It has long been an axiom that the most common fear is public speaking. This fear is pretty rational--we are social animals, and when we speak in front of a group, whether it is in a business setting or for personal reasons, we are exposing ourselves and our place in society. Your body can be a key tool for helping you to reduce this fear and communicate your message with ownership and ease.
1. Don't Be Confident--Be Human
As a response to our fear, and to try and seem authoritative, most of us try to assume an air of confidence when we speak in public--this is a trap. When we assume an artificial confidence, we end up arching our chest and straining our voice, all of which conveys discomfort rather than competence (See my blog on 'Body Branding' for more on this. Remember that ease=expertise). Moreover, it has a distancing effect--we might be impressed by a 'confident' speaker, but we don't like them: their tension unconsciously transfers to us, and we feel a need to try and be perfect in the same way (unsuccessfully) by mirroring them. As a result, everyone is busy trying to impress each other and there is no sense of listening in the room. Instead of trying to be confident and creating an image of perfection try a radically easier tactic--share one of your imperfections early on in your presentation. This doesn't have to be a deep dark secret or a major flummox but a small mistake--mispronouncing a word, sharing a feeling you have in the moment, calmly admitting nerves. When I give big presentations or workshops, I actually plan a couple of these in the first couple of minutes--I find that once I give up the goal of perfection, I relax and so does everybody I am speaking to. It is important that when you do so, accept it without judgement--don't correct yourself with tension or apologize. Just admit your humanity and move on. Doing so changes the paradigm of the communication--it makes clear you are willing to share vulnerable parts of yourself, that you aren't here to judge, and will make you instantly more likeable. You can bring your body language in line with this by allowing a slight rounding in your back--this conveys that you aren't trying to 'put something on' or defend but are interested in open communication.
2. Occupy Your Rightful Space
One great tip for managing yourself physically when you speak is to be cognizant of where the weight is on your feet--if all of your weight is in your heels, that might mean you are unconsciously pulling back from your audience which will have a distancing effect as well as potentially causing tension in your throat and neck while you speak. Conversely, if your weight is all in your toes it might mean you are 'pushing' into your audience, which might cause them to unconsciously recoil. Try to feel your weight in both your heels and toes, have a stance where your feet are approx. under your armpits, and let your knees and ankles gently release, allowing a slow easy sway from your legs up.
On this same theme, try not to be a 'space creeper' and wander around aimlessly during your presentation--instead, allow movement to happen when you are connecting to a specific person, or perhaps at transition points in your speech.
3. Talk To A Crowd All Together, One At A Time
One thing that can get a public speaker in trouble is talking to the whole group as if they are an amorphous blob rather than a collection of individuals. This tends to make us use excess effort, push harder than we need to, lose focus, become intimidated, and miss important chances to make your words feel intimate and personal. An effective tactic I use is rather than talking to the group as a whole or talking over their heads, I let myself connect with one individual at a time while keeping the rest of the group in 'soft focus', switching every few sentences. I usually pick people in the middle of the group, occasionally speaking to someone in the back or front, to create the illusion that I am speaking to the whole group and so that people don't feel left out. This helps quite a bit with nerves, as I am much better at connecting person to person as opposed to trying to be an 'orator', and this unconsciously makes the whole group feel more connected to me.
4. Let Your Voice Ring Out Like A Bell
Many of us get concerned people won't be able to hear us when we speak and work hard to project our sound. As such, we sometimes will push our voice with a lot of tension forward into the crowd, making ourselves hard to listen to, causing vocal loss, and locking up our bodies with the effort of trying to be heard. Instead of trying to push your voice forward, imagine it filling the space behind you, above you, and to your sides as well. The result will be that you won't strain as much, your breathing will be deeper, and you will be able to reach more people with less effort.
5. Focus On Your Breath, Not Your Hands
One common trap is 'talking with your hands' to try to emphasize your points. Gesture, if properly harnessed, can be a powerful communicative tool, but instead we often end up moving our hands unspecifically, resulting in creating physical static that muddles our message. Instead of trying to control your hands (by putting them in your pockets, making fists, holding the lecturn, etc.), focus your attention on your breath as you inhale and exhale. Allow enough time for the breath to come in, which will allow your audience to process what you are saying before you continue on (another important aspect of public speaking). Notice the poise and movement of your spine. Without trying, the movement of your hands and arms will start to become synchronized and in harmony with your speech--you just have to take your eyes off the ball.
6. Don't Let Frowns Turn You Upside-Down
When I first started doing public programs, I was disconcerted to look into the group and see some people frowning at me while I spoke. Others seemed very engaged, but these individuals seemed to hate what I was doing. Sometimes, it would throw me, and I would start to become nervous or speak with less ease.
It was a shock that after my workshops or talks, these would be the people who would come up to me and want to do more work or tell me that what I had said had a profound impact on them.
The reason for this paradox comes from neuroscience--when we engage our conscious, thinking minds the muscles of the face as well as the eyes engage with it, pulling the lips into a frown and furrowing the brow. So this expression I was seeing was not one of dislike, but of deep processing (yawning can also actually be a sign of this). Once I realized this, I was much less likely to be thrown by audience reactions, and was able to be more detached from what I saw when I spoke. This is not to say that your audience should always be frowning--it is important to give them cognitive breaks where they don't have to process anything: this can be done by creating light buffer material between serious points, or by changing up your tone and delivery. In the end, you can never really know how you are impacting people while you speak, so letting go of trying to judge your own performance is an essential skill, or else you will become reactive rather than responsive and connected.
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Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.