Being one of four daughters of hard-working parents, getting somebody’s undivided attention was rare when I was a child. Until when at age seven I was asked to sing solo at the school end-of-year festivities. Suddenly all eyes and all ears were on me – and I found myself loving it. Finally I had the attention of everyone. Finally they had to listen to me. I had tasted the privilege and the power of making my voice heard.
It wasn’t until years later that I understood that many people dread having to stand up in front of an audience. And as my ego grew larger and stakes got higher, I also got to experience performance anxiety first hand.
We are hardwired to fail in front of an audience
The fear of standing up and speaking in front of a group of people is deeply human. The old part of your brain has been designed to scan for dangers and activate an alert system anytime your survival is threatened. If the brain notices 20 or 200 pairs of eyes staring at you it will activate a fight-flight-or freeze response in your body. The blood will be drained from the thinking and language processing parts of your brain and redirected to your arms and legs to help you fight hard and run fast. This is probably a sensible response if the eyes staring at you belong to wild lions. It’s slightly less helpful to have your IQ drop dramatically just as you are about to present to the executive management team.
The fact that this is a pre-programmed, natural response does not mean that we are doomed – just that we need to consciously work around it: To communicate effectively we need to recondition ourselves and change the way we think about speaking in public.
It’s not about you – it’s about your listeners
What do you tend to think of when you stand there in front of your audience? Are you worrying about looking good and sounding smart? Wondering if your boss will be happy with your performance?
The more you worry about yourself, the more nervous you will get. Shift the spotlight away from your ego and on to your audience.
You have been given the time and the space to speak. It’s a privilege, and you need to honor the opportunity. Put yourself in the service of your listeners: How is your topic relevant to them? What kind of insights or knowledge can you offer them? What emotions can you evoke in them – joy, curiosity, excitement? How can you make your message interesting, engaging and easy for them to grasp?
A simple shift of your focus away from yourself to your listeners will help to clarify your purpose, and make it easier to speak with conviction and passion.
The connection will save you – and them
Sure, it does feel lonely and exposed to be standing there in front of them. The impulse to escape into your head and quickly rattle off the headlines of your presentation is hard to resist. Instead, take the time to connect with your audience. Look them in the eyes, smile at them, take a step closer to them. Treat them like friends who have joined a party that you are hosting. Connecting with the people in front of you will make you feel better as you receive energy back from them. Your listeners will also be more open to receive your message now that they know you care about them.
Real is better than perfect
The fear of making mistakes or coming across as unprofessional turns us into lifeless and boring speakers. The audience didn’t show up to hear a perfect robot deliver masses of data. They won’t be impressed by beautiful or complex formulations that don’t mean anything. They are yearning to meet an authentic human being who has something interesting to offer them. As long as you are perceived as sincere and relevant, your listeners will be willing to forgive a lot – your accent, your small mistakes, your shaking hands. So have the courage to be generous with yourself, because the most precious gift you can offer others is your presence.