Want to Improve Your Public Speaking? Develop Your Awareness Skills
Practical tips to help you connect more deeply with others
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Have you ever witnessed a performer walk on stage, look out at the audience, say and do nothing, yet still captivate you?
It’s not quite true that they’re not doing anything. Whether they know it or not, they’re using their awareness to connect with the audience in a powerful way.
Here are some practical, yet hopefully novel, tips to help you level up your public speaking skills and connect more deeply in conversations.
Let yourself be coordinated by others
Picture a cat stalking a bird. Its attention, locked on the bird, is aligned with its intention to pounce upon the smaller animal. Its body, pressed against the ground with its head low, has just the right amount of muscle tension so that when the opportune moment comes, it can spring forward and, perhaps, catch the bird.
There is one important thing that the cat is not doing: it’s not consciously deciding how to do any of this. The cat isn’t coordinating itself, choosing where to put its feet or how to move its head. Everything about the cat as it sneaks up on the bird is a natural response to its desire to catch the bird. All the cat has to do is to allow itself to be coordinated.
As creatures with a powerful capacity for metacognition, we seem to find this much more difficult than the cat, which is why it’s so easy for us to get in our own way. Consider the elite baseball player who chokes at a crucial moment. It’s not because they’ve forgotten how and when to swing the bat, but that something is interfering. The batter switched from allowing themself to be coordinated by their intention to hit the ball to trying to coordinate themself to hit the ball—and failing.
Our minds and bodies are coordinated by what we attend to and what we intend to do. By learning to consciously control these aspects of your internal experience—in conversation with others, on stage, and even on camera—you can indirectly change a lot about how you are perceived and the level of connection you can create. Instead of trying to control every micro-expression, tone, and gesture, you can choose to attend to the world around you—and the people in it—and allow these things to emerge by themselves.
Let yourself be witnessed by others
When you look out at the world, what do you see? I see my laptop, ceramic coffee cups atop wooden tables, the sun setting over the Indian Ocean, and people chatting, eating, and working. It’s easy to assume that all of these are made of the same stuff—that the tables, ocean, and people are all atoms bound together in the physical forms that I see.
This is true, of course, but it’s more complicated. While the world is indeed made of all that stuff, my own subjective experience of it is not. Although there are physical correlates in my brain and nervous system, my first-person experience isn’t physical at all—instead, it’s made of sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness. This distinction holds the key to a radical shift in how you relate to others.
Your habitual way of seeing others is, probably, to treat them like trees that can hold a conversation. I don’t mean this pejoratively, but to highlight that it’s easy to forget that other people are also having an experience. The shift I’m proposing is to talk to them while remaining aware that they are having a conscious experience of you of exactly the same kind as you are of them.
There are some day-to-day moments that reveal what this contrast is like. Have you ever found yourself daydreaming, staring into space, when you suddenly realize that you’re staring at someone who is looking right back at you? The resulting shift in your consciousness is not just you coming back from “off somewhere in your head” to “present in the world,” but from “unseen” to “being witnessed by someone.”
Being aware of being seen can be challenging, though, especially considering that, as both prey animals and targets for attack by other humans for most of our evolutionary history, being witnessed by another isn’t always safe. This discomfort with being seen probably helps explain why it’s so easy to slip into seeing the world, including the people within it, as mere trees, rather than as filled with people with conscious experience.
Allowing yourself to be fully present with the experience of being seen, however challenging it may seem at first, helps create a meaningful connection with another person. You’re not talking to a collection of atoms—you’re sharing an experience with a consciousness that’s beholding you as you behold it. If you can stay aware of this dynamic while speaking, your entire system will coordinate itself differently, like taking off layers of defensive armor so you can have higher fidelity conversations.
Be in the same awareness space as your audience
Let’s say you're watching a movie with a friend and you're both engrossed in the shared experience. You notice they’ve started scrolling through their phone, and the vibe changes. While before it felt like you were both sharing the same “awareness space,” now you're alone in yours and they’re alone in theirs. The magic is gone.
