We all have an inner mouse. It squeaks fearfully when we have to speak to an audience. Yes, even confident speakers hear a faint squeak, but they don't waste mental energy on it.
Here's the simplest, most practical advice to come out of my years of helping speakers speak. When you're about to go in front of the audience:
Starve the mouse, feed the audience!
Picture the most terrified presenter you've ever seen. Pure cartoon-like mouse: petrified, wide-eyed, hands clasped beseechingly in front of us. Its innermost thought patterns run like this: you'll judge me, you'll see I'm no good, please like me. As an audience we can be sympathetic, we can choose to overlook the neediness, but we can't award credibility to speakers who focus more on themselves than on us. Deep down, we all know this. That's why self-consciousness is such a credibility downer. Also, each time you return to your fearful thoughts, you slip a bit more cheese to your mouse. Nor does it work to tell yourself not to have fearful thoughts; trying to do that is still centred on yourself and your mouse of fear just gets bigger and squeakier.
Instead, switch your focus from inward to outward - specifically, to the needs of the audience. Here's how:
With your eyes, face and body, actively show every person in the audience that you want them to get your message. Seek individuals out for a whole second of direct eye contact, give some of them a little nod as you make eye contact, and emphasize your points with raised eyebrows and gestures with hands.
With that switch of focus, the rodent will go quiet and slip away into the shadows.
What? You think I'm trying to turn you into a show pony? No way. A bit of extra animation will not be seen as show pony antics, as long as you are genuinely more focused on audience needs than on your mouse. An audience knows when you set out to put them first. Then, they'll ignore your little mistakes, they'll listen to your message, they'll see you as credible.
And - come closer, I'm just going to whisper this - they might even like you.
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Seriously. There's a simple head movement, combined with eye contact, that will impress your audience. And it really is simple: Look around to find individuals.
Every now and then (maybe every second or third individual) give that person a very small nod as you give them direct eye contact for between one and two seconds. The nod has to be very small, almost imperceptible. The eye contact is not much more than a single heartbeat. Then move to someone else.
Why does that impress the audience?
Because we all have a subconscious wish that whoever talks to us is actually interested in us. In just a few seconds, even though you haven't reached everyone yet, the entire audience gets the feeling that you are more interested in them than in your own survival. Now they're more likely to listen to your message. I told you it was simple.
That's not your challenge. Your challenge is to deal with your inner voice of caution which will whisper This feels and looks weird. So here's a suggestion. First try it out on at least two friends. Family maybe? Sit them down in front of you, tell them exactly what you need the feedback on, then - talking on a serious topic - look from one to the other with the nod and the direct eye contact. Ask them how it looks.
Now for a real audience. If you can arrange it, get a friend to sit in and give you subtle signals. Thumbs up - looks good. Palm up - do it more. Palm down - do it less. The beauty of that is that your voice of caution settles down instantly on the thumbs up.
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