How the nervous system can support us to engage our audiences
Given that most of us seem to experience at least some kind of nervousness when speaking in public, it seems like a good idea to go under the bonnet to try and understand what is actually going on in our nervous system. By getting an idea of what ‘nerves’ are made of, and what the alternatives are, we can support ourselves to enter into a state that can really support us to be more relaxed and engaging when we speak.
The Autonomic Nervous System, which operates automatically and outside of our conscious control (thank god!) is constantly scanning our environment for levels of safety and possible threats.
If it perceives a threat (real or not), the sympathetic branch of the nervous system (fight/flight) is activated – we are filled with a cocktail of various chemicals that give us a boost of energy and prepare the body to fight or run away. The effects can include increased heart rate, shaking, flushing, tunnel vision, and impaired hearing. Needless to say, this state is really unhelpful for speaking in public, but it’s exactly what gets triggered when we don’t feel safe.
When we do perceive safety in the environment, the parasympathetic branch (rest/digest) dominates. Our heart-rate and breathing regulate, our body and facial muscles relax. We stop being hyper-vigilant of the environment and can pay attention to activities like eating, sleeping, mental processing, and engaging with others.
Researcher Steven Porges uses the term Social Engagement System to refer to the system that functions when we feel safe interacting with others. The calm rest/digest mode dominates, but we allow through enough activation to be focused and active. In this mode we can be playful, more flexible and creative in our thinking, we can experience joy, and crucially we can enjoy openly engaging with other people. Clearly this is the best state to be in for public speaking, and happily there are things we can do to encourage the Social Engagement System to come online. Here are a few ideas…
Check unrealistic thinking
We’re all familiar with the voice of the inner critic – you may recognise some of these toxic inner critic messages around public speaking:
- I don’t know enough
- My arguments will be attacked
- They won't like me
Although the intention of the inner critic is to try and keep us safe by anticipating threats to our position within a social group, the impact is often a jolt of stress and anxiety. Every little injection of fear generated by that voice keeps the fight/flight mechanism in operation and prevents the Social Engagement System from coming fully online.
So bring a little bit more attention to the negative messages of your inner critic, and check out with yourself, is that message reasonable? Is it genuinely helpful or is it trying to ‘keep you safe’, while actually causing you unnecessary pain? If there is nothing but fear behind that message, gently put the inner critic to one side and allow your resourced self to step forwards.
We are constantly adjusting our confidence behaviours according to the people we are around. Sometimes we feel ‘less than’ another and may (unconsciously) adjust our body language, voice, and eye-contact to give them space to be more dominant in the relationship. Other times we feel stronger than the other and may find ourselves puffing up a little, taking space and asserting ourselves in the more dominant role.
These tendencies are very human, but neither version works very well with an audience. Both have a distancing effect – they say in their own way “we are different, you and I”, shutting down real connection and making it hard for us to relax fully into social engagement.
It’s not that we shouldn’t show respect to those whose achievements we admire, or be proud of our own achievements. It’s just good to remember that as humans we are all fundamentally equal, and an audience will be more engaged with us when we treat them as such.
Address friendly and ‘unfriendly’ faces
If your fight/flight mechanism is triggered and you’re struggling to feel safe and relaxed with an audience, the temptation can be to shut them out altogether, go into a bubble, and hope it will be over soon. In fact, when we’re in fight/flight, we will tend to interpret a neutral expression as angry or aggressive. The feedback loop goes something like this:
- I’m feeling nervous so I interpret neutral facial expressions as critical
- Seeing critical faces in the audience I feel more nervous
One of the emergency strategies people will then employ is to only address those people in the audience who look friendly, smiley and encouraging (as in picture a). This is understandable – the nervous system will respond well to the safety and support those people appear to be offering. However, there is a cost to shutting off from the rest of the audience. In the back of our minds, we continue to think there is a problem of some kind, and the audience as a whole will then sense that we’re not completely comfortable with them.
So the advice is, unless there is overwhelming evidence of a real problem (b), simply trust you’re doing OK and address all members of the audience regardless of their facial expression. By all means enjoy those who are smiling at you, but don’t assume you can read the minds of the ones who are not (c). They may simply be thinking through your point.
By assuming a general attitude of trust, you help create a safe and open environment in which everyone in the room can relax into social engagement and then engage with your message.
Imagine a support figure with you
Interestingly, we can support ourselves to move into the Social Engagement System not only by connecting with real individuals, but also by simply imagining our connection with a person or a group we feel truly safe with and inspired by.
So the next time you’re up front, take a pause before you begin speaking and imagine you have an inspiring mentor, teacher or friend (whatever works for you) standing with you, or behind you. Allow yourself to feel their energy and support, and let it touch you. Allow your body to relax and become energised. Take a breath, and begin …
Have longer eye-contact with individuals
A very powerful way of allowing the fight/flight mechanism to calm down and social engagement to take over, is to have longer eye-contact with the people you’re speaking to. To the tense and fearful part of us, this sounds like the worst possible advice - it’s the last thing we want to do! And to be fair, when somebody is clearly angry or aggressive, other rules apply. But having longer eye-contact with people who are relatively calm, i.e. neutral to friendly (the vast majority of most audiences), allows the Social Engagement System to operate. We begin to feel safer, calmer, and more able to focus on delivering our content in the way we want to.
It can take a bit of practice to get to the stage where we have developed enough inner trust to allow ourselves to do this. This is especially true for those of us with negative past experiences (either as children or adults), and it's where a group training can be especially helpful. But once we get more fluent with addressing our audiences with eye-contact, a whole new world of possibilities opens up for us as speakers. In fact, we can get to a place where public speaking isn’t just doable, but enjoyable, and it's when we can genuinely enjoy ourselves as speakers that we have the possibility to become truly inspirational.
The Speaking Adventure
Millie Baker runs The Speaking Adventure, which offers workshops and coaching in authentic public speaking.
The work is fun, transformational, and suitable for anyone from beginner to professional level.
If you’re intrigued and would like to find out more, get in touch!