Talking to audiences

Released: Monday 15 November 2021

On this episode we talk about public speaking, why people fear it, what you can do to survive it and why the best speakers are lions who play tennis.

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Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.

Deborah Frances-White: I’m Deborah.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.

Alex MacLaren: And today we’re going to be talking about being in the spotlight. Now we are all seasoned performers. I’ve been acting since I was a teenager, I’ve done loads of stage time with both of you, Tom, we’ve done millions of shows together, Deborah, you’re regularly doing stand-up performances. But people who are in everyday working life, find it really terrifying. And they come and talk to us and ask us for help.

Tom Salinsky: I remember taking a corporate session once and chatting to someone in the coffee break, who was feeling profoundly anxious about the fact that I had this background in theatre and comedy and the whole thing was putting him on edge, even though I was doing everything I could to reassure him. And I noticed that he had arrived to the session on a motorbike. And this struck me as odd because as listeners may know, surgeons nickname habitual motorbike riders “donors” because it’s such a dangerous way of getting around. I said to him, how can you be anxious about the possibility of having to give a presentation to this group of people when you are taking your life in your hands every time you get on board this machine? And he pondered this for a while. And he said, “Well, I think the way I’d analyze it is I am definitely going to die one day. But it’s possible that I won’t socially embarrass myself between that day in this.” And there is a certain logic to that.

Alex MacLaren: There is a logic and in fact weirdly, I just thinking about that. Being a motorcyclist reminds me of – possibly another experience when people feel terrified is when there’s lights in their face. So if you think about rabbits stuck in headlights, they freeze. And I think that when people do have the unusual experience for non-performers, of being standing isolated in space with lamps on them, they cannot even see the people that they’re speaking to. This scares the hell out of them. But it’s a familiar experience for you, Deborah, and I remember, you developed some just fascinating work about what this means to people.

Deborah Frances-White: Yes, I actually have a TEDx talk about this, if anybody wants to see me talking about it, but not till you finish listening to this podcast, because there’ll be plenty of things we say here that I didn’t get to say there. But my theory, I’m sure I’m not alone in this is there’s a reason that stage fright is an extremely common fear. There are surveys that say the number one fear is public speaking, the number two fear is death. And Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about this, where he says that means that at a funeral, there are some people who’d rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. And that that obviously isn’t true. But it feels true to people – they feel like, anything but this and I think, all commonly held phobias have their roots in life or death case situations. So the fear of heights we can see, we’ve evolved to have a fear of heights because people who were not frightened of running along a cliff edge, well, they had fewer children and those children died of plummeting to their deaths. We know why most people have a visceral fear of snakes. That’s because our ancestors on the savannah who thought snakes were cute and cuddly had fewer children and those children died of venomous snake bites. But it’s not easy to see with public speaking. It’s like there was a lot of Toastmasters on the savannah, or a lot of PowerPoint presentations. But I think I know why. I think it’s because if I went on a safari to the savannah, even today, and in the evening, I wandered away from my Safari party and came out into a big empty, open clearing and looked up and saw there were ten, twenty, fifty eyes on me. It would probably mean I was prey. Historically, and even pre historically, if you’re the only one looking in this direction, and everyone else is looking in your direction, you’re probably going to be eaten. It’s probably not a good sign. And that is why your adrenaline goes up. Yes, obviously don’t screw up the presentation. You could forget what you’re gonna say in the PowerPoint could crash. But that’s actually not a life or death situation. The visceral response – people get the shakes, the closed throat, the sweats. Even if you don’t get any of that you might get a butterfly sensation in your stomach, you get a kind of “Oh, come on, get on with it” feeling. Even if you like doing it – “come on, get on with it get on with it, this guy is going to take all day letting me on.” Everybody gets a visceral physical reaction, well beyond what they should get, given the situation, which is I might bore them a bit. If the PowerPoint crashes, what has happened to them, they’ll wait, take a five minute break. We get a reaction. And I think that is life or death. So I think there are things we can do that will override the neural patterning, which tells you you are in danger when you are in fact not. It is just a fake message going to the brain, because people are great at surviving. So we’ve got to be excellent at detecting danger.

