Critique of Toastmasters video: “Managing Fear”

Have you ever stood in front of an audience and felt so nervous that you couldn’t remember what you wanted to say?

I’m sure you’ve been nervous about speaking in public

I bet you can relate to that feeling, and even if you’ve never felt exactly that way, I’m sure you’ve been nervous about speaking in public. (I have, for sure!)

Because so many people can relate to that question, and it’s emotionally charged, it’d make a great opening line for a talk on public speaking.

In fact, it is the opening line for the 3½-minute Toastmasters video below. At least, you could say it’s the opening line – or you might argue it’s not.

More on that shortly, but 1st, why not watch the video and make up your own mind?

(If you like, notice what you think are the video’s strong and weak points. Then, see how your thoughts compare with my evaluation in the rest of this post.)

 

3 reasons I like the video

When I first watched that video, I was enthralled – for 3 reasons:

  • The speaker has a beaming smile, which is the first thing we see of her, and which she shows often.
  • She uses one of the widest ranges of facial expressions I’ve ever seen in a non-fiction video, which comes across as infectious passion for her topic.
  • Lastly, let’s accept that looking good (and so comfortable on camera) doesn’t hurt!

 

What can we learn?

In this post, I evaluate 8 aspects of the speaker’s presentation (and the whole video) as being either a strong, dubious or weak feature of the talk:

  1. Strong: Smiles warmly and often
  2. Strong: Uses great body language
  3. Strong: Uses a clear, 3-part structure
  4. Weak: Doesn’t focus on techniques
  5. Dubious: Opens by introducing herself
  6. Dubious: Breaks eye contact
  7. Dubious: Wastes time on causes
  8. Dubious: Wastes time on symptoms

Also in this post:

So let’s dig in

 

1.   Strong: Smiles warmly and oftenScroll up to Contents ↑

Smiling tells people convincingly that you’re pleased to be there

One of the most striking things about the video is how often and how warmly the speaker (Jennifer) smiles. Smiling tells people convincingly that you’re pleased to be there, so they subconsciously draw 3 conclusions:

  • You’re confident. (Which makes your audience feel you’ve faith in your message. In turn, that tempts them to have faith in it too.)
  • You like your audience. (And mirror neurons in their brains make them want to like you in return.)
  • You’ve nothing to hide. (Which means people can trust you, and are more likely to do what you ask.)

What great benefits you get, then, just from smiling! So, consider all these times Jennifer smiled, and you could too:

  • Smile before you start.
  • Smile about a positive experience.
  • Smile to reassure people.
  • Smile to emphasise a benefit.
  • Smile when you pause.

Joining Toast-masters is a great way to practise, so you get comfortable

If you’re very nervous, at first smiling can seem unnatural. But joining Toastmasters is a great way to practise, so you get comfortable with smiling in your speeches and presentations.

Although you mightn’t feel like smiling when you’re nervous, it not only helps you bond with your audience, it makes you feel better, too!

Of course, at times it could be tactless to smile, which is always a judgement call you’ll need to make. After all, even when speaking at a funeral, you might smile at times (such as when sharing a fond memory of your late aunt’s life).

That leads me to one criticism of the video: Given that she was talking about people’s fears and bad experiences, Jennifer probably smiled too much. For instance, she smiled after saying:

1:32 “Let’s move on to how the physical symptoms of
          fear manifest themselves.”

If your smile jars with how people feel, you can drive them away

The point is that because smiling can convey emotion so strongly, if you use it to support positive feelings, you can form a close bond with your audience. And by the same token, if your smile jars with how people feel, you can drive them away.

2.   Strong: Uses great body languageScroll up to Contents ↑

I love how Jennifer used such varied facial expressions and gestures

I love how Jennifer used such varied facial expressions and gestures, which were also so natural. To me, they came across as passion for her topic, and great confidence. Together, those traits (along with smiling) convey strong belief in the content, and trustworthiness, which are both highly persuasive.

Here’s a list of 20+ examples she used. Which of them could you use in your talks? (Click a time to watch the video from that point.)

