I enjoyed watching a video recently from WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg, in which he gave some great public speaking tips. Along with breathing and knowing your topic inside and out, Mullenweg says that one of the best tips he received was to remember that people are there to see you do well. “If you mess up… [the audience is] gonna laugh right along with you, they’re not laughing at you,” he says. That connection with the audience provides him with the energy to keep going, and it removes a lot of his nervousness about making mistakes, “’cause if you mess up, it’s not bad.”
I really think this is a great tip, because the audience sees you as the expert, and they’re interested in what you have to say. They’re probably glad that they’re not up in front, and will be sympathetic of tongue twisters, technical glitches and other fumbles, as long as you keep your sense of humour too. Showing a little bit of your human side can create a bond with the audience, as long as it doesn’t stop you from giving great content.
Mullenweg is the 25 year old founder of Automattic, the company behind the open-source blogging tool WordPress and a handful of other software projects. He travels the world giving frequent presentations to the many users of WordPress, when he’s not coding enhancements to the blogging software. He says he receives the most positive comments when he presents while feeling relaxed, and because he’s lived and breathed WordPress for seven years, he certainly doesn’t have any trouble talking passionately for hours about his favourite topic.
Watch the video here. It’s just over a minute longBen Wilson wrote this post from his small room in his small house near the ocean. If you enjoyed this, you might like to sign up for his free communication tips. The newsletter also has less talking in third person.
The remarkable thing about preparation is that it not only raises the professionalism of a speaker, it also makes the speaker’s fear evaporate. Preparation conquers fear leading up to the speech, and preparation transforms that fear into energy and passion.
What is Public Speaking Fear?
When a speaker takes the stage in front of the audience, he may appear confident, but almost certainly he suffers one or more symptoms of fear. He may have butterflies in his stomach, or cold, sweaty hands, a racing heart, or shortness of breath. These symptoms are the result of chemicals in the bloodstream, the chemicals of fear.
Deep in his brain’s subconscious, an automatic response triggered the chemicals preparing the body for fight or flight. His brain’s ancient programming considers the audience to be a threat, because it sees the audience as a room of predators. The speaker’s brain would give the same response if he stepped into a room full of wolves.
Fear of public speaking can be exacerbated if the speaker spends too much time dwelling on the feelings he is experiencing, and worries about the event going wrong, the audience’s opinion of him, or making a mistake during the presentation. All the time he is worrying and imagining negative scenarios is wasted, and worse, is feeding the deep mechanisms of the brain, preparing it to send out more torrents of fear juice, as the presentation approaches.
How to Conquer the Fear
Preparation gives a speech a professional finish, and removes the wrinkles, errors and tongue tangles. It also provides the speaker with focus. When the brain has a focus, it can’t dwell on the negative possibilities, the worries and imagined scenarios. Indeed, the speaker concentrates on all the phases of speech making; idea generation, research, construction, practice and rehearsal. Each phase of the preparation process is a positive step, moving the speaker closer to the ultimate goal, a successful presentation. Without thoughts of disaster, with the positive sensation of construction and achievement as the speech comes together, preparation overwhelms the negative thoughts, the seeds from which fear is grown.
But on the day of the speech, standing and looking at the audience, before she goes on to speak, those deep, dark automatic responses will trigger. They come, not because of negative thoughts, but simply because the brain has seen a room full of predators, carnivorous eyes staring hungrily at the unprotected speaker at the front of the room. That the predators are hungry for knowledge, not meat, is irrelevant to the protective brain. The fight or flight chemicals flood the speakers body. Her heart races, her breath becomes short, and her palms sweaty. Her brain has readied her to run, should that audience attack.
The fight or flight chemicals actually have a multitude of uses in the body. Adrenaline, one of the main chemicals of fear, is also a chemical of excitement, passion and energy. Adrenaline is a natural stimulant. Thanks to his comprehensive preparation, the speaker can be confident that he knows his stuff, and won’t be distracted by uncomfortable butterflies in his stomach.
