A hilltop in twilight. Snow on the ground. Dog walkers hurrying home. And me, on a soapbox, talking into a megaphone that refuses to work. If you’ve ever Zoomed, you know the problem: I’m on mute. Of course, many people don’t Zoom. Even after months of lockdown, they’d just rather not. And I don’t blame them (you?), because just turning up – at least the first time – feels risky, exposing. A bit like walking on stage; or if not quite that then it’s like sitting in the audience at a panto when the house lights flood the stalls and performers scan the seats for a “volunteer”.
That, to a newcomer, is what Zoom feels like. (Or any other web-conferencing app.) For most of us, it gets more comfortable as we learn to do it more effectively – perhaps even fairly quickly – but first you have to go through the awkward, disorientating early stages, in which you find yourself looking directly up the nostrils of somebody on another continent.
Zoom has changed a lot, but it hasn’t changed the fact that public speaking is generally regarded as terrifying. Studies show that for many people it’s more frightening than death itself. The first study, in 1973, was flawed, but subsequent studies have tended to find similar results, again and again.
The fear is primal, because for most of history if you had lots of eyeballs on you, it meant you were about to be gobbled up. For thousands of years, hardly anyone knew what it felt like to be stared at, and listened to, by large groups of others.
Today we’re all public speakers – at least in theory. An audience of billions waits to hear us, on every social-media platform. And it’s not as if we lack things to say: just listen to yourself, muttering at the TV, YouTube videos, this newspaper. And yet… mostly we keep it to ourselves, because evolution hasn’t kept pace with technology. Forget global audiences of strangers, most of us dread speaking even to a small gathering of friends and family. I certainly did, until I had spoken publicly often enough for all my greatest fears to have come true. Happily, I see that each of these mishaps prepared me well for Zoom.
My fears were not particularly unusual. What if nobody turns up? Will I stumble and fall on my way across the stage to the mic? What can I say that hasn’t been said already? Does the audience hate people like me, for some reason? What if I forget what I meant to say? What if somebody asks a question I can’t answer? Will I say something offensive? What if people walk out? What if I find myself onstage with my flies undone?
Just reading those questions is enough to set hearts racing, beads of sweat congealing on cold foreheads. (Sit down. Take three deep breaths.)
I should probably say that I have had some good experiences, speaking on four continents to as many as 5,000 people at once (most often about my book How To Change The World); and received invigorating plaudits, lest you conclude that I must be the worst speaker of all time. But the talks that stick in my mind are the disasters.
Of the list above, the only one that hasn’t happened yet is speaking with my zip down – but that’s only because somebody kindly pointed it out as I prepared to go onstage. It’s also the only one that isn’t likely to be a problem on Zoom, where people routinely wear pyjama trousers (apparently).
What about the other fears? Well, literally nobody attended a lecture on creativity that I gave at a fashionable London venue 10 years ago, because the hosts had entirely forgotten to include it in their marketing. I sat and waited for 45 minutes, near the front, with a frozen smile of “I’m fine about this”, then slunk home. Much worse was the event that sold just one ticket and had to be cancelled. I was crushed. I urge you to remember this, next time you sign up for an online event with no intention of attending.
I was once telephoned while cooking dinner to learn my audience was waiting for me at a venue 30 minutes distant
In a neat reversal, I was once telephoned while cooking dinner to learn my audience was waiting for me at a venue 30 minutes distant: I had no record of being informed about the event until that moment, but dashed off to give it my best. It was a talk about improvisation. I apologised for my lateness and amazingly this satisfied them. I need hardly say that speakers might just as easily arrive late for an online talk.
The stumbling as I walked to the mic? That happened at school. School audiences aren’t forgiving. (This is a specimen of what we rhetoricians call litotes, meaning comic understatement.) “Shame!” they chanted in the playground afterwards. “Shame! Shame!” (And that’s the rule of three. See also Tony Blair’s “Education, Education, Education.”)
