The author AL Kennedy got me thinking this morning with her episode of A Point of View on Radio 4 about embracing change. In it, she says, “[L]ucky and happy people… know real security involves a degree of exposure” and I was so struck by this I shared it on the Public Speaking Skills Facebook page. Then I thought perhaps I should expand on what I meant when I said there that this is so true in public speaking.
First of all, if you avoid public speaking because it scares you, you will never be free of this fear. Learn how to do it well, then get out there and address a group. And another and another. Only by facing down your demon will you find peace. Real security comes not from avoidance but from exposing yourself to that which scares you and overcoming the fear.
A more subtle but equally true and important point is that if you mentally hide from your audience when you’re in front of them, your talk will not go well. Mentally hiding can affect every aspect of public speaking and always in a negative way.
Many speakers find it difficult to make eye contact with the people they’re talking to. The eyes are the windows of the soul and if you allow people to look into them, they may see your fear – this, I believe, is the reason for avoiding eye contact, but actually it achieves the opposite of what you’re hoping for (hiding your fear). Looking people in the eye not only encourages them to listen to you, it also makes you appear confident.
If you’re mentally hiding, it will clearly show in your tense body language and lack of facial expression. You may think you’re safe there but in fact your rigidity only signals your discomfort. And, of course, it does nothing to engage the audience. Appearing relaxed and open, on the other hand, will disguise your nerves and draw the audience in.
The same applies to speaking in a way that sounds natural and interesting. My clients often bring the worry that their public-speaking delivery is monotone and boring, and it’s wonderful to hear this changing as they gradually gain confidence. It takes more courage to deliver your speech or presentation with energy and colour in your voice than it does to plod (or race) through it in a flat, grey, detached manner, but you’ve got to look at the big picture: the purpose of this talk is to give your audience a message. If you do that successfully, by making it interesting and accessible, you will emerge from the event feeling so much better than if you don’t.
As long as you go on hiding, you will be vulnerable. Mentally hiding is a false friend; it fails to protect you and it broadcasts your fear to the enemy. To keep yourself safe, what you need to do is take control of the situation, connect with the audience, do a really good job. Instead of a blank façade, one that is vibrant, animated and confident will be a much more effective defence.