There’s a great book by Margaret Wheatley, a well-known U.S. leadership consultant, called ‘Turning to One Another’. In the book, which is about creating simple conversations, Margaret talks about “bearing witness”; this is the practice of sitting with another person. She writes: “when I bear witness, I turn toward another and am willing to let their experience enter my heart”.
She finishes the chapter by writing “we can turn away, or we can turn toward. Those are the only two choices we have.”
I think of these two choices when I’m working with groups, watching how a nervous speaker at the front of the room relates to their audience. Almost always the speaker “turns away” metaphorically (and sometimes literally) from the group. And no wonder! If you’re nervous about presenting, you’re going to think of the audience as a separate, often threatening, ear…one that’s waiting to pounce on you with criticism or challenges. If you have these assumptions, how can you not turn away?
Often, your turning away manifests as if you’re talking to yourself – there’s no ‘reach’ towards your audience. There’s a wall up.
And there is no neutral; you’re never “on the fence” when it comes to relating to your audience.
What you want, of course, is turning towards instead: it’s a choice that every speaker has to make, and it’s a practical exercise in my workshops. Here’s how to try it in front of a group, if you want to:
Exploration: a game
Consider if you’re inclined mentally to push your audience away. If so, see if you can let it become a game to do the opposite – really! Ask yourself, “how can I begin to turn towards my audience”? The very act of asking “how?” will set your mind working to give you answers.
Here are some ideas:
In the lead-up to your presentation:
- imagine, visualize yourself engaging with audience members – having a conversation, not giving a presentation. A conversation is mutual; giving a presentation is a lot more work on your part. See if you can imagine it more as a give and take. This lifts some of the pressure off you.
- play around with expanding your energy out beyond your body, to encompass the audience. You could imagine an energy bubble or a balloon, holding both you and your audience in the same space.
- create deliberate self-talk around building some sort of connection between your and the audience. See if you can come up with a metaphor, like a bridge, or threads of connection. Coming from a more creative profession, I like to imagine webs of light between me and the group – that may be too fanciful for you, but you get the idea. Hey, if you’re an engineer, a bridge probably makes more sense!
As you stand in front of the group:
- do conscious belly breathing, to help bring you into your body, not your head, and become fully ‘present’ in the room as you prepare to speak.
- take time to acclimatize yourself before you start to speak. Breathe, and feel your feet solidly grounding you into the earth. It can be a physical shock to your system to suddenly face the audience, if you’re not used to it, so be gentle with yourself.
- How do you usually stand, when you’re relating one-on-one, perhaps doing your daily work? See if you can replicate that posture. Public speaking is not a monologue, it’s a conversation.
Having a ‘tame’ audience to practise with
And if you have a tame audience, willing to play the game with you? For them, it involves “bearing witness” in a warm and supportive way to your shifting emotions and desire to connect with them.
(And if you don’t have a friendly audience, see if you can find a supportive workshop or course to join, which can really speed up your progress).