So, I'm sat next to Aleks working on some video project or other, when Rikki comes over and says, "I'm struggling to make this public speaking course on Thursday and I've cancelled twice already. Do you fancy it? It'll be good prep' for your LOVE INBOUND talk."
He was right. It would be good prep for speaking in front of over 100 marketers wanting to learn new stuff. And I'm not one to turn down a free learning opportunity.
Even though I really don't like talking to new people and I'm instantly picturing the worst things that a public speaking course could entail - trust exercises, being given a random topic and being asked to speak for five minutes in front of 50 strangers and all sorts of other mad stuff - I know it makes sense for me to go. So, I'm like, "Yeah. Nice one, of course. Thanks."
With that, Mark and I were off to meet John Dawson and eight other people who wanted to be better public speakers.
Public speaking course? Deffo gonna be some awkward stuff happening.
An hour before lunch on the first day of the course, we're doing this exercise about getting used to blank faces in the audience.
I'm sat opposite a woman, whose name I'm not even sure of at this point, whilst she purposely holds the blankest, bored-est, most unimpressed, poker face possible. And I'm pouring my heart out about how thankful I am for my wife and son and how everything I do is to be a better husband and father to them.
To the bored-est, most disinterested looking face ever. She looked like a mannequin in a shop window.
And it felt fine. Completely fine.
Because the whole morning had been spent learning why when somebody in a group situation is listening to somebody speak they enter passive listening and their face reacts accordingly.
Or, rather their face doesn't react. Because when you enter passive listening, your face has a little rest.
Why this freaks us out when presenting.
The human brain has over 300 million years of evolution making it immediately jump to the worst possible scenario in any given situation. For context, our brain recalls negative memories and jumps to negative possible outcomes in just 0.6 seconds, whereas it takes 6 seconds to arrive at a positive memory or think of a possibly positive outcome.
Our survival instinct during the process of evolution has taught us this. We learned to be instantly wary of that weird looking stick on the ground in case it's a snake. Be wary of that big spider, in case it's poisonous. To not enter that dark cave just in case something bigger and stronger is lurking in there, ready to eat us.
This is your "threat brain."
For 300 million years, we've been thinking this way. Worst case first, just in case it happens. If it does happen, we're mentally prepared and have the best chance of surviving.
So, when someone isn't nodding enthusiastically along to what we're saying during a meeting or when giving presentations, we assume they're not engaged. And are bored. And that means' we're doing a terrible job. And we don't deserve to be there. And, oh no, you're waffling. Where are you up to? What are you even saying? You idiot! Ah, for f-...
Everyone feels this way. It's normal. And it can be controlled.
This worst-case-scenario thinking manifests itself differently to different people.
Like me, a few people on the course just got caught in an internal storm about what to say next, remembering everything they wanted to cover, had a fear of forgetting something important or worrying about waffling. We knew nothing bad would happen if we did, but it doesn't make for great public speaking.
Other people got a serious fear that they're being judged negatively, felt physically sick and shaky, really worried they're going to look stupid and some people even thought they'd get sacked as a result.
But after a few hours of learning about the psychological root of why we think this way (300 million years of evolution), how common it is (everybody's brain thinks this way), why audiences appear so "bored" (they're not) and how a speaker appears on the outside (completely fine to the audience, by the way), we learnt some coping mechanisms for public speaking which are discussed below.
How to cope with public speaking during presentations, meetings or anywhere else.
A lot of how to cope with public speaking is based on re-framing the whole situation in your own mind. Calming down that threat brain.
You're going to naturally jump to negative thoughts, it's a human trait, sadly. So, instead, why not practice some positive habits instead? These can then be there as a safety net for when your threat brain kicks in. Here are some of the tips we took away from the course;
- Reduce the threat. Rather than lining yourself up to tackle a "big presentation" or "important meeting", practise the habit of calling both of these things a "chat about X." A chat is simple, familiar and less risky. You're not putting on a show, you're just chatting about a topic.
- Accept blank faces. When people in a group are listening, their faces become blank. There will be segments of your presentation or dialogue where a person is particular engaged and listening actively, but for the majority they will be passively listening. It's time to change the way we view blank faces in an audience because they don't mean anything negative. So, you can safely assume things are okay (but you need to train your brain and overcome 300 million years of survival instinct to do this!)
- Assume support. Have you ever sat there and negatively judged someone presenting or speaking in front of you, when you've been sat in an audience? Sat there laughing at them, thinking they're crap and don't know what they're doing? Nope. The people sat in front of you aren't doing it to you either. Until proven otherwise, you can 100% assume one of two things; they're listening passively, or are thinking about their enormous to-do list and that email they need to send (i.e. they're not thinking about you because they have something more important on their mind. Big deal.).
- Breathe, slow down, take a pause. To do this, there are loads of techniques to help your inner-self stay calm and collected but here's our favourite. When the anxiety kicks in; stop talking, breathe, slow everything down and tell yourself that it's okay. Pausing is great for two reasons: it lets the audience process what you've been saying (and they appreciate it) but it also lets you, as the speaker, gather your thoughts and remain calm.
- Chat with one person at once. Along with pausing, the thing we practised most on the course was chatting to one person in the audience at once. For 4-6 seconds at a time, make loose eye contact with a certain individual and just chat to them whilst you make whatever point you're saying. You can say a lot in 6 seconds and it makes for a really engaging and personal delivery by a public speaker.
- Accept the anxiety. Another relationship to change is how we view the feeling of being centre of attention. Everybody - and that means everybody - gets nervous on the big stage. Sportspeople, politicians, TV presenters... what's different is how those nerves are channelled and brought under control. Aim for, one day, being able to see it as exciting and fun, as opposed to scary and life-or-death.
- Practice. All of this sounds simple and it sort of is. But it only works through practice. Next time you're chatting in a meeting or company scrum, try and work on at least one of the above tips and it will hopefully make things a little calmer.
As you can hopefully sense, there was a lot of theory delivered over the two day course - it wasn't just John saying, "Don't panic." All of the above just scratches the service. A few hundred words can't fully put across two day's worth of learning. I also don't want to do John, the host, a disservice and give away all his secrets so you can find out more about this theory-based public speaking course at his website.
Towards the last few minutes of the second day, however, one of the course attendees boiled all the great theory down even further than this blog post.
When answering how he's going to take away all the theory, great knowledge and ace tactics he'd learned throughout the course, and put them into practice, he said, "I'm just gonna say to myself, 'Fuck it! Nobody cares, so you shouldn't either.'"