When it comes to putting yourself across, it’s useful to bear in mind two contradictory spotlight-related phenomena and to tread a confident path between them.
The first is that what we do is a much bigger deal to us than it is to anyone else; if we’re feeling self-conscious, we can vastly overestimate the impact on other people of whatever it is we’re embarrassed about. Following experiments carried out in 2000, this tendency is known in psychological circles as the Spotlight Effect.
It’s liberating to remember this. Excessive guilt and shame are paralysing and do nothing to improve life, either for you or for anyone else. Whether you’re chatting with friends or addressing a conference, if you make a small mistake, the chances are a lot of people won’t notice – so don’t draw attention to it! If it’s big enough that people can’t miss it, all you have to do is laugh it off. Brazen it out. As long as you’re not fazed by it, the audience won’t be either.
When it’s a one-off slip or bit of clumsiness, then, science has proved that the people around you may not even realise it’s happened, let alone judge you harshly for it.
Repetition, however, is a different matter. Any annoying habits you may get away with in everyday life are magnified by the spotlight until, if you’re not very careful, they are all the audience remembers about you. You are simply the woman who tagged, “to be honest” on to the end of every other sentence, or the man who kept jangling the keys in his pocket. Whether verbal or physical, repeated mannerisms can eclipse your message and set your audience on edge.
The irony is, it’s usually the pressure of finding yourself under the spotlight – presenting, training, lecturing, being interviewed, speaking at a meeting – that causes the increased frequency of the distracting mannerisms, which in turn is exacerbated for the audience by the spotlight being on you and their being obliged to watch and listen to you for a certain length of time.
There are various practical steps you can take to eliminate distracting mannerisms and I’ve discussed those in another post. For now, let me leave you with a suggestion for a psychological shift: let go of the whole performance-anxiety thing and concentrate on what you’re here to do, which is to convey information, to communicate. This is not about you, it’s about the people you’re talking to. Turn that spotlight away from you and shine it on the audience.