How to overcome fear of the audience
When we ask many of the groups we train why they feel scared about speaking in public, a reason that often comes up is a fear of the audience, and more specifically being judged by the audience.
“People senior to me are watching me to see if I make a mistake.”
“If I do or say something stupid people will laugh at me.”
These are phrases we hear a lot. Are audiences really out to pick apart your performance?
The good news is that the majority of audience members are not. Most people turning up to a talk or a meeting genuinely want the speaker to be interesting and thought provoking. Why would they choose to turn up to an event that they believed would be a waste of their time? In fact most are ready to view you as an authority merely because you have the floor.
Furthermore, people don’t actually enjoy seeing others fail. We have all felt that toe-curling sensation when a speaker is struggling and it is not pleasant. It is all too easy to imagine yourself in their shoes.
Unfortunately, there is a minority of our audience members who will start with a negative mindset. Maybe they have been forced to turn up against their will? More often than not, a negative approach shows an insecurity about their own presentations.
If you feel negatively about doing something, it is a natural reaction to try and spot faults in others. Company in despair you might say. If you think you have a wobbly voice when you speak, you may waste time and attention trying to spot others in the same boat. Or if you feel shaky (thanks to the adrenaline rush we all get before talking caused by the flight/fight response) you may find yourself trying to see if presenters have the same affliction. “Did you see those sheets of paper? His hands were shaking so much,” comes the relieved, almost gleeful observation.
The problem with this type of judging is that it doesn’t help you to overcome your own worries about speaking in public. It can actually make them seem worse. Once you look out for something you spot it, and you cease to remember that the majority are not actually looking out for signs of nerves or failure. Ask 100 delegates at a conference about cloud computing what they are hoping to get from the keynote talk. 99 of them will say they want to learn more about the cloud, not that they are looking for the speaker to make a blunder!
So how can we get over this judging? Before you listen to your next speaker write down a list of positive things to look for such as:
- What can I learn from this speaker about eye contact?
- What can I learn from this speaker about using real-life examples and stories?
- What new stuff did I learn from what they had to say?
Thinking benevolently about other speakers will in turn help you to think benevolently about yourself. After a while you will start to transfer these same positive thoughts to your own performance, and see practical things you can do to improve.
And finally next time you hear someone speak, try smiling at them. If they see you in the audience it will make them feel more relaxed. And if enough of us start doing that, the chances are you will be able to see someone listening and wishing you well at your next presentation. Why do they have cheerleaders at sports shows and not judges (aside the hotpants?). Because smiling supporters provoke a better performance from the team and encourage the fans to wish them well.