Keeping his focus firmly on the opening of his speech, he’ll be able to walk out in front of the audience, confidently. The butterflies can’t prevent him from walking straight, upright, with every appearance of confidence. Thanks to his comprehensive preparation, he’ll remember his words, converting his shortness of breath into dramatic pauses that add to the speech. Thanks to his comprehensive preparation, he can change his grimace into a welcoming smile, change his sweating palms into open, enthusiastic gesture, change the fear into passion.
Preparation Takes the Focus Off Failure, and Transforms Fear
Right from the moment the idea of a speech is formed, there is the potential for crippling fear. But by keeping the focus on preparation, speakers can avoid the negative imagination, the baseless worries, and the destructive emotions. By extensive preparation, speakers can get right up to the stage, and transform the fight or flight response into confidence, passion and warmth. Prepation conquers fear.Ben Wilson wrote this post from his small room in his small house near the ocean. If you enjoyed this, you might like to sign up for his free communication tips. The newsletter also has less talking in third person.
Speaking in public is scary. It causes a real reaction in your body, the fight or flight response, that results in adrenaline surging through your arteries, sweat breaking out on your forehead, and your heart rate peaking. Often when you’re in the grip of a fight or flight response, your brain stops functioning normally, and all you can think of is yourself, and how to get out of the speech you’re about to give.
But aren’t you being just a little selfish? There’s a room of interesting, curious people waiting for you, and you want to break a promise you made them, because you’re scared. And what are you scared of? Those same interesting, curious people out in the audience.
I’ve written about how avoiding narcissism can make you the centre of attention. If you avoid narcissism, you might also be a little less afraid as well. You can only feel fear when your attention is focused on yourself, when you are in a selfish mindset. You are wondering about your body reaction, wondering what the audience thinks about you, wondering if you’ll be judged well.
When you direct your attention out into the audience, you won’t feel your fear. Instead, you’ll be seeing things from their point of view. Never say to yourself, “I’m afraid”. Just turn your attention and energy out into the audience. As you become attentive to the audience’s point of view, you’ll understand their mood, curiosity and interest. You’ll be able to respond to that curiosity and interest by delivering the information and value only you can give.
Understanding the audience mood is the key to delivering dynamic, energising presentations that will leave them thinking, talking, and understanding your message. If you’re feeling stage fright, try being less selfish. See things from the audience point of view, and your fear will fade into the background.Ben Wilson wrote this post from his small room in his small house near the ocean. If you enjoyed this, you might like to sign up for his free communication tips. The newsletter also has less talking in third person.
As speakers, we all have an element of narcissism in our presentations. We are there at the front of the room, the focus of attention, controlling the show, getting everything to go our own way. The paradox of public speaking is that while it seems to be a self-serving activity, it’s not. Narcissism is the worst attribute a speaker can display.
It’s a sticky trap, but narcissism in public speaking is a deadly method of losing an audience. It’s about energy. We give and receive energy all the time. But when a narcissist takes the stage, they simply take energy. All of it. They hijack the conversation, turning every story into something about them. Listening to a narcissist speak is like standing near a black hole, watching your energy drain into it, never to return.
An audience comes to receive. It might be knowledge, entertainment, or inspiration, but they want to receive something from the speaker. If you are a speaker who avoids the sticky web of narcissism, you must give energy instead of taking it. Your speech will be all about the audience. Their life, their situation, the fulfilment of their wants and needs. You’ll avoid the word I and instead use you, or we.
If you finish your speech and you’re drained of energy, then you’ve given your audience the energy it craved. If you finish your speech and the people in the audience are sitting on their chairs like discarded rubber glovers, then you might want to re-evaluate your style of speaking.
The best way to hold someone’s attention is to give them energy, to talk about them and their interests. Cut out the me, me, me attitude and become passionate about your audience. If you do, you’ll stay the centre of attention.Ben Wilson wrote this post from his small room in his small house near the ocean. If you enjoyed this, you might like to sign up for his free communication tips. The newsletter also has less talking in third person.
