Judging or listening? Dealing with the zombie apocalypse...

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Everyone has a different experience of talking in public, but there are some things to which no-one is immune. No matter how qualified they are, everyone occasionally looks at the faces of their audience and experiences the creeping fear that the people they are speaking to are judging them. Or thinking they’re boring. Or wondering, ‘how did THAT guy get this gig?’.

I remember vividly the first time it happened to me. I was leading a multi-agency client call, alone, for the first time. As I was talking into the star-phone, in a meeting room with lime green walls that I will never forget, there was absolute silence. Cold, unfriendly silence.

I don’t know how long it lasted but the minutes felt like hours and as I continued to talk out loud, my inner monologue was getting pretty frantic. I started to get a prickly neck and my stomach dropped and I began to ramble. And then, thankfully, it suddenly occurred to me… Everyone didn’t hate me! They were just listening! They were quiet because they were doing me the respect of not talking over me. Ohhhhhhhhhhh! <RELIEF>

So I finished saying what I needed to and invited input, of which there was plenty, and it was perfectly warm. None of what I had interpreted had in fact been true. I’ve felt like this since then – it truly happens to everyone – but now I’m better equipped to deal with it and I don't get distracted!

Here’s my advice if this happens to you: 

Question your perception

Are they really judging you harshly, or are they just listening? If the only evidence you have is a neutral facial expression (or even a little frown!) or silence on a conference call, then the odds are they’re just listening. The idea that you aren’t worth listening to is something that is in your head, not theirs; let it go.

Stay present and be yourself

One of my clients refers to the sea of blank faces she experiences when speaking in a particularly dour sector as, “The Zombie Apocalypse”. The first time it happened it utterly threw her and she stumbled. The second time however, she used it as an opportunity to practice staying focused and animated with an unresponsive audience, learning as she went.

She still speaks in the same sector and ended up having fun with it – allowing herself to stay enthusiastic and tune into her audience better, to learn what they react to.  The feedback is always excellent.

Prepare well and get over it

Might they actually be judging you? Well yes! People judge other people all the time, oftentimes kindly, sometimes less so. So what?

Did you prepare your subject matter? If so, given that you’re not an idiot, your content is likely to be relevant and worth hearing and you’re probably doing a good job. Do you think you could have prepared better? Well ok then, we’ll catch that next time. They’re probably still not really judging you, just thinking. In either case, stay focused, keep going and if you can, ask for feedback later.

And remember, no-one gets really good at anything by being good to start with – it’s experiences like this that make you good.

Does this ever happen to you? Or are you completely immune? Either way if you've got tips, let's hear them in the comments!