I am the parent of a teenage daughter. Have you ever spent an evening at home with a teenager? I’ll be honest, it’s hard to know what to expect. If you’re like my husband and me, you have to make your teenager drag her moody body upstairs to spend time with you. We lovingly call ours “mandatory family fun.” Every weeknight, we have a simple but consistent question, “What homework do you have tonight and what's going on at school tomorrow?” One night, after asking our question, she groaned, “Oh, mom, I have to give a speech in school tomorrow!” Naturally, I'm excited because as some of you may know, I've been a speaker and trainer for many years.
I’ve witnessed her fluency at public speaking, although she is convinced she’s not good at it. I asked how she was feeling and about her speaking topic. She launched into a rant:
Oh my gosh, mom, I need to get a 100% on this, but I'm probably only going to get an 85% because I'm going to end up reading my note card the whole time. Because if I look at the people that I know, they're going to be judging me and thinking that this is stupid. Then I'm going to get nervous and turn red. I'm not going to get the grade that I want. Mom, I hate getting up in front of everybody else and talking because they're just sitting there thinking I'm stupid.
After her rant, I’m trying to be a mom and not a coach. I wondered what was happening in that mind of hers and asked if we could just play out the situation. “What do you do when your fellow classmates are up there doing their presentation? What are you thinking about?” She replied, “Well, I'm too busy thinking about my own speech. I'm busy rehearsing it my head and thinking about exactly what I'm going to say.” After a long pause she started giggling. She realized her audience wasn’t as evil as her inner critic made them out to be. They likely would be too busy thinking about their own stuff, and not judging her.
Shifting to a More Confident Mindset
If I’m honest, I don't think that any of us actually ever grow out of some of these worries. In that moment, as her mom, I saw so much of myself both back in high school and today when I speak in front of an audience. Whether it's online, five people or 500 people, I still worry about the same things: What are people thinking? What if I say something wrong or people will think this is stupid? People are going to wonder why I'm up there. What if I lose my place?
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld famously said about public speaking “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Even after a decade of experience training and speaking to groups, I still need an extra dose of courage and confidence before I have to make a presentation. Here are a few of my favorite practices and reminders before I speak to a group. And remember, you don’t have to be an extrovert to be a great presenter. I am an introvert. I know many well-known keynote speakers and trainers who are also introverts. Extroverted and introverted preferences inform us of where we get our energy, not how well we communicate in public.
Three Confidence Boosting Tips
Tip One: Nobody's thinking about you, anyhow. I have this timeless wisdom from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, saved for anytime I worry about what people might think.
Long ago, when I was in my desperate and confused 20's, a brilliant, independent, wonderful woman in her 70's gave me this incredible piece of life wisdom. She said:
"We women spend our 20's and 30's so worried about what everyone is thinking about us. Then we get into our 40's and 50's, and we finally start to be free, because we decide we don't give a damn what anyone thinks of us. But you will not be completely free until your 60's and 70's, when you will finally realize this liberating truth — NOBODY WAS EVER THINKING ABOUT YOU, ANYHOW."
Liz is right when she says people are just thinking about themselves — all caught up in their own dramas, fears, tasks and insecurities and distractions. My daughter perfectly articulated that point when she told me how distracted she would be while others were speaking. Personally, when I am sitting in an audience listening to a speaker, I'm caught up in my own stuff. I'm writing notes and my back-in-the-office-to-do-list. I'm thinking about how their advice applies to my life. With less focus on them, I’m worried about my own stuff.
Tip Two: Just tell your story. That's mostly what I shared with you today. A story. Lots of times the world is transformed through our stories and not through our advice. If you don't believe me, think about your favorite book or movie. Did it give you advice or walk you through a story? No matter your beliefs, one could argue that Jesus inspired millions of transformations mostly by sharing short stories. We are drawn to before and after transformations because they tell a story. They inspire us. Stories show us how things are possible, not through perfection, but through sharing our challenges and overcoming imperfections. It settles our hearts and minds with, “I’m so glad I’m not alone. Me, too.” Tell your story and keep it short, focused on a key point.
Tip Three: Ask a question of your audience. Asking your audience a question helps them do what they’re already good at doing. Reflecting on how this applies to their own lives. Here’s my question for you: How would you show up and present at your next meeting if you couldn’t be fixated on the thought you might get it wrong or people thinking it is stupid?
When I ask that question to myself, a bit of freedom enters my mindspace. I imagine myself sharing stories, present my points, and not feeling so self-conscious. I free myself up to focus on my group instead of focusing on myself. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we want from a meeting leader – someone focused on the group and not themselves?
My bottom line and spoiler alert. I need all of these tips for myself. All of the time. We all share these nerves. Even after a decade spent in speaking and training, I still have these critical and anxious thoughts. I’ve learned to notice they are there, accept them, and simply carry them along with me. They don’t have to take over.
When I’m nervous, I like to “check my evidence.” I make two lists. One list, I try to write specific names of people who’ve told me a speech I did was stupid. Usually, I can’t think of specific names, or if a name does arise, it is not someone whose opinion matters to me. I realize it’s my inner critic going live with it’s crazy storytelling again. On the second list, I find names of at least three people who told me they were glad I shared my story, appreciated my presentation, or gave them helpful ideas. I keep written notes and review them when I get nervous. This list of positive, supporting evidence always seems to be much longer, doesn’t it?
Which seat of evidence are you sitting on? What seat will support you better as you move closer toward your goals?
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