When You’re Giving a Speech, You Don’t Look Nearly as Nervous as You Feel

a child with long hair standing in front of a microphone and holding their arms above their head in a victorious pose
Image by Brisbane City Council / CC BY

Public speaking has always made me nervous.

This typically comes as a surprise to people, as I’ve done an awful lot of it in my life. I started pretty young, as a lector at my church. Later I would act in plays and compete in Lincoln-Douglas debate.

After I studied to become a psychological researcher, I would go on to present research findings at professional conferences. Due to that background, I went on to manage a team of trainers at a psychological consulting firm. And as part of that job, I would deliver trainings myself to employees at a variety of companies in corporate America.

This was an awful lot of high-stakes public speaking.

And of course, I do a fair amount of public speaking to this day as an author and a coach.

It doesn’t happen every time, but even with all of the practice, sometimes I still get nervous. Really nervous. Even if I’m not mentally worried, I’ll sometimes find my body shaking when I’m standing in front of a room of strangers. My voice will quaver. My legs will feel weak.

But one simple principle helps me more than anything when I find myself in that position: The illusion of transparency.

The Illusion of Transparency

When I’m nervous giving a presentation, my biggest worry is that everyone can tell. And that they’ll interpret my nerves as a sign that I’m incompetent and shouldn’t be up there. That they’ll think I’m a terrible speaker, stop listening to me, or even worse — become disruptive.

Illusion of transparency is a cognitive bias by which people overestimate others’ ability to accurately read their emotional state. And for me, it’s a common part of public speaking.

When I’m standing up giving a speech and I’m feeling nervous, it’s very easy to assume that the audience can tell. But that’s not what research shows at all. Instead, studies have shown that people believe that their public-speaking nerves are much more apparent to audiences than they actually are.

Unfortunately, worry that an audience can detect your nervousness can make a speaker nervous, leading to a vicious cycle where they become progressively more nervous, affecting their speech performance.

Yikes. Well, that’s no good.

So what should you do about it?

Thankfully, it’s pretty simple. Those same studies show that simply being aware of the phenomenon will actually make you more confident and stem the worst of its effects.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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