Where does the truism come from that some people would rather die than give a speech? Interestingly enough, it's not the actual fear of speaking. It's rather who is listening. Or more specifically, what does the audience expect while they're listening? And can the speaker live up to those expectations?
When asked what their number one fear is, most people say, "Being judged."
"In a good way or a bad way?"
"Is there a good way?" they respond skeptically.
Why do most folks think that when they give a speech, the audience is looking for ways to criticize them and find them wanting?
How can you tell that's what the audience is doing?
The answer usually revolves around whether or not they're paying attention. Are they crossing their arms defiantly, yawning, looking at their cellphones or iPads? Are they studying their fingernails, whispering to their neighbor, or even just sitting there with closed eyes and crossed arms, obviously asleep? Or something else? "I know they're waiting for me to fail. They look so grim. They're just looking for ways to disagree with me or criticize me. They're like a firing squad, ready to shoot me down."
Would you believe that about 90% of the time, none of this is true?
In any given audience, maybe 10% of the folks have a "Show me!" attitude, gleefully searching for flaws in any presenter or presentation. But 90% of the audience does not.
The audience is like a nest of baby birds, mouths open, crying "Feed me! Feed me!" They've come to hear you because you have 'food' they crave. They want to leave the room knowing something they didn't know when they came in. Your talk is the gift they've come to receive. That's why they're there. Who doesn't like to receive a gift?
"Yeah, but... I just know they're judging me!"
How do you know? How can you tell what is actually going on in the minds of the audience?
Let's say that one interpretation of all those behaviors is, "They're judging me and deciding I'm not good enough." What are some other interpretations? What else can we say about an audience member who demonstrates these behaviors?
- Crossed arms and a defiant expression on his face? That's his "listening" pose. He's really paying very strict attention and processing everything you say. He's not judging, he's absorbing.
- Yawning? Didn't get enough sleep last night, has been working solidly on a project and has come to hear you speak as a welcome break. It's her first chance to relax in a long while.
- Looking at tech devices? Taking notes of things they want to remember or questions they want to ask during the Q&A. Posting how great your talk is. Making a memo to invite you to speak to their group.
- Whispering to her neighbor? Missed something, asking for help. Commenting favorably on a point you just made. Needs to borrow a pen.
- Eyes closed? Focusing on your voice. They hear better with no visual distractions.
Here's the key. You can't read their minds. Whatever they're thinking is known only to them. It's not your job to analyze their body language and be worried about what you think you see.
Your job is to give your gift. You're like a baseball pitcher throwing at the plate. The pitcher cannot control how the batter will react to the pitch. He can only control how he sends the ball, the direction, angle, speed, etc. The batter is not waiting to criticize the pitch. He's waiting to receive it and act on it.
When you get up to speak, you're going to pitch the best message you know how, the one that's most appropriate for this audience. How they react to it is not under your control. But you can rest assured that they came because you're pitching them information they want to know.
Focus on delivering your gift. That's what they came to get and you're the only one who can deliver it. Your preparation, enthusiasm and sincerity will make it a solid strike that your audience will recognize and admire.