“Imagine your audience nude.”
Any public speaking coach worth their salt will refrain from giving this age-old advice.
In fact, we may never know why some people still think the antidote for fear of public speaking is imagining their audience naked. Many people attribute this advice and practice to Winston Churchill, who was, indeed, one of the best orators of our time.
However, times have changed considerably and the bar has since been raised to a viral TED level for public speaking. Unless you’re giving a speech to a bunch of nudists (which apparently does still happen,) imagining your audience in the buff is an extremely misguided – and even potentially damaging – idea.
In theory, picturing your audience naked or in their underwear is intended to make you feel more powerful, more in control, and somehow less vulnerable on stage. Do I want to know if imagining the audience naked has actually worked for anyone? Somehow, I’m concerned that this could lead us into quite an inappropriate workplace discussion. And who, honestly, wants to imagine their peers, mentors, or the general public nude?
I mean, let’s face it, most of us don’t present to a room full of supermodels (and if you were, would you honestly be able to speak more clearly?) The idea is pretty ridiculous. I’m here to tell you (and Winston Churchill) that imagining your audience naked never works. Here’s why…
YOU ARE MULTI-TASKING ENOUGH
As a speaker coach, I see it every day. Already, you are presenting a speech, controlling your voice, remaining conscious of your body language, and noticing the subtle feedback from the audience. Most likely, you are also using technology while trying to walk across a stage.
Is imagining another reality truly something you have room to do while attempting to deliver your best possible performance? Your brain literally has to work much harder for you to try and imagine everyone without clothes on. It is distracting and takes your focus away from your presentation content.
And with your brain in overdrive like that, you are more likely to forget the key points you want to make, resulting in the inability to engage the audience effectively. Your interactions will be much more productive and cohesive when you focus all your energy on the message you are delivering and the people with whom you are sharing it.
EYE CONTACT IS IMPORTANT
If you are imagining the person in the front row with their clothes off, will you be able to look them in the eye? An experienced public speaking coach will tell you that in order to deliver a memorable speech, a major component includes connection through eye contact.
Using eye contact is important during a presentation because it makes the audience feel heard and involves them in your presentation. It’s the non-verbal equivalent of saying somebody’s name aloud.
A great talk should always be an exchange of energy between an audience and a speaker. When you look into the eyes of your audience, you are better able to connect and engage with greater impact.
DO YOU WANT TO DESTROY OR BUILD A FEELING OF COMMUNITY?
Imagining a person naked is not only potentially degrading to them, it also builds a barrier that separates you from your audience.
Don’t disconnect from your audience. They are people who want to be a part of your message and need to feel included. Connect in this way, and they will be engrossed in what you are saying. It’s even better if you are able to customize the talk to meet their specific needs and goals – do that and how could you not be successful? None of this can be done if you separate yourself from them.
Additionally, I will offer you one truly transformative and unifying tip that I like to share as a public speaking coach. During your presentation, you can find true connection by imagining your audience as a pool of energy and jumping into it! I mean this as a mental exercise, of course, since crowd surfing could certainly be even more distracting than imagined naked people! (And your boss may not be overly pleased.) But even consider this – how much more do fans love the performers who do jump in?
YOU CAN’T BE FULLY PRESENT IF YOU ARE IMAGINING A DIFFERENT REALITY
The best speakers are truly “all in” for every single presentation. They are making eye contact, evaluating the subtle feedback in facial expressions of the audience, feeling the power of their message welling up from within, noticing the tone of each word they deliver. This takes all of your focus, all of your energy. Be there. Enjoy the experience of connection, even. That is how to deliver an unforgettable message.
IT’S BETTER IF YOU ARE THE NAKED ONE
Well, emotionally speaking, that is. Picturing your audience in the nude is generally a tactic for increasing your feelings of authority and reducing your exposure to vulnerability. Believe it or not, however, a little bit of vulnerability goes a long way.
If you mentally strip your audience of their clothes, you are reducing them to a mindless blob with no identity (which, again, takes away from the community you are working so hard to build through your message.)
But if you instead strip away your wall of perfection and share something human, suddenly you are someone they can relate to, someone for whom they can cheer.
When you activate the empathy of your audience by sharing something truly authentic about yourself, that is when you rise to the level of unforgettable.
So what else can you do?
Don’t fret- as a public speaking coach, I would never take away the one presentation tip most people already know without giving you some new ones!
HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD:
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, AND THEN PRACTICE
The more prepared you are for your speech, the less likely your nerves will be to attack. It is absolutely essential that your practice sessions include speaking your presentation out loud. Just knowing the content is not enough, you must practice how you will say it and hear what it sounds like. Depending on the length and importance of your speech, be sure you have performed out loud a bare minimum of three times. Bonus points if you find someone else to listen and provide feedback. And remember, it’s not about memorizing every word as much as knowing your content inside and out.
Show up early. Familiarize yourself with the technology available, the layout of the venue, and give yourself some time to breathe. The best practice is to perform a run-through in the actual space, if at all possible. Make yourself a checklist beforehand and make sure you have everything you need. The more you can prepare, the more powerful and in control you will feel before you even begin.
FOCUS ON THE AUDIENCE
When you shift your focus from the nervous, self-conscious energy instead to shining the spotlight on building community with your words, you are not only more prepared, but your message will have more impact. Tailor your speech to address the needs and concerns of this specific audience.
Consider: What does this audience need? Why are they here to listen to you speak? What do they care about? This will help you to anticipate their questions ahead of time, which will also help you feel more prepared and in control.
REMEMBER YOUR PURPOSE
Perhaps even more important than why the audience is there is this question – Why are you there? If you are staring down the prospect of speaking in public, you surely have something important to share, something that has motivated you to put in the effort of showing up for this audience. You don’t need to be a public speaking coach, a TED talk veteran, or a professional motivational speaker to consider your why, the driving force that urged you to offer to speak or caused someone to invite you to share your unique perspective in the first place. You are, indeed, the expert. Regardless of your presentation skills training or lack therof, the message you are delivering is always best coming from you!
For your next presentation, try seeing your audience for what they probably are: a bunch of well-dressed, well-mannered, and attentive people who want you to do well! And, please know, you absolutely don’t need to peel away their clothes…to peel away your fear of public speaking!
Have you heard of power posing? Check out this two-minute hack to increase your confidence and poise in public speaking – or anything, really!
Watch out for more rookie mistakes to avoid in public speaking and learn how to speak like a pro.