As for having nothing new to say… In 2014 I was flown to Mexico to speak at a massive conference and watched several much better-known speakers before me say more or less everything I had planned to say. After much thought, I decided to improvise again, saying that I’d like to hear what the audience thought of the conference so far and inviting dozens onstage to interact. I didn’t know it then, but this was excellent training for Zoom, because interaction is the best way to keep the audience’s attention.
It was in Belfast that I met the audience that hated people like me. I was “a wanker from London”, said the most outspoken among them, but it wasn’t all bad because despite this unhappy circumstance I turned out in the end, he announced, to be “all right”. Happy day! But it was painful, in the early part of my talk, to feel myself the focus of so much contempt. (Rhetoricians: this anecdote may possibly be a specimen of that fashionable rhetorical novelty, the humblebrag – which itself is an oxymoron.) What relevance does this experience have to Zoom? Today, you can be plunged instantly into a far-flung audience that regards you as, er, exotic. For tips on how to stop fretting about what they think of you, keep reading.
My greatest fear had always been forgetting what to say. You might think I would take the trouble to learn my talks by heart. But I never did, because you always speak to a specific audience, at a particular time; and there is always something to amend – to throw in, or abandon. If you keep exactly to a script you might as well record it on video and send that instead. So, yes, I sometimes forgot what I wanted to say. But it was never a big deal – a part of my brain knew perfectly well that I didn’t need it and conspired to make me forget it. Nervous speakers, take note.
Questions to which I don’t know the answer turned out to be no problem: I quickly learned to say, “I don’t know, can I get back to you?” But in Sheffield, in 2018, I stepped onstage only to hear a forceful objection from a man in the large audience. He was holding a microphone, left over from the previous Q&A, and used it to demand that I be pushed back (if necessary) to another day, so that the Q&A might continue. That was awkward.
While I was speaking at a large company, half the audience walked out. Not all at once but gradually, in ones and twos. Ouch. I made a decision, when the first people left, that I should not ignore them. Politely – without sarcasm – I said goodbye, and thank you for coming. But I couldn’t keep saying that again and again and again. Eventually I said, “There may be others who decide to leave at some point. To save wasting the time of those who remain, I’d like to thank you all, in advance, for having stayed as long as you did.” And from then on, we all pretended to ignore the people who walked out.
On the train home, I felt sick. I must be totally useless. Desperate for reassurance, I got off the train and phoned a friend who does similar work. She was in the middle of a dinner party, but took the call outside. “No, I’ve never had that happen,” she said. Oh, the shame.
Next morning, feeling like a condemned man, I telephoned the woman who had hired me to speak at her firm. I was surprised to hear her apologise for the poor quality of my audience the day before – as if it had been her fault.
I’d like to pretend I can laugh about all my speaking failures. Tell you they made me stronger. Well, they probably did make me stronger. But nobody wants to experience this kind of thing. For most people, happily, including my friend at the dinner party, it will never happen.
But hard lessons can (eventually) also be liberating. Another time, two people in a single audience described me as both “brilliant” and “an arrogant twat”. It’s worth pausing for a moment to think about this, because they both saw the same person make the same speech. I realised, with the force of revelation, that their assessment said less about me than it did about them.
Only by getting in front of people often enough – in person and online – have I learned that I have no control over what they think of me. And that, to be clear, is a good thing. It means I’m free to say what I want to say. If people don’t like it – well, to fret about that is like fretting about bad weather or traffic lights. If they do like it, I may be wasting my time, merely preaching to the converted. From Pericles to Zoom, there have only ever been two motives for public speech: to shake the audience out of its complacency or to reassure. If you only ever do one of those, people will lose interest. If you switch between them you’ll probably fail occasionally – but hey, you’ll succeed occasionally, too.
Like everybody, I miss real-life encounters, and I kind of hate Zoom. But I also believe it’s better in some ways. It brings…