A lot of speakers come to me because they are nervous. Presenting in public can certainly be a scary experience, and not just for those new to it. I talk about Presenteritis so often because it’s a real syndrome: nervous speakers share a set of symptoms, such as shaking hands and a tight throat , which are pretty debilitating. So, given that fear, it might seem a bad idea to compare speaking in public to the gory and gruesome Game of Thrones. But that’s what I want to do today.
Bear with me. The reason people find speaking scary is the audience: presenting in front of many people is of course nerve-wracking. What if you make a mistake or mispronounce a word? What if you fall over? What if nothing bad happens but it’s still really awful to stand on a stage in front of who knows how many people? What if you’re just not very good?
All of these worries are rational – but ultimately you are in total control. You are often alone on stage, and no one else is speaking. You’re the master of your fate! If you know your material and can show your audience that confidence, they will listen and wish you well.
In other words, conviction is key: believing in yourself and your speech. And this is where speaking is like Game of Thrones. On that show, Cersei Lannister often gets the best lines, and none are so memorable as her famous summary of the philosophy of the fantasy land of Westeros: “When you play the game of thrones,” she tells Ned Stark, whose story does not end well, “you either win or you die.”
We’ve all seen bad speakers shrivel up on stage, or simply not get a good reaction from an audience. Comedians call this “dying” – that unpleasant experience of being on stage and knowing things aren’t going well.
This actually happens quite rarely in reality, but dying on stage is often due to a lack of conviction from the speaker. Cersei Lannister never sets out on a path without knowing she will take all measures necessary to make a success of it. She is amoral and without empathy, which I wouldn’t recommend, but she certainly doesn’t lack commitment. When speaking, you should commit 100%, too.
Audiences will interpret hesitancy as nerves – and nerves don’t inspire confidence, meaning a nervous speaker risks their audience switching off. In Game of Thrones, Cersei’s foe Ned Stark fails because he doesn’t commit entirely to his course of action in the way she does; speakers should learn this lesson – and deliver their material with an infectious conviction.
Public speaking isn’t a zero sum game – it’s not like Game of Thrones in many other ways. Speakers who make one or two mistakes can actually win an audience over by making a joke of them and moving on, or by seamlessly reincorporating a skipped line here or missed slide there later in the presentation.
But we’ve all seen bad speakers – we know they exist. What characterises them all is a lack of confidence and conviction. So remember: when you play the game of public speaking, you either convince an audience … or, to borrow a phrase from the comedians, you “die”.