The top 6 reasons people are nervous speaking in public.
What’s really going on and what to do about it.
“Will you do a presentation? Would you say a few words? Would you mind speaking at our next meeting?”
Does this fill you with delight or fear when you get a polite request from your boss, your best mate or your club president to present in front of a group?
When we think of presenting, the images that often come to mind are of the charismatic, confident, well-practiced politicians, celebrity speakers or actors from West Wing who just seem to have a knack for speaking in public. We, on the other hand, see ourselves as a far cry from the powerful public speaker, more like a nervous wreck, who would rather eat worms on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here than face our public speaking anxiety.
In the years of coaching and training people on how to conquer the fear of public speaking, I have heard many of the same reasons why people cannot do a presentation. At the heart of it are layers of judgement about self and others. Judgement is the thief of confidence when it comes to public speaking. I know first hand, having been there in the early days of my working life, until I realized that public speaking skills, like all skills, have structure and do need to be practiced.
I have listed the top 6 reasons why people are terrified of public speaking, what’s really going on and what you can do about it.
Reason 1: If only I could get past the first 30 seconds. Once I’m up there I am fine.
What’s really going on: You are crowding your mind with information overload, running negative judgments and fear-based thinking on yourself, rather than sorting your mind for the single sentence you need to get you started. This is triggering a fight-or-flight response. And guess what? All you want to do is run.
What to do: Ask yourself, “what is the best way to get started; can I tell a story or ask the audience a question?” Another great way to launch those first 30 seconds is share what you plan to talk about with others in casual conversations before you get up to speak. Tell yourself, “it’s an information-sharing session, rather than a performance I am doing. I am not looking for an Oscar here.”
Reason 2: I just don’t like standing up in front of people with all those eyes on me. But I’m okay sitting down.
What’s really going on: You are assuming that because people are looking at you, they could be judging you. You may not like being center of attention and never have. Standing up makes you feel more exposed than sitting down.
What to do: This one is simple! Let people look at you! Allow yourself to be vulnerable and trust that people want the best for you. If the setting is less formal, say you are going to sit down to do the presentation and when you feel comfortable, casually stand up to complete the presentation. Volunteer often to give a presentation in more causal settings.
Reason 3: I find it hard to present to people I don’t know. I find it hard to present to people I do know.
What’s really going on; This is about rules you run with your audience, and how you selectively decide one audience is nicer or easier than another. Once again, there are underlying judgments operating here about what you think people think of you and most of them time it is “made-up” in your head and has no bearing on reality.
What to do: See your audience as just people, who need the information you have. See the humanness of everybody in front of you. Most people would empathize and support you.
Reason 4: I don’t mind a few people. It’s the bigger groups I can’t handle.
What’s really going on: Somehow your thinking is rooted in the idea smaller groups are easier, nicer, kinder, less intimidating, which is also a mental invention. The size of the group is not as relevant of your perception of what bigger and smaller groups do. Most people are only there for the message and will only get distracted by your nerves, but will be engaged if you focus on what you want to tell them.
What to do: Remind yourself, these are just people with the same concerns and challenges in their daily lives. They do want to hear what you have to say. They will more likely remember the message over the speaker. And there are relaxed when you relax. Do them this favor.
Reason 5: People are going to think the worst of me and I am going to get it wrong.
What’s really going on: You are projecting onto your audience, based on your own self-criticism and the “wrongness” of you, which is about high standards and perfectionism. Who doesn’t get things wrong? The difference lies in being self-forgiving and doing better preparation next time and allowing people to see your vulnerability.
What to do: Keep it simple, which includes your ideas and your language. Prepare and practice. Always present on what you know and feel comfortable with. Always prepare your own material so you know what you are talking about. Get comfortable with not knowing everything and allowing people to see that you are open to learning more.
Reason 6: I will never remember all of this and what if I forget what I am going to say?
What’s really going on: You are relying too much on your detail-oriented memory. Your presentation flow is too reliant on tracking every word written in your script. You may be hiding behind your words rather than expressing your expertise. Experts on a subject can always speak off the cuff and rarely use this way of communicating their knowledge.
What to do: Create and share key points rather than learn a speech-by-heart. Some people are good at memorizing a speech, but most people find it more challenging. It’s easier to find your place if you have an outline and key points, rather than a verbatim speech. We often lose our train of thought in conversation, just acknowledge it by saying, “let me just refer to my notes.” The number one thing is to just keep going.
As a final point, watching a nervous speaker is uncomfortable for your audience. Take your mind off who you are, what you do, and how you are preforming. Let your audience enjoy your presentation by preparing, relaxing and letting people make up their own minds about you.