For many public speakers – both novices and veterans – the audience is among the biggest sources of anxiety. How an audience will react to your speech – and to you – can feel like a terrifying unknown. After all, speaking in public involves giving a little of yourself to your audience. What if they reject you?
The funny thing (OK, the not-so-funny thing) about all this is that it is precisely that nervousness which can be the quality that turns your audience off. Audiences respond to confidence and authority. A nervous speaker will struggle to inspire – can seem shifty, even. Looking uncertain onstage is the surest route to rejection.
In other words, nerves are a vicious circle. Working yourself up into lather about your audience will usually result in appearing to lack confidence onstage; that might lead to a negative audience reaction … which will only feed the fears that have led to the problem in the first place.
What can be done? Obviously, you need to seem confident … but this is so much more easily said than done that it is an almost useless piece of advice. I try to provide rather more helpful tips to would-be speakers, so let me try to focus a bit more clearly.
The most famous piece of public speaking advice relates to the audience. “Imagine them naked”, though, is a lot less useful – and a lot more distracting – than all the clichés suggest. The best way to approach the audience, I think, is not to focus on them at all. Instead, look inwards. We need to make this clear it is just in the moment of delivery because we talk plenty about know your audience, research them etc
The key to speaking success is to enjoy speaking. To take pleasure from speaking, you need to be interested in what you’re saying, and really engage with what it takes to deliver those words effectively. Focus on yourself: your breathing, your movement, your voice. For now, ignore the audience.
By relaxing into speaking in this way – by focusing inwardly, and concentrating rather more on yourself than on the other bodies in the room – you will begin naturally to seem more centred, and therefore more confident. Worry less about what you can’t control – and pay more attention to what you can.
The truth is, the reaction of the audience is only within your control insofar as you hone your own craft. Focusing too much on the audience will only distract from the work you need to do to ensure that there’s nothing to worry about. Become a better speaker, and no audience will react negatively to your speech – because it will be good.
Enjoy yourself. Don’t let anxiety get the better of you. Relax, and breathe. If you manage to focus on yourself instead of your audience, they’ll thank you – and reward you – for it.