Talking Up, in Public

David Presswell offers a couple of practical suggestions for those who may typically shy away from public speaking.

In the previous article, the focus was on talking ‘sooner and softer’ as a way of asserting one’s presence in small groups. It is an approach which can be particularly effective for those of us of a more intuitive or reflective nature, who can sometimes find themselves overshadowed by colleagues all too happy to take the airspace. But there are times when there is little option for any of us but to speak up, and that is when we are called upon to present or speak in public.

For many, public speaking is among the most challenging professional experiences there is. It can be accompanied by a crushing degree of rabbit-in-the-headlights self-consciousness and a host of distressing physical symptoms, from breathlessness to nausea.  In response, we can typically go into one of two responses: either we focus exclusively on ourselves, as though trying to ignore an audience was even there – at the risk they disengage.  Or we become so fixated on that audience and what they may or may not be thinking, that we lose track of – even confidence in –  what it is we are there to communicate.

In relatively small audiences, this silent interrogation of our audience can be exacerbated by a debilitating attempt to ‘read’ their expressions, one which can go beyond a general ‘Have I still got their attention?’ to an attempt to decode individual body language or facial expressions. Unsurprisingly, this quickly becomes overwhelming.

So what is the answer? How can we make eye contact with a series of audience members – something we recognise to be flatteringly powerful when a speaker does this to us – without losing focus on our message? How can we pick out individual faces without becoming entangled in individual reactions?

A useful approach is to take in a range of audience members, pausing for a couple of seconds on each, but only ever focusing on the surface of a face. This way, you still see key reactions such as a hand in the air, but you stay focussed on what it is you want to say.

What you say to yourself, however, also communicates. In public speaking, just as in so much of life, the story we live in is the story we live out. So it is worth checking and potentially adjusting your internal narrative. If you are telling yourself this audience is there to judge you, you are naturally likely to communicate defensiveness. If you tell yourself they are here to hear something important and interesting you have to say – having made sure it is – you encourage their engagement and their curiosity. 

Almost invariably, an audience wants you to succeed, if only to feel its collective attention has been well spent.  But this is not to say you won’t feel nervous, something the most experienced public performers still experience every time they are up in front of an audience.  The difference is that those people tend to reframe those self-same physiological sensations as something useful, even welcome. Bruce Springsteen, on being asked about performing in front of crowds of 50,000, described sensations of his ‘heart-pounding’ and his ‘hands shaking’.  But whilst for most of us those might prove show-stoppers, for Springsteen, they were enablers – serving as indicators of his ‘feeling alive… pumped and ready to play’.

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