The fact that there is a thing that it feels like to be in a shared awareness space with other people suggests that there's something important happening. It's more than a shared focus of attention—it's an expanded group awareness that you can slip into and out of. Whatever it is that causes this effect, you can use it to improve your speaking skills, whether one on one, in small groups, on stage, or even on camera.
Imagine you’re talking to a group of people in person, like a presentation at work. In familiar contexts like this, it’s easy to slip into a mode where you talk to only a couple of people in the room, or just to the screen.
A couple of things can happen when you do this. One is that some people in the room won’t feel involved and might start to direct their attention to something else, like their phones. If it’s more like a group conversation than a presentation, they might be more inclined to interrupt or talk over you, because they’re less attuned to when you’re available to be interrupted.
The solution is to keep everyone in the room in your awareness, i.e., to “remember” that they’re all there while speaking, even if you’re not actively making an effort to look at everyone. Like the cat being coordinated by the bird, being aware of everyone in the room coordinates you differently. It’s this change in your behavior that, in turn, coordinates others to be more present with you.
This technique also works for public speaking. The captivating performer I mentioned earlier is including the entire audience in their awareness, not just the front few rows, and they’ve trained themselves to stay relaxed while being witnessed by thousands of people at once. More traditional public speaking advice might frame this as “speak to the back of the room,” but it’s not about vocal projection—it’s about creating a shared awareness space in which everyone in the room feels included.
The same approach works when you’re talking to a camera, even if you’re recording something to be viewed later. You might think that you should be coordinated by the camera that you’re looking at, rather than by the person watching the video you’re making—the latter of which would lead to more natural behavior on your part. Unless you’re experienced, talking to a camera naturally is difficult, but it becomes easier when you keep in your awareness that you’re being witnessed by someone with an experience just like yours.
While they might not be witnessing you in the moment from your perspective, they are doing so in the moment from their perspective. It’s easy to forget this, but if you remember that you’re actually sharing an awareness space with your viewers, your gestures, expressions, and tonality are far more likely to coordinate themselves appropriately.
Be yourself by not trying to be yourself
Among the most clichéd advice when it comes to public speaking is to “just be yourself.” On the face of it, this makes sense, but the obvious follow up question is… how? I’ve rarely seen this question answered in a satisfying way. Instead, try a counterintuitive approach: don’t try to be yourself.
Think about what it’s like when you’re trying to make a good impression. You may be trying to smile more, laugh more, make more eye contact, use your hands more, or whatever it might be. These are all extra behaviors that you’re trying to layer on, requiring some level of conscious coordination from you, like a cat having to decide where to put its feet as it stalks the bird.
The net effect of this extra conscious coordination is to take you away from the direct experience of the person in front of you. Sure, you might achieve your goal of smiling more, but the net effect might be that you come across unnaturally or, more confusingly, “inauthentically.”
Who you are is whatever naturally emerges in whatever context you’re in when you’re not trying to impose a particular version of yourself on yourself. The trick is to get out of the way of that natural emergence: notice the moments when you’re trying to be a certain way—and stop doing that.
This is qualitatively different from trying to be a certain way. What I’m suggesting is noticing something you’re already doing, and then ceasing to do it. (I wrote about the subtleties of how to do this in a previous essay if you’d like to explore further.)
Pay attention to what happens with your attention and intention when speaking. Do you maintain a clear, but gentle, attention on the person you’re talking to? Do you wish them well? The VIEW framework is also helpful: can you talk to someone from a state of Vulnerability, Impartiality, Empathy and Wonder? Cultivating skill in these areas will change how you relate to others in a way that is still naturally, authentically you.
This way of relating to being yourself is a long-term practice and not something that you do all at once. It’s a journey of self-discovery through patient curiosity to see what aspects of you emerge in different times and places, and with different people. It’s not always easy, but in my experience, it’s worth it.
If you want to dig deeper, I teach an affordable self-paced online course on the Alexander Technique, with a module on speaking skills. (That’s an affiliate link for Every, by the way, and if you’d rather not click it, here’s a non-affiliate link.) You can also ask me questions on Twitter.