In a darkened, hushed auditorium, somewhere in the world, there is an expert walking out on stage. She’s presenting on a topic she knows well, to an audience keen to learn what she has to share. Yet, the first thing she does when she reached the lectern is to adjust her jacket, to tug and twitch everything back into place. Then she stands with her hands clasped in front of her, shuffles her feet and rocks back and forth. Her hunched shoulders make her voice muffled, and with every moment, she seems to shrink, getting smaller…
She looks awkward and uncomfortable, and the audience soon starts to mirror her feeling. No one wins from this presentation.
When your audience first watch you walk on stage, they are already forming an opinion of you, and your presentation. Throughout your speech, your audience will revise that opinion, deciding if you are smart, confident, trustworthy, or interesting. They form these opinions, not by listening, but by watching your every movement.
If you have practised your speech, and you know your topic area well, you can still make your audience think you are unprepared, or ignorant, simply by the way you move. There are certain gestures and body movements that make you appear awkward, uncomfortable and nervous. If you can consciously control these movements, even if you are nervous, then the audience, and you, will really pick up in energy and the information can start to flow.
Here are three movements that make you appear awkward and uncomforable:
- Adjusting your clothing on stage. Have a moment in the restroom to check your appearance in the mirror, then leave yourself alone. Your tie, your jacket, and your blouse all look great, and the audience doesn’t want to watch you getting dressed.
- Crossing your arms over your body. This makes you appear closed and shielded. It can also interfere with microphones and your voice and breathing. There are many variations of this, from folded arms to the fig leaf, but all give the impression of discomfort.
- Standing with your hands in your pockets. This hunches your shoulders, and messes your suit. It is the ideal posture to adopt if you want to look like a sulky teenager. When your hands are in your pockets, you also have the chance to distract the audience by jingling the coins and keys you keep in there.
Gesture and body language can make up over 70% of the message we send to the audience. If you are awre of the way you move, you can make sure the right message is being transmitted.Ben Wilson wrote this post from his small room in his small house near the ocean. If you enjoyed this, you might like to sign up for his free communication tips. The newsletter also has less talking in third person.
When you step onto a stage, you are stepping in front of a crowd of friends. This is sometimes hard to believe, when the adrenaline is surging and you’re in the grip of a fight or flight response. But each person in the crowd looking up at you is actually willing you to do well. Each person has come to listen to you, and that probably means that each person thinks you are a brave expert in what you are about to tell them.
Remember the last time you were sitting in the audience, watching a nervous speaker. You probably felt sorry for that flustered presenter. You probably felt warm thoughts of encouragement and empathy. Most people empathise with an uncomfortable speaker and silently cheer them on.
Up to a point. There is an invisible line where the audience gives up cheering for the man or woman at the front, and just waits out the the end of the ordeal, feeling increasing uncomfortable, and missing the information that is being presented.
If you step out on the stage with your guard up, with the expectation that the audience will be hostile, you’ll cross the Discomfort Barrier much sooner. When you’re on stage, let your guard down. Trust the audience. Believe that the audience wants you to succeed. With the support and encouragement of an entire room, your presentation will sparkle with increased energy. You’ll start to feel you’re having a conversation with the audience, rather than giving them a sermon.
When you learn to trust the audience, and know they support you and want you to succeed, you’ll find your stage fright will evaporate.Ben Wilson wrote this post from his small room in his small house near the ocean. If you enjoyed this, you might like to sign up for his free communication tips. The newsletter also has less talking in third person.
My favourite method of dealing with stage fright is to imagine that I am an actor, playing a role in a performance. The only remarkable thing about my acting is that it’s for the role of me.
When I was in front of the audience I used to imagine I was wearing a mask, or visualise my clothes as a suit of armour. But as I became more aware of the audience I was delivering to, I realised that I was actually closing my self off from them. By treating the audience as something hostile, I was making my communication defensive, and hiding my authentic self.
I adopt the role of myself, playing me to the best of my ability, so that I present an authentic, humorous, genuine character study. Luckily, I know how to play myself very well. This little mind game, pretending to act out my own part, allows me to disassociate from the presentation just enough to keep from being affected by the fear.