Tom Salinsky: And I think one of the things that happens is that there is a will from the audience, that you will be in charge of them, and you will look after them. And that can happen even in quite small audiences. But it definitely happens with big audiences. And you can see the way that the space is arranged, the audience sits neatly in rows there in the darkness, you have all the space of the stage, you have the light, you have the microphone, it’s all trying to raise your status. So someone who comes in and accepts that status, does the thing, the Deborah’s talking about, makes physical choices, which say, I’m in control here, they are easy to watch and easy to listen to. Someone who leans into their own feelings. Like they feel like prey, they feel scared, they feel anxious, is very difficult to watch and to listen to, because what they’re saying is, this isn’t safe. But you’re the one who’s supposed to be making it safe.

Deborah Frances-White: you see often presenters looking like a gazelle, about to be eaten by a pride of lions – i.e. the audience. But honestly, I think that’s because audiences do behave like predators. Because the two of you now, just sitting around here are giving me little signals all the time, we were listening, and we’re with you. And it’s just tiny nods of the head, and just engagement that you’re constantly nodding a bit, which you don’t even realize you’re doing until I pointed it out. And that is absolutely standard human behavior. But whose responsibility is it in an audience of 50 or 100, or 2000, to give me a good time? To go, we’re listening, we’re here. Nobody’s. That responsibility is entirely diluted. And what that means is audiences look like lions, you’ll see lion sitting on the savannah and the lion will be dead still, and the lion will see the gazelle and the gazelle will see the lion and the gazelle will go like – small indecisive movements. The lionesses hunt, and they actually wait to see which is the twitchiest gazelle, that’s true, they do, because that’s the most indecisive gazelle. And that’s the easiest one to catch.

Alex MacLaren: It’s true. audiences don’t know how intimidating they look to a performer. And if a performer is to explain to an audience – “You all look so scary. You’re staring at me blankly,” – audiences go, “Do we? No, not at all!” They don’t experience that intimidating behavior. They’re simply part of a group of people waiting for you to talk to us. And looking forward to it, in fact. The internal experience of being an audience is it’s quite nice not to have the spotlight on us.

Deborah Frances-White: We think we’re invisible in an audience. It’s true.

Alex MacLaren: And also, there’s no happier audience that I work with than a group of people that habitually have to run rooms. They are so relieved not to be the person up on stage with the spotlight on them. But they’re not working hard to enable things, okay. They’re literally having time off. And I think that’s what maybe non performers don’t understand about audiences in professional situations is that people go along, to have a night off and for the attention to be on you and they want to feel like they’re in your presence. They want to feel seen by the person on stage. We don’t go to see Beyoncé, okay? We go for Beyoncé to see us.

Deborah Frances-White: Oh yeah you get a better view on the television, with surround sound, but you want Beyoncé to see you, you want to have been in the room with her.

Alex MacLaren: You want to be seen by them.

Deborah Frances-White: It’s how she make you feel.

Alex MacLaren: This is true, because she’s actually she’s looking at you. She’s not a self-conscious performer. She’s looking out to the audience. And yet it goes wrong for big stars. Okay, so don’t imagine when you look at a major superstar that they feel this is easy. They often find it very difficult. I’ve just been recently reading about the great stage actor of the 20th century, Laurence Olivier, who was afflicted by terrible stage fright, because just like an ordinary civilian in a giving a presentation at work situation, he was facing expectations. And in fact, he’d ramped up the expectations to the point that he was like the – you could not see a greater stage actor doing Shakespeare, the Laurence Olivier in his 50s and 60s – and it terrified him and he carried on doing it but he had to say to people “Don’t look at me on stage.” There was no space for him to both look after the audience and look after the other actors. So it could be quite a lonely experience performing with him, but dazzling to see how he built that relationship with the people who had bought tickets. He was reaching out and seeing them,

Deborah Frances-White: Can I suggest, Alex, there are times when an audience does not like being seen by a performer and that can be some members of an audience at a stand-up comedy club.

Alex MacLaren: Oh, God.

Deborah Frances-White: Why do you not sit in the front row at comedy club?

Alex MacLaren: Well, I don’t go to comedy clubs, for this reason, I think, because it’s so combative.

Deborah Frances-White: Well, here’s the thing. Lots of people love going to stand-up comedy, but very few people want to sit in the front row. Because a comedian like Al Murray will pick on people in the audience – it’s what comedians call crowd work. And he’ll say, what do you do for a living? And if they say banker, they’re a banker, oh the whole audience goes, oh great. He’s got to take this person apart, especially if there’s been something in the papers about bankers’ bonuses. I know bankers who say I’ve never say I was a banker, I make up a job, because I don’t want to be publicly mocked.

Tom Salinsky: What are the safe jobs? Nurse? Comedy reviewer!