  1.    0:08 Nod.
  2.    0:10 Raise your eyebrows.
  3.    0:12 Shake your head.
  4.    0:15 Tilt your head.
  5.    0:25 Slightly twist your shoulders.
  6.    0:31 Turn your head a little and look straight ahead.
  7.    0:38 Screw your nose up.
  8.    0:51 Consciously shift your weight – but not as a nervous habit!
  9.    0:53 Almost close your eyes.
  10.    1:02 Look skywards.
  11.    1:09 Widen your eyes for emphasis.
  12.    1:16 Gesture with an open hand.
  13.    1:32 Blink slowly or close your eyes.
  14.    1:33 Put your hand on your hip.
  15.    1:56 Cross your arms briefly, like to show you’re pleased with yourself
                – rarely, or when acting out a character.
  16.    2:01 Bend your knees.
  17.    2:14 Raise your forefinger, like to mean “wait” or “watch out”.
  18.    2:15 Pound your fists.
  19.    2:18 Pinch the air to mean something brief or small.
  20.    2:19 Sweep with your hand to indicate completeness.
  21.    2:19 Beckon from side to side to show time passing.
  22.    2:34 Point softly at your audience (with your thumb at right angles to your
               forefinger) to mean “one more thing”.
  23.    2:38 Gesture as though placing an object.
  24.    2:48 Spread your arms.
  25.    2:50 Spread your fingers.

It also helps to rest your arms by your sides at times

Mind you, it also helps to rest your arms by your sides at times, when you’re not making a specific gesture (and there were lots of times when Jennifer seemed to rest her arms). That has 3 related benefits:

  • Your gestures stand out more as a result.
  • You’re less likely to use repetitive, “low-value” gestures. (That’s similar to the way pausing reduces your use of “low-value” sounds – like “so”, “um” and “ah”.)
  • You avoid looking like you can’t stand still (which would come across as nervousness).

I must admit, I’d like to make better use of facial expressions and body language in my presentations and other talks. So there’s loads to learn from how Jennifer does it!

 

3.   Strong: Uses a clear, 3-part structureScroll up to Contents ↑

I found 2 aspects of its structure highly effective

As you’ll see in the next few sections, I believe the video’s structure gives too little weight to tips you can actually use. All the same, I found 2 aspects of its structure highly effective:

  • It’s divided into 3 parts, which is a classic way to use the Rule of 3.
  • Each part begins by showing a “section slide” (like shown below). Using slides to “signpost” your structure like that is a huge help, because a clear structure gives people strong insight into your message.
  • section-slide

 

4.   Weak: Doesn’t focus on techniquesScroll up to Contents ↑

With any how-to video like this (especially on YouTube), the audience wants to solve a specific problem, and they want to solve it quickly. So the video should be highly oriented towards solutions to the audience’s problem.

No techniques are mentioned until over ½-way through

That’s why I say the video’s weakest aspect is spending less than ½ its time looking at techniques you can use. And what’s more, no techniques are mentioned until over ½-way through, rather than some being brought up near the start. As a result, you have to wait until 2:01 for the 1st technique.

(Looking for techniques yourself? See my own tips for managing fear.)

 

5.   Dubious: Opens by introducing herselfScroll up to Contents ↑

Strictly speaking, the video’s opening line is these 3 words:

“Hello, I’m Jennifer.”

The good thing about that is it’s extremely short, but it does weaken the “you”-focused question I mentioned right at the start, which she says straight after:

“Have you ever stood in front of an audience and felt so nervous…?”

To me, in a short-form video, a better way to introduce the speaker is to show their name in an on-screen caption, while they’re saying something else.

It’d probably be best to leave out the name altogether

In fact, just finding out her 1st name doesn’t add much value. So it’d probably be best to leave out the name altogether in this case.

Either way, as a result you get 2 benefits:

  • Most importantly, much more power goes to your talk’s opening line. (In this case, I mean the line “Have you ever…?”)
  • No time’s wasted. (And in online video, every second counts!)

Actually, I’ve a suggestion below for a much more powerful opening line.

 

6.   Dubious: Breaks eye contactScroll up to Contents ↑

In the video, the downside of the many facial expressions Jennifer uses is that she quite often breaks eye contact, in 3 different ways:

  • Briefly closing her eyes (or blinking slowly).
  • Looking down diagonally.
  • Most noticeably, looking up.

In a video like this, rock-solid eye contact’s vital

In a face-to-face speech, breaking eye contact as briefly as she does wouldn’t matter. But in a video like this, rock-solid eye contact’s vital because the audience sees your eyes so clearly. (For more on that, watch just 90 seconds of this video by Nancy Duarte (from 5:17) – up to 6:47.)