Every presentation I do is part of me – I put myself deeply into them. So when the audience judges the presentation, as they surely do, by playing my own part, I become less invested. Now, the audience is judging the playwright’s work, not me the actor.
Fear is an element of every presentation. But with preparation, practice, and the intention to play your part, your communication skills will flourish. In your next presentation, try shuffling a little sideways, and act out the role you’ve written for yourself.Ben Wilson wrote this post from his small room in his small house near the ocean. If you enjoyed this, you might like to sign up for his free communication tips. The newsletter also has less talking in third person.
I had a sudden urge to draw men with guns. I don’t think this is any passive aggressive manifestation of stress or anger. I think, sometimes, men with guns can be cool. Perhaps it’s Freudian. But I’m pleased with the noir look of these pen and ink sketches.Ben Wilson wrote this post from his small room in his small house near the ocean. If you enjoyed this, you might like to sign up for his free communication tips. The newsletter also has less talking in third person.
About six months ago, I started an exercise campaign to get myself back into some semblance of fitness. I don’t enjoy exercise. It is just one of those unpleasant, necessary, time-consuming activities.
I have noticed that my speaking and communication skills have improved the fitter I have become. I guess this is logical, as most of the flaws in my speaking style are a result of the fight or flight response I get as the fear kicks in before the presentation. Because I’m now fitter, my body can handle the physiological symptoms much easier, and the effects show much less obviously.
The most noticeable benefit has been on my breathing. The cardio exercise I’ve been doing has increased the capacity and efficiency of my lungs. On stage, I now take slower, deeper breaths. This gets more oxygen to my brain, and I find I can think and talk clearly.
With every exercise session, I feel like my heart couldn’t beat faster, but all the vigorous star jumps have resulted in a strong heart. Now, as I go up to the stage, and my body starts the fight or flight response, my heart beat stays pretty steady. This probably isn’t noticeable from the audience, but I feel considerably more confident when my heart isn’t racing.
Exercise makes your muscles more efficient. This means that as the blood pressure rises and the muscles tense under the adrenaline push, they stay cooler. What am I saying? I don’t sweat and I don’t flush. Both these responses are clear indicators of nerves to the audience, so eliminating them is brilliant.
Improving my core strength has resulted in a noticable improvement in how I hold myself. Gone are the slouched shoulders and collapsing tummy. My stronger torso gives me the ability to stand up, tall and confident. If I look it, I am it.
For some reason, the exercise is making me more energetic rather than less. I don’t understand how this works, but the more energy I burn, the more I get. This makes me feel dynamic and passionate on the stage. I’m moving about more, using bigger gestures, and having fun.
I have more energy, and it lasts longer. I have a greater stamina – I can do an hour long presentation at work, take questions, and still feel like I’ve got more. This is a big change for me, as I used to be thoroughly milked after a big day like that.
The most interesting benefit of my fitness has only come recently, as I’ve found time to get away from the guided class and step out for a run on my own. The meditative pounding of feet on path leaves me with a very personal space to reflect, plan, and mentally rehearse presentations. People don’t talk to me when I’m running. I tell myself this is because I’m too fast, but it’s probably because I look like I may collapse if I stop. No one wants that on their conscience.
I started exercising simply to prevent my body from becoming even more potato like. But the benefits of a vigorous physical training regime have really helped my communication. I still can’t claim I enjoy exercise, but it is a part of my routine now, and the thinking time, the energy and the stamina are all too valuable to lose. Is it time for you to dust off your running shoes?Ben Wilson wrote this post from his small room in his small house near the ocean. If you enjoyed this, you might like to sign up for his free communication tips. The newsletter also has less talking in third person.
My favourite thing about weekends is that I let go of the daily ritual of shaving. I allow myself to grow out a little stubble. It makes me feel just a fraction more manly.
One day I may actually take my moustache to work. But really, I prefer to be clean shaved in the office. It seems somehow more streamlined.