Deborah Frances-White: Comedy reviewer’s good! That’s very funny. That’s funny. That’s what I might say next time I’m asked. That’s a great thing to say. I’ll take that on board. Although if everybody listening to this podcast does that, what will happen is comedians will find that every time they ask someone what they do for a living, every single person in the audience will be a comedy reviewer.

Tom Salinsky: We’ve ruined comedy.

Deborah Frances-White: We’ve ruined comedy, we’ve broken it. But some people love being picked on by Al Murray because the status raise of Al Murray talking to them is enough to mitigate the fact that he’s going to mock them and lower their status

Tom Salinsky: Groucho Mark said late in life when he was a sort of old crotchety man, I can’t insult anyone anymore. So whenever he insulted someone people would just say, did you hear what Groucho just said to me!?

Deborah Frances-White: Yeah, so the insult was the status raise. Yeah, but in terms of lions and gazelles, what I would say is a very high status comedian who is taking people down a peg or two is a lion, who makes the audience feel like gazelles. Beyoncé, and some good natured comedians, are doing something different. If I go to a Beyoncé concert, she is a lion. But she is a lion who is in charge of her pride. So she makes me feel like a lion. That’s why I want to go and see Beyoncé. And I think it’s a really interesting dichotomy. Ask yourself when you go out onto the stage, are you a lion that makes everyone feel like a gazelle, and you’re about to eat them? Are you a gazelle standing in front of the audience looking edible? Or are you a lion in charge of the pride that makes everybody else feel more warm and lionlike, and like this is now a collective?

Alex MacLaren: So that’s I think what I mean when I say people want to feel seen, in fact, many people do say to me, I absolutely hate audience participation, in that I didn’t actually buy a ticket to be scrutinized by the entire audience. But what I do want is to go and when somebody speaks, to feel, yes, this has something for me, personally. I feel like that when they’re addressing me or looking in my direction, they’re not putting me under pressure, but they’re including me in that pride, as you’re saying, in your metaphor. That I think is pretty universal. When I think about stand up comics, I think we go to watch, I think those combative comics, in a successful club, we go to, to fight somebody and enjoy losing to them. But I don’t think that’s the case with all speaking-to-a-group situations. But I do think we want to feel that whatever they’re doing to us, they’re in control of it. And they’re including us and making us feel like we belong.

Tom Salinsky: But there’s a paradox here, which is, people will come to us and ask for help with a presentation they have to give, or with a dynamic like running a meeting or a job interview or something like that. And I always find, as the coach, it’s the presentation which is the easier thing to work on. Because when you’re presenting by and large, you’re sort of broadcasting. So what that means is if we get the story that you’re telling right, and we find a manner that works for you, and that fits this material, and you practice it here in the workshop, if you are able – and that’s quite a big if – if you are able to successfully replicate that in front of the audience, it will still work. But you have to sort of wargame interactions, you have to think of lots of different possibilities because exactly how I should behave in this situation to get the right effect, to come across the way I hope to, to make you feel okay, is absolutely dependent on what you say next. So it’s a much harder problem to solve. But it’s something which feels so much more familiar, so much more natural, so much more comfortable for most people. The very fact that there is a spotlight on you, or there are more than two or three pairs of eyes looking in your direction, just seems to change everything for people.

Alex MacLaren: I think that that relationship with a lot of people looking at me, is something actually that we’ve seen in Zoom calls in the last 18 months as well, in that you’re basically looking at a field, sometimes of many tiny little faces, like a stamp collection or staring at you rather than sideways on…

Deborah Frances-White: And all on mute, which is a nightmare for a comedian!

Alex MacLaren: Oh, it’s a huge headache.

Deborah Frances-White: Literally my worst nightmare.

Alex MacLaren: And not only on mute, but in some people’s cases – sometimes for good reasons, sometimes you never know what the reasons are – people have switched their cameras off.

