Public Speaking: the fear of being judged

One of the most common myths about public speaking is to believe that generally confident people don’t get nervous. The reality is far from it! In fact, I regularly come across very successful and confident individuals in training who see their confidence crumble when making a presentation or a speech in front of an audience.

So why is it that even people who are usually “socially” confident experience public speaking anxiety? There are many reasons for this. One of them is being afraid of appearing foolish or being judged, like in many other social phobias.

But is this fear real and justified? Is the audience really out there to “get us”?

There is no doubt that the audience will make some kind of judgment about the presenter. That is just the way we humans are. However, is this judgment as negative as we think?

In reality, substantial evidence demonstrates that
A – we massively exaggerate the importance of certain events when feeling exposed, and
B – despite appearances, the audience is generally supportive and on our side

The spotlight effect

When confronted with danger or perceived danger, like public speaking, the unconscious brain sends messages out to prepare the body to protect itself, for the fight or flight reaction. Among other things, it prompts the release of adrenaline which amplifies our sensations and distorts our judgment. As a consequence, we tend to massively exaggerate what the audience thinks or feels. This is known as the Spotlight Effect i.e. a tendency to think that other people are watching us more closely than they actually are.

In a study conducted in the US by a team of researchers at Cornell University, a participant, wearing a Barry Manilow T-shirt was made to enter a room full of people in regular dress. Afterwards, he was asked to evaluate the percentage of people he believed had noticed the embarrassing tee-shirt. Whereas he felt that at least 50% had noticed him, only 20% of the group had actually paid attention and remembered.

We tend to forget that an audience has it’s own worries and preoccupations. For example:

– concerns about a family member or a friend
– feeling tired because a child kept them awake all night and finding it difficult to concentrate on what is being said
– worries about losing their job
– anxiety, wondering if they will have time to complete an important task before the end of the day
– distracted, thinking about a question they would like to ask…

Because of this, they will usually not notice small signs of nervousness we experience or mistakes that we might make.

I regularly attend meetings or meet people in training who confess to having felt very nervous during their presentation or speech and worried that it was obvious to everyone. However, in many situations, the audience had not picked up on it.

The audience is usually supportive and on our side

Unless we are presenting in front of a particularly hostile group, most people in the audience are genuinely interested in what we have to say and actually want us to do well.

In fact, psychology studies have demonstrated that people tend to develop empathy towards people in a difficult situation if they can associate themselves with the situation. As most people have or have had a fear of public speaking at some stage in their life, most members of the audience will be able to remember their own experience and therefore will be likely to be supportive as opposed to critical of the speaker/presenter.

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