Like to see some evidence? If so, try this sequence, where Jennifer briefly breaks eye contact 7 times in 38 seconds – more than once every 6 seconds:

  1.    2:37 Looks down and to our right
  2.    2:40 Looks up
  3.    2:44 Looks down and to our right
  4.    2:49 Looks up
  5.    2:56 Closes her eyes
  6.    3:05 Looks down and to our left
  7.    3:15 Looks up

 

7.   Dubious: Wastes time on causesScroll up to Contents ↑

Earlier, I mentioned that the video doesn’t focus on techniques. Now, in this section and the next, I’ll dive deeper into what the video does instead, and suggest some specific tips for your own talks and videos.

From 0:47 to 1:23, the video spends about 30 seconds (or one seventh of its length) discussing anxiety’s triggers, or causes.

If you’re a nervous speaker, you doubtless know the triggers

I don’t think that’s helpful. After all, if you’re a nervous speaker, you doubtless know the triggers all too well. And worse, thinking about them makes you focus more on your fear, which could increase it!

That’s especially true because Jennifer’s such a good speaker, which highlights how far nervous speakers have yet to go to reach her standard.

The video mentions all these fears:

0:57 “…not knowing what to expect from an
          event or a situation can be stressful.”

1:06 “Another trigger? The thought of failing!”

1:15 “…worrying about what people think of you or your speech
          is one of the greatest anxiety-producing fears of all.”

I think it’d be better to just touch on 1 or 2 of those, near the start of the clip.

And better yet:

It’d wow people if the speaker
talked about a time she felt nervous.

That way, her audience of anxious speakers would identify with her far more strongly, so they’d tune into and learn from her message much more keenly.

For instance, for her opening, she might say:

“Have you ever stood in front of an audience and felt so nervous that you couldn’t remember what you wanted to say? [Pause]

I have. I was auditioning for drama school, in front of some of the best teachers in the country, performing a piece I’d written myself.

And I was terrified of being judged!”

Showing you’re vulnerable like that is a potent way to connect

Showing you’re vulnerable like that is a potent way to connect with your audience.

8.   Dubious: Wastes time on symptomsScroll up to Contents ↑

It’s wasteful and even counter-productive to spend much time on the symptoms

Just like discussing what triggers nerves, to me it’s wasteful and even counterproductive to spend much time on the symptoms, which the video did for another 30 seconds or so (from 1:23 to 1:51).

Again, nervous speakers know the symptoms inside out, and hearing about them doesn’t help to overcome them.

Jennifer asked:

1:36 “Did you know that for some people, anxiety causes a rapid
          heartbeat or queasy stomach, sweating and dry-mouth?”

What did you think when you heard (or read) that sentence? My 1st thought was:

“Of course I knew that! Who doesn’t?

Your audience is likely to feel you’re talking down to them

Naturally, if you state the obvious (even in a rhetorical question), your audience is likely to feel you’re talking down to them. That’s certainly how I felt when Jennifer asked about the symptoms of nerves.

Thankfully, in an empathetic way she then said:

“The good news is none of these symptoms are serious…
they are common and manageable.”

You could say that’s obvious too, but I felt Jennifer was just reassuring us, and I didn’t feel it was condescending. How about you?

 

What do you think of the video?Scroll up to Contents ↑

That brings us to the end of my evaluation, but I’d love to hear your views, so please comment below to join in.

  • Do you agree with my appraisal?
  • Which do you think are the video’s strong and weak points?

 

Related postsScroll up to Contents ↑

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4 thoughts on “Critique of Toastmasters video: “Managing Fear”

  1. Thanks for sharing this video and I think all your comments were bang on. The first thing I thought of when Jennifer started speaking was: Teleprompter! The second thing I thought is they didn’t need to mention what Toastmasters does. For me, maybe because I’m used to videos about the topic, it seemed a bit slow. But I agree that she could’ve gotten to her tips a lot sooner.

    • Thanks for contributing, Carl. (Given that you’ve got hundreds of videos on YouTube, yours is an expert opinion!)

      I wonder, what made you think “teleprompter”?

      That’s a good point about mentioning what Toastmasters does. To me, it makes sense to put that near the end of the video, for people who don’t know about Toastmasters. Having it at the start puts the focus on the speaker and her org, rather than on the viewer and their needs.

  2. Hi Craig, this is an excellent review. It’s also very timely, as I am coordinating a SpeechCraft program now that has an online video component. It also ties in well since I am sponsoring a Toastmasters club in my office, which is on the other side of the country; hence I usually attend via video. I just did my first speech on video last week, and it was a different experience. So, these comments of yours are very useful! Thanks for posting!

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