Tom Salinsky: I have a client the moment who said to me that they’re working on pitches, and one of the problems they have is that when they start the pitch, the person that they’re pitching to will say everybody’s now going to turn the cameras off. And they’re doing it because they don’t want to give anything away. But it means you’re now totally in a vacuum. It’s so off putting.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s incredibly difficult. In fact, one of our clients – I don’ know if you remember this, Tom – booked as at the beginning of the pandemic, and one of the things they said to us in the remote work we’re doing is see if you can teach all of our people to turn their cameras on during their MS Teams calls. And obviously, the wasn’t the only reason we were doing it, but there was clearly a culture of anxiety about sharing your domestic space and your domestic self, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, although I’m happy to say that they seem to have calmed down about that now, like everybody. But yes, having at least people’s faces can give you some kind of relationship with their reaction to what you’re saying. And I remember, we were doing an improv exercise about working with audiences about making sure you’re an equal opportunities eye contacter. Now this links to something I’d been doing with a Shakespeare Company, which is when you’re doing a soliloquy, if you’re standing down at the front of the stage, you’ll notice that what Judi Dench does is the first people she looks at are right at the back.

Deborah Frances-White: Sarah Millican too.

Alex MacLaren: She starts with them. And she doesn’t give them more than their fair share. But she starts there. And then she gives some attention over here onto the right and then once she’s got a reaction from them – or at least she’s been there long enough for them to absorb the fact that they’ve been the center of attention with Portia, or Cleopatra, or whoever she’s playing – then she looks right down to the front row. And when they feel that they’ve kind of taken in some of the warmth of what she has to offer them, then she goes back over to the far side of the gods. And so you’re kind of a tennis player on one side of the net. And you’re playing a match in which you keep a rally of contact going with a thousand people sitting in a West End theatre. Now, obviously, no individual will necessarily feel that you’ve spent time with them. But they will know that your attention has been shared out and the game has been played. And so they feel that they’ve made a kind of contribution. Because even though they’ve not said anything, they don’t need to heckle the comedian, in order to be part of a conversation with the person who is speaking,

Deborah Frances-White: I always divide the audience into three – if I want to think about it intuitively because it’s an anxiety ridden gig – and I sent my energy to the back of the room, and I think of myself throwing a ball, literally throwing a ball with my hands. That means my gestures will go out towards them. I give myself a front foot energy, always. Always put my energy on the front foot, because it’s hard to look scared of people you’re coming towards. So I know I’m more lionlike if I’ve got my energy on my front foot and more gazelle-like if I keep my energy back, I start backing away from them. When I’ve done a complete thought, and I’ve given them a little bit of love, I think oh these people on the right haven’t had any love. And I take my ball back in my hands, physically pull my hands in, and I throw the ball to the right. And I see what happens to that section of the audience when I throw them some love. It’s got to be direct. People want to shift their eyes around and take everybody in. But if you take everyone in you take nobody in, you just look like: which of these lions is going to come and get me, quick, keep my eye on all of them. But I take my eye completely off this middle section – they’re fine, they’ve had loads of love, none of them are going to eat me – and I throw it to the right, but I give my energy to the back, and I hold my gaze on this right hand side of the audience. And after a little while I think: these people on the left haven’t had anything! Ball back, over here. Complete thought, maybe a couple of thoughts. Those people in the middle, they’ve been missing my eyes. And I pull the ball back. And when I bring it back to them – wow! It’s like, oh, you’re seeing us again!

Tom Salinsky: So I think there are three sort of phases to someone’s development. I think someone could start really, really anxious about public speaking and they’re just trying to get through it. And I think we’ve seen people in this state and maybe if we’ve had particularly bad gigs we’ve even found ourselves in this state, just pure survival mode. I’ve got to say things I’ve got to say and then get off the stage. Then if you have even a moment to collect yourself, you can start to do some of the things that Deborah is talking about, you can have that front foot energy, you can start to accept that offer of status that’s being given to you, even if that offer of status is five people around a boardroom table are all looking your direction. What can you do to accept that offer and to grow into that spotlight rather than be diminished in it? And then I think what can finally happen, as you do start getting more confident, and it starts to become a bit easier and a bit more habitual, is the broadcasting starts to feel more like a conversation again. And that’s what the best speakers are doing. They sound conversational. Sometimes that’s only achieved because of some artifice. If you are on a big stage, like the ones you’re talking about. You can’t do the same things that you do when you’re sitting next to people, but you can do different things that will give those people the same experience as if they’re sitting next to you. Even if they are fifty feet away at the back of a theatre,

