Acting "As If" You Are A Good Public Speaker

Last weekend, I went to see two of my favorite musicians, Marc Cohn and Suzanne Vega, play a nearly sold-out concert at New York City’s Town Hall. (Okay, so I’m not the most musically hip guy in the world.)

Marc Cohn (“Walking in Memphis”) opened the show with a powerful set that engaged the entire audience. The audience clapped along, laughed at his jokes, and was reverentially hushed during the quiet moments.

Marc Cohn’s Cover of John Lennon’s “Look At Me” (Video is no longer available.)

Unfortunately, Suzanne Vega (“Luka,” “Tom’s Diner”) had the opposite effect on the audience.

She seemed uncomfortable from the first moment she got on stage. She barely acknowledged the audience, rarely glanced at her band mates, and made no eye contact with her back-up singer (who happened to be her daughter).

In between most songs, she mustered only a small bow and said, “thanks.” The one time she told a story, a genuinely funny tale about her mother’s late cat, she undercut the humor by apologizing for telling the story yet again (most of the audience, I’m guessing, had never heard it). I felt awful for her as I watched close to half the audience walk out during her set.

Suzanne Vega’s (I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May (Video is no longer available.)

Ms. Vega’s apparent discomfort transferred to the audience, making the audience feel uncomfortable –and that same phenomenon is true with public speakers everywhere. So what should you do if you’re an uncomfortable public speaker?

Try using the psychological approach of “acting as if.” According to psychologists Jon Carlson and Len Sperry in their 1998 paper in The Handbook of Constructive Therapies: Innovative Approaches From Leading Practitioners:

“When someone has difficulty acting prosocially, that is, speaking assertively or responding with some measure of empathy, the clinician might encourage [him or her] to act “as if” they were assertive or empathic several times a day until the next session. The rationale for this reconstruction strategy is that as someone begins to act differently and to feel differently, they become a different person.”

In other words, acting “as if” means that if you act as if you’re a confident speaker long enough, you will actually become a more confident speaker over time. So picture yourself as the most confident speaker you can imagine, and try acting the part until it becomes authentically you.

Related: How To Write The Perfect Speech Introduction

Related: Verbal White Space: The Importance of Pausing