My voice is too deep. My eyes look in funny directions when I explain things. I don’t know where to put my hands. I keep saying “um”. I hate the way I look up there.
Most people are their own worst critics when it comes to public speaking. To help clients improve, I film them and show the performance to them and their colleagues. The results are overwhelmingly similar. What colleagues see as strengths, we often see as weaknesses in ourselves. What’s incidental to others is distracting and embarrassing to us. And it is these phantom weaknesses which stop us from trying, learning and improving at an important life skill.
It is overall impression, not the little things, that matter. I’m reminded of an amazing study I read about last year by psychologist Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia. A group of students were given a taste test for jam. The results were close to those of expert tasters. No surprises so far. Then a second group took the test – and this time, they were asked to explain why one jam was better than another. Forced to consciously consider their preferences, to come up with plausible reasons like texture and colour, they chose the worst-tasting jam.
Whereas we create for ourselves hidden categories of voice, eyes, hands, sounds and appearance – and criticise our performance by those standards – others see the whole package. If you want to find out how to improve your public speaking, you are better off asking others than relying on your own experience. Don’t panic about the ingredients – just ask “is this good jam?”.