The subject of public speaking is riddled with tired, worn out cliches we ought to throw out. Here are a few to let go of:
1. "Public speaking is the #1 fear."
You can count on hearing this one any time you take a presentation skills class. The problem is, there's nothing to substantiate it. The quoted source for this "fact" is usually The Book of Lists, which, even in current editions, shows a tiny blurb in the Sunday Times of London from October 7, 1973, as its source.
In this article, no mention is made of who did this research, how it was conducted, who the subjects were, whether the subjects were a representative sample of the U.S. population-nothing! Not to mention the fact that this "research" is 30 years old. Haven't people changed in 30 years? And don't we face new fears that weren't even in our consciousness in 1973? Of course. If this research were to be conducted with rigor today, we would likely have a different outcome. This tidy, shocking factoid is easily trotted out when we want to make a point, but it's just not valid. Time to let this one go.
2. "Picture the audience members naked."
OK. So you're nervous about your presentation. Perhaps you're feeling vulnerable and exposed. The solution? Imagine your audience in a humiliating position and, presto, everybody's equally degraded! Does this set up powerful communication? I think not. Rather than mentally stripping (pardon the pun) audience members of dignity so you can feel better, concentrate instead on lifting your own self-image. Besides, there are some people you just don't want to see naked.
3. "If you're too nervous to look them in the eye, look just above their heads at the back wall."
Please. You can tell when someone is looking past you, right? At a party, it's unmistakable when people shift their eyes past your shoulder to see if someone "more important" has entered the room. Besides, the back wall doesn't get a puzzled look when it doesn't understand, nor does it raise its hand when it has something to say. But your listeners do. You have to see them in order to address those needs. You can spend your whole life avoiding eyeballs. Although it might ease your nerves, it defeats the purpose of your talk: to connect. Better to spend time getting over the fear of eyeballs watching you than making audience members wonder, "What on earth is she looking at back there?"
4. "Make eye contact for 3 to 5 seconds per person."
Of course, it's important to look at your listeners. How else can you know if they're following or if they have questions? But giving each person 3 to 5 seconds of eye contact can make you seem mechanical. When I see someone following this rigid rule I can almost hear that person mentally saying "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi." Lee Glickstein, founder of SPEAKING CIRCLES(R) and author of the book Be Heard Now, calls this kind of eye contact "eye service" because when you're following a rule, you're not really connecting; you're just checking a box. ("Woman in the red jacket: check. Guy in the blue tie: check.") Meaningful connections can't be reduced to a technique. Be flexible enough to really see those listeners and let go of the rules.
5. "Find one or two friendly faces in the audience and just speak to them."
It's nice to have support, but when you give the speech to just one or two people, you risk alienating the very supporters you're counting on. If you've ever been on the receiving end of this, you know what I mean. These friendly faces desperately wish you would look at someone else. Besides, if you're facing non-supporters, wouldn't you rather know what they're up to so you can handle their discontent? Often, you can win over those grouchy faces by simply answering a question or addressing a basic concern. If you block the grouches out entirely so you feel more comfortable, they'll be more unhappy because you ignored them. Find encouragement in the supportive faces, yes, but speak to the whole group.
*The SPEAKING CIRCLE (R) method is a revolutionary new approach for developing confidence and charisma in front of groups.