Our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative clues and threats in the environment. This is also true in the context of public speaking, especially for speakers who may experience social anxiety.
In a recent study, participants – some low in social anxiety, some high – were asked to give a three-minute impromptu speech over Skype to an audience shown onscreen. What the participants didn’t know is that the audience was made up of actors who produced facial expressions and body movements on purpose. In fact, their positive (smiles and nods), negative (frowns and yawns) or neutral expressions had been recorded earlier and were shown to the participants as they spoke. The researchers tracked the participants’ eye movements as they gave their speeches, recorded their physical anxiety via sweating and heart rate, and asked them to rate how anxious they felt.
It turned out that speakers with higher social anxiety showed a preference for looking at negative audience members, which fueled their anxiety even more. In contrast, people with low social anxiety chose to look at positive, engaged audience members.
To calm your nerves, it may be worthwhile to pick out some friendly faces in the audience and deliberately pause there longer as your eyes scan the room.
Better yet, meet some of your audience members in advance of your speech, perhaps, by greeting them as they enter the room. You will feel more support from the audience that way.
Virtual platforms and networks offer another way to get to know your audience prior to your presentation.