Guest Blog by AnnMarie Baines
Even in the midst of a pandemic, people still feel the pressure to appear “perfect”. Unfortunately, the pressure to be perfect only increases the fear of public speaking, regardless of a speaker’s experience level.
As a public speaking coach and founder of non-profit, The Practice Space, I have observed more people using the virtual world to hide and avoid that fear completely. By turning off our cameras and putting ourselves on mute, it is easier to opt out of public speaking and observe discussions at a distance, as opposed to being spotlighted and risk judgment and uncertainty.
While it is more equitable to give people the option of whether they want to turn on video, as a woman of color, I also know it is important not to silence ourselves. For those whose voices are unrepresented in powerful places, including women, youth, people of color, the fear of public speaking is already entrenched in histories of oppression and discrimination that instruct us to feel that our voice is somehow inferior. It is even more essential to push back on the conditions that are set up to push diverse voices aside.
Instead of pressing mute, facing the fear of public speaking instead begins with a change in mindset. Public speaking is infinitely more scary when we view it as a test, or feel like we have to defend ourselves on trial. If we view communication as a tool for human connection, then public speaking should be viewed as a chance to teach and enhance understanding. Confident communication emerges when we listen, teach, commit to our ideas, and let go when things don’t go as planned.
Tip #1: Value your connection to the audience.
Regardless of whether we are online or in person, all the anxiety-coping strategies in the world will not help until a speaker personally reframes the goal of public speaking. When the goal is still to “get through the speech unscathed” or “deliver a presentation without any mistakes” or “deliver everything perfectly from memory”, the irony is that speakers are much more likely to be nervous and unsatisfied with their performance. Instead, public speakers need to frame goals that prioritize the effect they want to have on their audience. For instance, public speaking goals such as teaching new ideas, inspiring connections, communicating content that people remember, and encouraging follow-up conversations do not depend on perfection. Rather than having goals that are all about you, effective communication should value connection over seamless presentation.
Tip #2: Expect and embrace discomfort.
Everything in 2020 is deeply uncomfortable, and communicating over a webcam is no exception. That said, for many, public speaking has always been an uncomfortable and somewhat unnatural experience, even before the pandemic hit. Many speakers and performers use visualization techniques, where they prepare themselves by imagining the result they want. Instead of imagining situations where you don’t feel any nerves at all, it can help to imagine the jitters you might have at the start and then imagine them disappearing as you sink into the moment and connect with your audience. It can also help to embrace the reality that public speaking will sometimes feel awful, but also that the discomfort won’t last forever — sometimes, it is only a few minutes.
Tip #3: When you can, always speak about what excites you.
Given how fearful and anxious some people can feel about public speaking, the discomfort is only worthwhile if your message is personally important to you. Sometimes, when I am faced with a speech that is particularly nerve-wracking to me, I will say to myself, “right now, this work is more important than my fears.” While it is always useful to think about what your audience might want to hear, at the end of the day, every speech should always derive from content that drives, motivates, and excites you. When you talk about what genuinely interests you, it is easier to get lost in your message and drown out evil voices of self-critique and doubt. The byproduct is that your speaking delivery will automatically be better because you are speaking from the heart instead of from a place of stress.
When I interview my students about their growth and confidence, it always surprises me that they never say that their nerves have gone away. Even the most advanced students say that the fear is always there, but that they have learned to embrace it. In the words of one of my high school students, who was a champion public speaker and state champion finalist, “So I’m still kind of afraid of talking in front of people and I try to avoid it as much as possible or get other people to go before me, but I’m just kind of on terms with it now. I can choose to rise above it rather than let it inhibit me.” Before we voluntarily put ourselves on mute, take a moment to reflect on why. If it is to listen deeply and learn from others, then mute away. But if it is to avoid fears, then don’t be the one to silence yourself because there are plenty of people out there who will.
Read a previous guest blog by AnnMarie on how to feel less nervous about speaking in public