Confidence in Public Speaking
I have a response to anyone who tells me they lack confidence or get nervous whenever they need to speak in public which is:
Congratulations, you are normal!
I think there is a sense when looking from the outside that some people don’t get nervous and that for most of the rest, after a while, the fear just goes away over time. Obviously there are a few people who do not get nervous, but then there are also a few people who never feel embarrassment! It is not necessarily a good thing!
The impression probably comes from seeing a Barak Obama, a Brene Brown or an Emma Watson, or any other apparently confident speaker who seems completely at ease talking in front of people and then we compare how we feel inside with how they look on the outside.
The mistake is to think that what is happening on the outside is the same as what is happening on the inside.
The good news is that nearly everyone gets nervous.
The bad news is that to some degree the nerves will never go away.
However not only does that not matter, it is actually a good sign, as a healthy dose or anxiety will help your presentation.
So the big question is not how do we get rid of the nerves, but how do we turn nerves while speaking from a negative to a positive?
Nerves are your friend
Without wishing to go all ‘positive mental attitude’ on you, the first step is to acknowledge a bit of nervousness as a benefit rather than a problem and to recognise that although we are feeling anxious and uncomfortable that can actually help us.
As the famous story goes, about the bird who freezes mid-flight, falls to the ground, is pooped upon by a cow, warms up, sings happily about it and is then pulled out the poop and eaten by a cat tells us:
- Not everything that poops on you is necessarily your enemy.
- Not everything that pulls you out of the poop is necessarily your friend.
In terms of speaker’s nerves maybe it takes a little bit of reframing, but we need to learn to recognise that what may at first sight seem like it is against us can turn out to be our greatest friend.
So even though you may feel that your nerves are trying to ‘poop’ on your performance, in reality they are there to improve your ability to sing!
It may not feel like it in the moment, but we just need to learn how to harness them, rather than making the mistake of trying to banish them.
Musicians often say that through most of their professional life they are either scared to death or bored to death and scared to death is always better. It means that you are alive!
Nerves give you energy and since an audience often cannot tell the difference between a speaker who is really enthusiastic and passionate and a speaker who is absolutely petrified, all we actually need to do is learn to channel the energy that comes from feeling nervous into passion, conviction or enthusiasm.
Without any nerves you will probably come across as flat and disengaged.
If you are lukewarm as a speaker you will leave your audience cold,
but If you want to ignite your audience you need to be red-hot.
And nothing makes you hotter than the positive adrenalin of a few jangling nerves
So step 1 is to learn to recognise your nerves as a positive trait and to learn to use them, rather than try to lose them.
How much can I control my nerves?
USA secretary of defence during the Gulf War, Donald Rumsfeld famously declared:
‘there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don't know we don't know.’
Rumsfeld was trying to explain the sense of confusion experienced by a military command as they are bombarded with misinformation and confusing intelligence reports during the general confusion of war. And overwhelmed as the leadership is with these contradictory, unclear and often wildly over-exaggerated reports, they still need to be able to find their way through the fog and paralysis, make good decisions and function effectively.
Therefore imagine that the confusing, conflicting and at times wildly over-dramatic messages our nerves like to send us when we are under stress can be likened to the confusing and often contradictory intelligence information command and control is receiving during a military conflict.
And therefore our brain is like the command and control having to function under the over-stimulated stress of conflict.
Let us take this one stage at a time. We have not walked out on stage yet, so let’s step back and look at this calmly, while we still can. Let us firstly identify and isolate all the things we can control and move forward from there.
Identify the known knowns
If we define the negative manifestation of nerves as an overwhelming cocktail of confusion, consisting of pulse racing, complete forgetfulness, over-stimulation and maybe add to that simple blind panic - those can be characterised as some of your known knowns.
Let’s look at each in turn and try to come up with a response:
(i) pulse racing
Most of us experience some form of rushing, being flustered, of everything happening too fast.
If we know that is likely then we should do what we can to slow everything down.
