So you’re a nervous speaker: where does your focus naturally go?
Today’s post is around a link to some very interesting research on where your eyes and attention go if you’re an anxious presenter. Assuming you’re able to look up and ‘take in’ your audience – and if you’re nervous, that’s not a given (I cite myself in that category of looking down when I used to be a frightened presenter: eye contact was way too difficult!).
So where do speakers with anxiety tend to focus when they look at an audience? Well, unhelpfully, they look at the more negative audience members, according to a recent Chinese study which tracked eye movements as participants gave a 3 minute speech over Skype. If you’re anxious, either about public speaking or in general, this probably doesn’t surprise you. The study also recorded physical anxiety via heart rate and sweat levels, and asked participants to rate their anxiety level. The study reference in the British Psychological Society Research Digest is here.
The article in part says this:
“Writing in Cognition and Emotion, Muyu Lin and her colleagues describe how they tracked their participants’ eye movements as they gave their speeches, recorded their physical anxiety via sweating and heart rate, and how they also asked them to rate how anxious they felt.
The participants with high social anxiety spent more time looking at negative audience members and less time at positive audience members, than did the low anxiety participants. Moreover, the low anxiety participants showed a bias towards spending more time looking at positive audience members than the other people in the audience, while the high anxiety anxiety participants lacked this positive bias. The high anxiety participants reported more anxiety, as you’d expect, and this was shown in the physiological measures, especially heart rate. Finally, the greater their attention to negative audience members, the more anxious the socially anxious participants said they felt.”
So the solution and goal is, now that you know this, to deliberately focus on the more positive looking audience members – and train this one into your system over time. It will take practice, as it goes against your natural tendency. And you might think it’s just too hard to do in the moment – I promise it’s trainable 🙂
I also talk about this idea from a slightly different angle – around a deliberate mindset choice you can make – in an article I wrote a few years ago now (here), where I talk about making the choice to ‘turn towards’ or ‘turn away from’ our audience when we speak to groups.
So, if you’re a nervous speaker, and you know your focus naturally goes to the negative, frowning or smartphone playing audience members, give this idea a go. Best wishes with it!