’s going to go.  And yes, there’s a possibility that it might go “badly”.

The secret here is realising that confidence is not the absence of nerves, but being OK with our nerves.

And the good news is that this is very do-able.

I’ve spoken about some of the psychological aspects of this managing this above, and also in this article.

For practical advice on dealing with the more physical aspects of nerves – AKA managing adrenaline – check out this article I wrote recently on How to turn Adrenaline into your Superpower.

 

5. The connection is more important than the content

Of course, the content of your talk is important.  You need to know your stuff and people have come to hear it.

But they won’t believe you unless they buy into you.

To be able to do this they need to be able to connect with you, feel you, and experience your integrity.  This all starts with connection.

Imagine trying to download a big webpage over 3G (or worse).  Or trying to have a conversation over a terrible phone line.  The information being conveyed may be great, but that doesn’t matter if it isn’t getting through.

This is why your connection with your audience is absolutely fundamental.  At at the moment you are speaking with the audience, you need to be giving it more attention than getting your words exactly right.

I teach a method called Relational Presence – which focusses on 3 elements – (a) seeing, (b) allowing yourself to be seen and (c) letting the connection be the most important thing whilst you speak.

 

One bonus principle

Okay, try as I might, I couldn’t leave it at five!  As I made the list above, I realised that there was one thing missing that I absolutely needed to tell you, or the list would be incomplete.

Confidence lives in the body.

Confidence is a feeling.  (We don’t say “I think confident”, we say “I feel confident”).  Feelings live in the body.

We cannot feel confident without actually feeling the feelings, and more importantly the sensations in our body – the ones we like, the ones we don’t like and all those in between.

If you can learn how to make friends with all the sensations in your body – pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral and then feel them you will feel much more confident.  It will also become really easy to be the centre of attention regardless of the size of audience you are in front of.

The process of coming down from our heads and living more from a felt sense of our bodies is called embodiment, and I’ve written about it in some detail here.

And if you want coaching on doing that in a friendly group, do check out our Foundation Public Speaking Courses in London.

Either way, the more you can notice and feel the sensations in your body without judging them or pushing them away the more grounded and confident you will feel.

If you combine this with looking after the more vulnerable parts of you and managing your psychology your confidence will become really deep and durable.  You’ll then be ready to connect with your audience, so your message will really land.

I wish you good luck!

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As always, do let me know how you get on in the comments below.

I’ve mentioned our public speaking courses above, but I also offer one to one coaching over Zoom or Teams, if you can’t get to London, so do feel free to contact us if you’d like some support on any of the matters I’ve touched on in this article, or you’d like to discuss your options.

Daniel Kingsley
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