- check your breathing
if it is fast and shallow, consciously take deep breaths; focus on breathing deep into your diaphragm; breathe out for longer than you breath in, so that you reach a pause at the end of your exhale until your body requires you to breathe back in
- focus on thy ‘why’ or the purpose of the presentation
anxiety grows when we focus on ourselves and how we are feeling. It decreases when we take our eyes off ourselves and think about the purpose of the job in hand. It is not all about you, it is about putting a message across to your audience and to do that well, you do not need to be ‘brilliant’.
- don’t let yourself be hurried
give yourself a moment before you walk forward, to gather your thoughts and focus on your very first words.
Say them slowly to yourself a couple of times before you take the next step
(ii) complete forgetfulness
I remember working with a banker who did not have English as his first language, although he needed to present in English. After a couple of training sessions together, he boldly announced:
‘I want to speak without notes like you do.’
‘No you don’t!
I am speaking in my first language and if I forget or slip up I probably have a big enough vocabulary to come up with another word or phrase to cover what I want to say. I have also spoken quite a lot, so I have experience of momentarily forgetting what comes next.
You are speaking in a foreign language. If you miss a word, you might not have another one to replace it and as you have not delivered many presentations that could throw you.
Yes – build up to speaking without notes, but maybe not straight away.’
The reason I tell that story is to highlight that our ‘known knowns’ will vary.
There is little point in me preparing you for my ‘known knowns’ if they are not right for you.
In the case of this speaker, his lack of experience and ease with the language suggested that he would need fairly clear and extensive notes to support his speech. A more experienced speaker might just need a clear outline of the structure of the speech and a quick reminder of the opening words.
However whether new or experienced, a few minutes before speaking, every speaker should be able to say to the mirror or a trusted companion:
‘These are my three key points and this is my opening line.’
Most musicians play their pieces without music in front of them. They know the music well and have probably played it many times. However if you are an inexperienced musician or the piece is particularly challenging, it might be worth having the notes with you, rather than loading an extra level of stress that could prove fatal.
This one can be simple. Don’t drink coffee. Don’t engage in lively discussions. The point about addressing ‘known knowns’ is that you can, if not eliminate them (because some of them might still turn out to be ‘known unknowns’), you can at least take steps to address them. Just like locking the back door before going out is not going to guarantee that you will not be burgled, but it will make you feel better.
Be aware of the ‘known unknowns’
There are always a few elements that you know are coming up, which are still beyond your sphere of influence. Ideally over time and with experience you can bring some of these over to the ‘known known’ camp.
(i) the exact make up and attitude of the audience
You cannot control your audience, but you might prepare for eventualities.
- what will you do if no one responds your rhetorical question?
- are you prepared if no one laughs at your jokes?
- have you prepared a range of answers to possible questions you could be asked?
(ii) your introduction from the host or previous contributor
- they said they were going to introduce you, but if they don’t – what do you say?
- a previous contributor has covered some of you points already
or (– a personal experience this one)
- you say your well-prepared opening line and then go blank on what comes next
(I will give a solution to this in another blog as it is worthy of a full article in itself)
(iii) technical glitches
Projector fails, computer freezes, microphone crackles, building works outside, audience member falls ill.
You can only go so far in preparing for a ‘known unknown’, but what is important is to remain aware of how they could catch you off balance.
The danger comes when, in order to counteract your nerves, you take extreme measures to prepare for all the eventualities you can imagine, to the degree of writing out a full script and reading it to your audience, over-rehearsing until any spark of spontaneity is driven out and then in spite of all of that, something happens that you had not predicted. Battleship sunk!
Remain alert for ‘unknown unknowns’
This in reality is all about maintaining an attitude and a perspective.
- What can you do if there is a total blackout?
- No one told you that half of the audience would be attending via Zoom.
- Some of the audience barely understand English
- The room is overheated and there are not enough chairs
If you have done your job, prepared for the ‘known knowns’, raised your awareness to some of the possible ‘known unknowns’, anything that happens beyond that might just be beyond your sphere and all you can do is smile or raise your hands in surrender.
I have couched all of this within the topic of ‘confidence in public speaking’ because much of confidence in a situation stems from knowing that you have addressed what you can, you have prepared what is possible and you have even considered further eventualities . There is not much more you can do.
You can only be confident in your preparation.
All you need to do now is take as much focus and pressure off yourself as you can and put all your focus on your audience, because in the end, you are there for them; they are not there for you!