How to get more comfortable with public speaking on Zoom—or anywhere else

Camilla looks comfy.
Camilla looks comfy.
Image: Reuters/Justin Tallis
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In a study a few years ago about how people perceive facial movements, subjects were presented with photographs of pro tennis players who had just scored or lost a critical point, and were asked to guess whether the athletes were ecstatic or devastated, based on their facial expressions.

That sounds easy enough, but people were only able to correctly read the faces about half of the time. (The New York Times created an interactive quiz based on the study if you want to test yourself.) Shown the players’ entire bodies, however, participants were much better at distinguishing between happiness and pain.

Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist who is president of Barnard College in New York, wasn’t involved in the study. But she says it’s a good indication of why, for many of us, speaking to a crowd during a Zoom meeting can be more nerve-wracking than making a presentation in person.

The experiment, and other research, point to the problem with speaking to floating faces (or to no faces at all, which can also happen depending on the software you’re using). “Even if you can see their faces, you’re missing the rest of the information,” says Beilock, “which comes from how they’re sitting, whether their body is up straight or not,” and other cues.

How to reduce your fear of public speaking

Beilock’s research has produced science-backed tips to ease your fears about taking the virtual or real spotlight, both of which people will need to become more comfortable with as more office-based companies go hybrid. Taking any stage is an extremely common source of anxiety because it puts us in “a place where we can be judged,” she says. That potential for judgment sparks fears of disappointing people, like family, friends, or a team at work.

For some people, public speaking is scarier still because of expectations based on their identity. “Whether we’re talking about being the only woman in the room, or whether we’re talking about being an underrepresented minority, we’re often aware that people who have negative stereotypes about how we should perform,” Beilock says, “and we know from psychology research that this can lead to increased anxiety when we’re in positions to be evaluated because we don’t want to live down to those stereotypes.”

Her most essential tip for performing well despite the fear is this: Practice under the conditions in which you’ll be doing the real thing. Right now, that perhaps means testing out your presentation skills on your friends during a group video call or filming yourself if you can’t find people to assist. Even practicing in front of a mirror will likely make you self-conscious enough to loosely approximate the pressure of the real deal. “You’ll learn that your palms get sweaty, your heart rate goes up,” says Beilock, “and you’ll get used to dealing with it before the real do-or-die situation.”

In athletics, she adds, this is called closing the gap between training and competition. It’s a more deliberate form of training and it can lead to better results.

Try this trick 15 minutes before you give your next presentation

The day of the performance, in the 15 minutes or so before you take the floor, focus on something else—anything but what is about to happen, says Beilock, whose experiments have shown that focusing too much on what you need to do can actually hamper your performance. By the time you need to perform under pressure, hopefully you’ve practiced enough that some of what you need to do will come automatically. At that point, excessive concentration can lead to “paralysis by analysis.” Beilock says she reads Us magazine before she’s about to deliver a big talk.

“There’s lots of psychology research showing that stepping away helps you come up with the answer to the big problems,” she says. But that’s a tool we often forget about.

“Why performance under pressure is so interesting is because we want to perform well—it’s not like we don’t want to perform well—and we counterintuitively fall on our face,” says Beilock, the author of Choke: What The Secrets Of The Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To (Atria Books, 2010) and How the Body Knows Its Mind (Atria Books, 2015). Now and then, she says, “you have to take a step back to move forward.”

Put a positive spin on your body’s reaction to fear

Sometimes speaking in public is a spontaneous act. So here’s a tip that can be useful to remember when you make an impromptu decision to talk to a group, like when you finally unmute yourself and contribute to a company-wide Zoom call. In that case, Beilock suggests, take your body’s signals that look like nervousness and reinterpret them as excitement.

“Actually, you have the same physiological reactions when you’re excited and happy, when you have a surprise party, or when someone is proposing to you. And so we’ve shown in our research with low-income students who are being evaluated in a testing situation in high school that if we can get them to reinterpret their bodily reactions as a sign that their beating heart is shunting blood to the brain so they can think, and it’s not a sign they’re going to fall on their face, they actually perform better.”

Another of Beilock’s studies involving students and high-stakes exams found that those who spent a few minutes writing about their test anxiety got higher scores than those who didn’t. “When we’re worried, it captures our attention,” she once told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s like doing two things at once.” Jotting down the thoughts that are troubling you allows your brain to offload some mental clutter.

Find the public speaking tricks that work for you

Everyone grapples with some degree of fear about public speaking, but anyone can become a great public speaker if they make a point of doing it often enough, Beilock says. This is where programs like Toastmasters can be useful.

She is neither for nor against the use of props, presentations, jokes, making eye contact with that one person in the crowd who’s smiling and paying attention, or other techniques to help a person relax when speaking. What matters is finding the approach that makes you most confident, she believes, so that you can have faith that you’re going to get your message across. What that looks like is different for everyone.

What Zoom leaves out

Zoom can work to your advantage if the distance gives you comfort; some of us fear more involved interactions when we’re speaking to an audience. But there’s a lot Zoom leaves out that can make the whole exercise more difficult.

In that study about reading the faces of tennis players, participants were asked where they looked for signs about what the players were thinking. Roughly 80% of people claimed to be scrutinizing facial expressions. In reality, says Beilock, “it’s the body that’s sending the information.”

And that’s one reason why Beilock is eager to see the Zoom era end—because a box on a screen only shows so much, which is probably why Beilock herself says she doesn’t feel nearly as engaged giving or listening to a talk online as she does when she’s sharing a physical space with someone. “I think there are many ways in which our online experiences will go past [the pandemic],” she says. “But as a cognitive scientist who knows the power of the body and how we interact and engage with others, I worry that sometimes we are going to go too far.”