Last modified 03/03/20

How to not get flustered while speaking in public

by Elizabeth Van Den Bergh

Have you experienced this? While you’re speaking, one of your listeners is clearly distracted. He’s playing with his phone, is daydreaming or starts chatting with his neighbour.


But does that mean that you are not performing at your best?

No, no, no. (I am, for the sake of this article, assuming you know how to retain the attention of your listeners.)

But we often think we are, don’t we? That we are underperforming, that we’re being boring, that our example doesn’t appeal.

These thoughts damage the quality of your speaking, and totally unnecessarily, as I will explain in this article.

I too used to get flustered by the behaviour of someone in my audience

When I started speaking for groups, I tried to understand my listeners’ behaviour. Even worse, I made assumptions about what caused their behaviour.

I’ve broken that habit and I still know perfectly when that happened.

I gave a training for a small group. One participant was rather quiet and seemed little captivated. A moment later, he even fell asleep for a minute! And that while he was sitting only six feet from me.

Another participant looked very serious with everything I said. She frowned regularly and was asking tough questions. I started to doubt my whole story.

After the training I got the opportunity to speak to both participants.

What do you think? The ‘sleeper’ turned out to have small children and had simply had a bad night. He found my training very interesting and he apologized.

Then the ‘frowner’ came to me with positive feedback. She told that she was rather critical of nature and was not always satisfied with courses like these, but that this one had even exceeded her expectations. Her frown was a kind of default facial expression that said nothing about her real judgement. She even became a loyal client after the training.

And then I stumbled into an appropriate quote

The evening after the training I accidentally (?) came across a quote that perfectly complemented the events of that day:

A statement that can come across a bit crude, so let me elaborate. Because I am very open to feedback, for example.

I focus very much on making what I say relevant to my audience. I always take my clients’ speaking challenges as a starting point.

But during a speech, this is how I approach it. I learned not to think about what my audience thinks when I speak.

Two insights are very valuable here

Realisation #1: We can’t read minds, but we like to think we can

After those participants’ reactions, I realised: you can simply not know what people think of you while you speak. There are hundreds of facial expressions that people can make, and you can hardly ever know for sure what emotion are behind them. Mindreading is still impossible.

But we like to think otherwise. Here’s how it works: we draw conclusions too quickly, letting our egos be too involved. We have a certain idea about our performance as a speaker, and we select facts and interpret them to confirm that idea. In this way, we colour our observations of reality.

In other words, we make assumptions. (And you know what they say: When you assume, you make an a*s of you and me.)

When someone frowns, the insecure speaker thinks: she doesn’t believe what I say.

The confident speaker, on the other hand, might think: splendid, I’m making her think.

The key to stopping to worry about what your audience thinks about your performance, is to admit that you can’t know that.

Realisation #2: Worrying while speaking indicates a victim mindset

What do you actually do when you worry? You are mentally verifying whether your audience thinks you’re good. Apparently, you attach great importance to this.

If you’re preoccupied with being liked or approved of, that’s what we call a victim mindset. You are then a ‘victim’ of what others think of you because it influences how you think and act. Your thinking and acting are more consequences than causes.

When you realise this, you can switch to an owner mindset. With that mindset, you are no longer concerned about what others think of you. You’re still interested — you want to be of value to your audience — but in a relaxed way. Your performance and your story are yours, and you decide what success looks like.

I will elaborate on the difference between victim and owner mindset.

Whether you like it or not: when you speak in front of a group, you are in a leadership position and that brings certain expectations. So it speaks for itself (pun intended) that a leader assumes an owner mindset.

Speaking with impact happens from an owner mindset. Only then you gain control over the situation. Then you do what it takes. Only then you have vision and you can create something intentionally. You are confident and are seeing possibilities and opportunities everywhere. With an owner mindset, you look at the world curiously and amazed.

But in a victim mindset, you are passive and are looking for someone to follow. You find it important to be liked, your self-confidence is low. You have no vision and are stuck in execution mode. And in tunnel vision.

What do you prefer?

Be unmessable with! You can only feel smaller in the spots you already feel insecure about. And those are in your own hands. For example, if you have (what other say is) a funny voice, make it your trademark. Show the world that you are at peace with it, and no one can belittle you.

A fine book recommendation to adopt this mindset is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.

How do you get started?

Of course it takes some exercise. Because you are un-learning automatic behaviour. Here are some tips to break the habit:

  • Step 1 is to be aware of your worry habit. When you worry while speaking, start by simply noticing that. Then re-focus your attention to your performance and your story.
  • Don’t ignore or suppress the negative voice in your head, but give it space and smile at it.
  • When you find you are making assumptions about an audience member’s behaviour — for example, ‘ he’s bored’ — create a second thought, ‘he’s fascinated’. This is how you shake up your assumptions.
  • Let the distinction victim-owner sink in. Remind yourself again and again of why you give that speech or training, and that your broader mission is more important than what anyone in the room happens to think at that time.
  • From now on, identify yourself with the owner mindset, for example by visualising a few times a day that you are an owner.
  • Use techniques to make your speech or training extra valuable. This reassures you that you have a lot to offer to your audience. For example, involve your audience by letting them co-create the agenda.

Finally, with an owner mindset, you open your gaze by broadening your perspective and gathering new facts. You do this by embracing an attitude of curiosity, having confidence in the others and taking their views into account, asking the right questions and listening better.

Good luck with that! And do you have something to add, perhaps from your own experience? I’d really like to read about it in a comment.