Why Public Speaking Advice Doesn't Work

I came across this infographic today, "A Cheat Sheet for Public Speaking". It's detailed, concrete, comprehensive, and clear. It covers content, organization, posture, body language, intonation, and audience connection. If you struggle with public speaking, this cheery visualization is the perfect, complete how-to.

Unfortunately, if you struggle with public speaking, this information is also very likely worthless to you. 

Here's why. And more importantly, here's how you turn it into something that is useful.

Reason-It-Doesn't-Work #1: You are not an idiot.

If you search for "public speaking tips", you get things like: "Maintain eye contact!" "Smile at your audience!" "Speak at a slow and even pace." "Pause for effect." And so on. Everything in the above infographic.

If you ask people why they aren't good public speakers, you will get answers like, "I speak too quickly," "I never look at my audience," "My thoughts get jumbled," "I fidget too much," "I'm monotone and sound boring," And so on. Also everything in the above infographic.

The fact is, if you have at least below-average intelligence and have given a speech sometime since sixth grade, you know that eye contact is important. You know you're not supposed to speak too fast. You do not need a Forbes columnist extolling the values of audience connection to convince you that it matters. You are, in fact, most likely so aware of the importance of these factors that your inability to achieve them only snowballs your poor performance even further.

There are very, very few (okay, I can't actually recall any, off the top of my head) pieces of public speaking advice out there that actually suggest something most people don't already know. Knowing is not the problem.

Reason #2: You are afraid of being afraid.

Most public speaking courses or advice articles make reference to the fear of public speaking that many people experience. The above infographic, while excellent, leads in with this lovely introductory line: "Talking in front of an audience is nothing to be afraid of, so long as you're prepared." (Bullshit.) A local workshop in my town is titled "Banish Public Speaking Fears!" (Oh, it's that easy?)

Speaking in public is scary, we all know that. Following off Reason #1, most people who walk into my office say, "I know I need to [maintain eye contact/speak more slowly/not say 'um' so much], but I get so nervous that I can't help it. I just need to figure out a way to not be so nervous and then I'll be more successful."

When you figure out how to not be so nervous, please tell me how so I can package it and sell it for bazillions of dollars.

Eye contact, fidgeting, and forgetting what you wanted to say is not the problem (do you have these issues when you talk with your BFFs? I didn't think so). Fear is the problem. Fear, anxiety, nervousness, embarrassment, panic. Fear gloriously sweeps all your best intentions and careful preparations aside, and you have no way to counter or recover. 

Reason #3: Public speaking tips don't teach you how to be brave.

Fortunately, being brave is not as mysterious or elusive as it may sound. To be brave, it helps to understand your emotion-response feedback loop.

Your Feedback Loop

There are three basic components of your performance feedback loop: Emotions, Thoughts, and Behaviors.

Emotions are instinctual, automatic. Emotions can typically be described by single-word labels, such as fear, anger, anxiety, joy, calm, shame. They are often accompanied by physical autonomic nervous system responses: heart rate, salivation (too much or not enough), skin flush, tremors, gut wrenching, sweating. You can't control them (you can try to suppress them, but they will typically still be active below the surface, at least in the autonomic symptom format). 

Thoughts are instinctual and automatic at their first occurrence, but they can be molded. Thoughts can usually be verbalized in a sentence, such as "I'm going to look stupid," "I always screw this up," "I have to remember to breathe," "I just want this to be over with." Multiple thoughts can tumble through your head at once, and they often feed on each other. Unlike emotions, though, thoughts can be reined in and controlled, or at least given a new direction. It takes a heck of a lot of self-awareness and mental presence to do this, but it is possible.

Behaviors are actions that you take. These are choices, although you may not be consciously making them. In a speaking context, behavior includes things like speech rate, intonation, physical presence, gestures, and word choice. In a public speaking context, speakers are judged by the cumulative effect of their behaviors.

The feedback loop typically starts with emotions, which triggers thoughts, which sets you down a behavior path. If you don't like your behaviors, you have a negative emotional response, and some self-critical thoughts, and this snowballs into a cycle of hating what you're doing and feeling but not being able to stop it. If you are terrified of speaking and have to give a speech, it might go something like this:

  • You stand up on stage, and immediately feel: nervous, anxious, afraid (physical sensations: heart rate increase, sweating, dry mouth).
  • Your mind reacts: "I just want to get this over with...Crap, they're going to notice my voice shaking...I just have to remember what to say so I don't sound like an idiot..."
  • You behave in accordance with your thoughts: your speech is fast, your volume is low and your tone is flat, you avoid eye contact with the audience.
  • You realize you're not speaking slowly like you're supposed to, and you've stumbled a few times. Now you feel even more embarrassed, and are thinking, "Ugh this always happens...I've just made a fool of myself..." and start speaking even more quickly just to get the whole thing over with.

