Imagine you are the most amazing figure skater who ever lived. When rehearsing in a peaceful, empty rink, you demonstrate the ultimate in athleticism and artistry. You defy the laws of gravity as you leap in the air, landing with flawless precision. You spin with effortless grace and power; you execute jumps other skaters only dream about. On that ice, you are in your element, doing what you love to do, and doing it perfectly.
In rehearsal, that is.
The next day, you enter the same rink for the big competition. When you look into the stands, you see thousands of eyeballs on you. As you begin your program, you skate self-consciously, hesitantly. You stumble on moves you usually don’t even have to think about. You forget what comes next. You wobble and bobble and barely get through the program on your feet.
Now, consider this: Your frustrated coach barrels up to you and bellows, “That’s it! From now on, we’re spending two extra hours a day in rehearsal until you get this right in competition!” Question: Will that tactic solve the problem? Of course not, because the problem is not in the realm of skating. (Remember, you skated the program perfectly 24 hours ago.) The problem is in the realm of the EYEBALLS. You can skate until your feet fall off, but until you make peace with those eyeballs, you will continue to stumble in the spotlight.
So It Is With Public Speaking
Most people say, “One-on-one I’m fine. It’s only when I’m in front of a group that I get nervous.” If you can speak confidently and clearly one-on-one, it means you already know the content and can convey it well (like skating perfectly in rehearsal). The problem comes when a speech coach says, “OK, we’re going to have you rehearse the speech five more times in the conference room to make sure you get it right when you present in front of the Board.” Emphasizing the content and delivery has limited value because it attacks the problem from the realm of the SPEAKING. But where most people suffer most is in the realm of the EYEBALLS. Sure, you’re more likely to withstand the eyeballs if you feel confident in your material, but the discomfort will still be there. Techniques and gimmicks (like “picture the audience naked” or “start with a joke” or “look at the back wall if you’re too nervous to make eye contact”) won’t help either. These tricks just put up a barrier; they don’t solve the problem.
So what is the answer? Realize that the problem is not that you don’t know how to speak; it’s that you’re not used to being THE CENTER OF ATTENTION. You see those eyeballs and suddenly you’re thrust outside of your comfortable anonymity into the shocking realization that someone is actually paying attention. You shy away from the attention, the intense energy. But ironically, the energy in those eyeballs can energize and comfort you-once you let it in.
Yes, eyeballs almost always have positive energy behind them because listeners want you to succeed. Even if you face grouches in the crowd, you can count at least a few positive eyeball vibes coming toward you. Soak in the positive energy and send it back out in the form of genuine warmth and concern for your listeners. Seeing that concern invites even more positive energy, which keeps the cycle going.
It may seem far-fetched at first. But the only way to make peace with those eyeballs is to stop avoiding them and explore them instead. Seek them out. Peer back with your own eyeballs and see what’s really there. It takes practice, of course. To get started, seek out a positive setting such as a SPEAKING CIRCLE* or supportive group of friends. Remember, you’re already a speaker. You’re just not accustomed to being a recipient of listening-a skill that can only be mastered in the mysterious, wondrous, scary, exciting realm of eyeballs.