Deborah Frances-White: I sometimes ask big audiences: put your hand up if a pop star or a rock star has directly looked at you or winked at you, acknowledged you, from the stage at a concert. Nearly every woman and many men think of that has happened to them. The maths just simply doesn’t add up. What that person is doing is they are sending so much love in this direction that they make a hundred or a thousand women (if they’re a heartthrob) feel seen. Now in my case, Paul McCartney really did wink at me in Sydney in the late nineties. Now, you laugh, you laugh. And I held on to that for years because I knew it was true, in my case. I had got past the bouncers at the front and worked my way to the – I’d rushed it and I’d worked my way to the front of the stage, and Paul McCartney saw me and he winked at me. But for others, it isn’t true. Now, you laugh, but in 2019, I met Paul McCartney at a very exciting show business party that I was lucky enough to be invited to. And I said to him, Sir Paul, it’s an honor to meet you. I’ve been such a big fan of you since I was a kid. And actually, you winked at me in sitting in Sydney in such and such a year. And he went, Oh, yeah, I remember you. And I said, Look, I know, I know, you probably just wink out and he went, No, no, I remember you. And that is why he is the star that he is.

Tom Salinsky: And while that story is definitely true in your case, the reason it’s unlikely to be true in so many cases is the very thing that we started with. It’s the fact that these big stars have a spotlight in their face, and they can’t see the audience. And I think that’s something worth bearing in mind. If you are presenting on a Zoom or a Teams call. You can’t have eye contact anymore, it doesn’t exist. What you can do, what I think you should do, much more than people generally realize is eyeball the camera. Because if you’re staring down the barrel of the camera, people who are watching you get the experience of being looked at. It does mean, depending on how your system set up, it’s much harder for you to gauge their reaction. And there will be times when that is going to be more important. But eyeballing that camera, although it feels so unnatural, can really help you to connect through this technological medium, and find that connection and get that conversational tone back again,

Deborah Frances-White: Can I suggest you practice looking down the camera, it will feel weird for a while, and then it won’t. And the other thing I would suggest is if people turn their cameras off, or if people are looking away or looking bored or whatever, make positive assumptions. The great Philippa Waller, who has her own company 4D Human Being once told me a story that she went into pitch for three or four people, they were all sitting behind a desk X Factor style. And she was standing up and she said three of them seemed engaged. And one of them was very rudely looking out the window. And she said, I almost stopped and said: if you don’t want to hear this presentation, like you know, you don’t have to because it was so extreme. But I didn’t, I just pushed on and thought you know, it’s fine. Maybe the others are enjoying it. I finished it. And she left the room and walk down the corridor, thinking I’m not sure that went well. And the woman had been looking out the window ran after her and said I just wanted to say that was a fantastic presentation. It was so clear. I have problems hearing, I can only hear at one year. So I have to look away from people when they’re presenting. And every word was clear. And the shape of it was wonderful. And I just thought it was fantastic. Make positive assumptions. Even if they’ve got their cameras off. Imagine them loving it. Even if they’re looking away. Imagine that they’re really engaged by it. Something else is there on the table that they’re, maybe they’re making notes. Maybe if they’re, look, they’re on their phone, they’re writing an email about how brilliant you are.

Alex MacLaren: Make the assumption that they’re making good choices for them and for you, rather than making choices deliberately to screw you up. It feels like you’re under scrutiny, but actually, they simply want to be part of the conversation with you in one way or another. So your homework this week is to go away – and this is may sound like a bold call, but Deborah’s metaphor about using a ball is something that theatre companies do, actually as an exercise, okay. So take a sponge ball, and book three of your colleagues, and sit them in the space as if they were members of an audience, and actually talk to them and throw the ball back replicas relojes breitling and forth and make sure that each of them is involved in the rally. Because rallies are more exciting games to watch than tennis matches where people are simply aceing serves again and again and again.

Deborah Frances-White: You need to keep your focus on the person you’re throwing the ball to, until they throw it back to. Because what you want to do is go – there, you’ve got the ball! Now I’ll shift my eyes around, because it’s uncomfortable to send your energy in this direction. That’s the main thing I see when I’m coaching speakers or even if I just watch speakers who were speaking before or after me sometimes – the pacing up and down that even very highly paid professional speakers do because, like a trapped lion, they can’t be still and they can’t just throw the love and keep it there. You’re my only focus. I’m on a date with you. I’m in love with you. When they throw the ball back as part of this exercise, you then go – at the end of a sentence, not in the middle of a word – you’re going to look at this person, see this person, throw the ball to them, and then they are yours until they throw that ball back.

Alex MacLaren: Thank you so much for joining us for In the Spotlight. We’re really looking forward to hearing your homework adventures. So do get in touch and let us know how it goes for you. See you all next week.

Tom Salinsky: See you next week.

Deborah Frances-White: See you next week.