I take my place at the front of the class. Six pairs of eyes, in two rows, watch me. My heart is beating fast against my chest, but I know I must begin. So I take a deep breath – and then I am silent.
My silence is notable because I’m at a public speaking training session, and I’ve actually been told not to talk. Initially I think this sounds rather counterintuitive but my trainers Daniel Kingsley and Millie Baker explain that there is a very good reason behind it.
While most presentation skills workshops focus on details such as hand gestures and how to stand, Presence Training is first and foremost about making an authentic connection with the people you’re presenting to. The idea is to get comfortable in front of an audience, whether you’re speaking or not.
Doing it in this way, instead of worrying about what I’m going to say, means I’m free to channel all my energy into achieving an authentic connection. Daniel and Millie have instructed me to make eye contact with every person in the room. And this doesn’t simply mean looking towards each individual, but resting my eyes on their eyes long enough to actually let that person ‘see’ me.
To anyone who is nervous about the idea of standing up in front of a group to speak, letting people see the real you probably seems like the a excruciating approach. So what impact does it have?
I’ve been terrified of public speaking my whole life – I know the sweaty hands, the knocking knees, the face like a traffic cone. But with a new book out and invitations to give talks landing in my email inbox, I’ve come to realise that I need to tackle the problem head on.
To this end, I’ve been to a couple of other public speaking classes recently but what Presence offers is genuinely different. The connection-making that it advocates is called relational presence, and is really just the beginning of more in depth work around being ‘present’ when you speak.
The concept of relational presence was developed in 1989 by Lee Glickstein, but Daniel and Millie also bring a number of other influences to their work – academia, business, law, psychotherapy and non-violent communication, among other things.
In our session, everyone has a number of turns up at the front of class each – firstly being silent then later talking if they want to (the idea is that the connection is the foundation, and then you work from there). We are all nervous, to varying degrees, but each and every person throws themselves into it.
Amazingly, instead of increasing my anxiety, making sustained eye contact with the audience helps me to focus on what I’m saying, rather than what people will be thinking of me. Once I’ve let myself be ‘seen’, much of the fear seems to subside. And – incredibly – I actually have a lot of fun.
Presence Training offers training for individuals or businesses, in a variety of formats. To find out more, visit their website.