Altering Course

So, that's a pretty depressing loop. It begins with the instinctive emotional response, so it's no wonder people so often say, "I just need to stay calm," and express the desire to completely avoid worry, fear, or anxiety about speaking. After all, if you can nip it at the inception, the cycle will not progress.

The good news is, it is absolutely possible to throw a switch and alter the track direction.

The bad news is, you can only throw the switch after the train has left the station.

There are a number of ways to approach this, but the simplest and most accessible (which does not mean "easiest", because nothing about this is "easy") is the final step: behavior. You control and choose how to behave, not your thoughts or feelings. Emotions and mindchatter certainly exert a powerful influence over behavior, but there is always a choice. 

You can choose to take slower, deeper breaths, even though there is a strong urge to take quick and shallow gulps. You can choose to look at the listener in the third row, even though it feels awkward and frightening

"But I can't! I know I should do those things, and I try, but it's too hard and I can't."

How to Be A Great Public Speaker: Choose Fear

I'm going to be a little bit lecturey here and correct that last protest, because it is wrong. The fact is, you are physically capable of maintaining eye contact with the listener. You are physically capable of holding your hands in a strong, confident gesture. You are physically capable of slowing down your speech.

What may not be possible is that you do these things and feel comfortable. You can choose to look that listener in the eye, but you can't do it safely or comfortably. And that is why you choose to speak quickly: to get it over with as fast as possible, it's more comfortable. It's why you choose to mumble, so they can't hear your voice tremor, it's less embarrassing. It's why you choose to ramble instead of taking a moment to collect your thoughts, it's so they don't see that you've forgotten your place. 

"Brave" is facing danger and enduring pain. EnduringChoosing to step into it. Taking on discomfort because there is a larger goal on the other side that is worth it.

How to Be Brave

The thing about being brave and choosing fear is that you have to acknowledge and welcome it, in a sense. Stepping onto a stage thinking that you're going to focus on eye contact, with a delusional hope that somehow, this time, you'll be cool as a cucumber and able to execute, is a perfect setup for fear to steamroll you into failure. However, stepping onto a stage, committed to the idea of maintaining a connected gaze with 2 listeners over the course of your speech, even if it feels excruciating, is how you keep fear at bay. The initial panic, anxiety, stress that wants to start the feedback loop is there, but by giving it some room and being ready for it, it is more likely stay at those initial levels, rather than ballooning and pressing you into escape choices.

It might look something like this:

  • You stand up on stage, and immediately feel: nervous, anxious, afraid (physical sensations: heart rate increase, sweating, dry mouth).
  • Your mind reacts: "I want to get this over with...I'm so terrified right now...But, even though I'm terrified, I'm going to focus on taking slow, steady breaths to control my speech rate. Man I'm still scared though. But here we go."
  • You behave in accordance with your thoughts: taking deep breaths, even though you want to breathe quickly, and taking pauses to slow yourself down, even though you want to speed up. (This is where the traditional public speaking advice articles are great: they have a whole list of behavior choices!) You can resist urges to escape, because you are ready for them.
  • REMEMBER: even if your thoughts and emotions are running haywire, your behavior is the only thing that the audience sees. So if you speak slow and steady, taking careful pauses, maintain eye contact, all the while feeling that you would rather just pass out right there on stage to end your misery...you will be dazzling! (Small comfort? Alas, yes...but that is the way this works.)

The End

There is some final good news. This is by no means easy or enjoyable or fun. If you actually commit to and execute on these small behavior choices, you may feel more of a need for a strong drink than a sense of confident-speaker-extraordinaire-exuberance elation the first five, ten, twenty occasions. But, over time, the feedback loop originator does begin to change. If you teach yourself that you can speak with a loud, strong voice even though you feel scared and tremory, your mind loses the fear of NOT speaking with a loud voice, and that emotion becomes unnecessary...and dissipates. It takes time. "Exposure" or "desensitization" are the terms psychologists use, "practice" is the term that everyone else uses.

Practice makes perfect. Do not "banish your speaking fears." Do not suppress your anxiety. To be a great public speaker, practice being brave. Practice being afraid.

Posted on April 6, 2015 .