Do tough questions (or negative body language) from listeners give you presentation anxiety? Here's how to find help . . . within yourself!
Performance is at the heart of all good public speaking. Even though that fact is undeniable, we worry about it all too much. We forget that the measure of a great speech or presentation isn't ultimately in how we're doing, but how much we're getting through and benefiting listeners.
The shorthand I use for coming around to this point of view, is going from being speaker-centered to becoming audience-centered.
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In other words, we need to pay close attention to delivering our message in a way that will resonate with our audience—"living in the audience's world," as I think of it. We don't do that if we focus on our content for every moment of presentation and practice. And when it comes to delivering our talks, the more we can respond to what is happening in the interaction between listeners and us, the more we'll be present and hitting on all cylinders.
But can you pay too much attention to what you're seeing and hearing from your audience? In other words, can you be too sensitive, interpreting what you're seeing as negative feedback when it may be nothing of the kind?
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Yes, you can. That's particularly true if you suffer from speech anxiety. But the rest of us can fall into this particular trap as well. Below are two ways to make things easier on yourself when it comes to how people are reacting to you. One is concerned with the physical and the other has to do with questions and challenges. Knowing how to handle what comes your way will result in a more relaxed "you" rather than feeling, well, estranged from your listeners.
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Body Language May Not Mean What You Think
We're all interested in body language! Most of the time, that means figuring out from people's nonverbal behavior how they think and feel about us. (We really want to know that!) And that's exactly why we can be over-sensitive to our listeners' nonverbal communication as they respond to our presentation. (We may also be concerned about how we may be using body language that hurts our credibility.)
There are probably more pseudo-experts (or self-proclaimed experts) when it comes to body language than any other aspect of communication—precisely because it's such a popular topic. So, two things to keep in mind when interpreting listeners' physical responses to you, one having to do with the body, and the other with the face.
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The Body in Motion. Perhaps the biggest mistake concerning reading body language, is to think that a single nonverbal reaction is an accurate "tell" of a person's feelings. Experienced readers of body language such as customs agents or police interrogators understand that it is the changes in physical responses that MIGHT reveal a change in thinking or attitude. (The same holds true with verbal responses regarding word choice, length of answer, or a change in speaking rhythm.) For a detailed look at specific gestures and the subtle art of reading body language, read ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro's book, What Every Body Is Saying.
Unless you're watching everyone's physical reactions carefully—and really, you shouldn't be that focused on this single element of your presentation—you won't be able to match, say, a person's change in posture with what they're thinking about you. A person crossing their arms at one point may be cold. Someone may sit back in their chair because they'd like to change to a more comfortable position. Stay on the beam of what you're trying to get across. In the end all those individual physical responses should meld into the audience's typical response during a talk.
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Questions Mean People Are Still Engaged
Now for the second area where you may be overreacting to what you're facing when you present: questions and challenges from listeners. For instance, it's not unusual for me to hear a client say: "I was fine at the start, up until I got a question. Then I started to get flustered."
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Here are two positive points about questions. First, when someone asks you something about your talk, it's possible that other people are also confused or dispute the point or want to know more about it. So, your answer may be giving information that people need and that would otherwise not come their way.
Second—and this is a vital matter—when people ask questions, it means that they are still engaged in what you're saying. If they had already tuned out, or simply weren't interested, they probably wouldn't say anything. But obviously, they do care. They are taking the trouble to question or challenge you because they want to understand better. You should welcome questions, then. It means that your listeners are still interested in dancing with you.
Facial Expressions. A last point on this often-neglected area of body language. The human face provides ongoing clues about people's state of mind and intentions. But here, too, we can over-interpret the data. For instance, a person may look "unfriendly" not because they actually are, but because their face has set that way over the years. Also, if you suffer from speech anxiety, you're more likely to focus on what you consider "negative" faces. Accept that most people really are listening to you and want you to succeed. If you want to know more about human facial expression and meaning, read any of Paul Ekman's books.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching and corporate group training worldwide. In 2021 for the eighth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time.” His latest book is The Online Meetings Handbook, now available at The Genard Method and at Amazon. To know more about TGM's services, Contact Gary here.