You're standing on the TED stage, feeling naked and vulnerable as they are all looking at you. So do you do it? Do you picture them naked instead?

Even though you're probably secretly donning your lucky underwear for your speech, don't try to picture your audience in theirs.

Many people attribute this advice and practice to Winston Churchill, who was, indeed, one of the best orators of our time. However, times have changed considerably and the bar has since been raised to a viral TED level for public speaking.

In theory, picturing your audience naked or in their underwear is intended to make you feel more powerful, more in control, and somehow less vulnerable on stage.

But let's face it, most of us don't present to a room full of supermodels (and if you were, would you honestly be able to speak more clearly?) The idea is pretty ridiculous.

I'm here to tell you (and Winston Churchill) why imagining your audience naked never works.

Eye contact is important.

If you are imagining the person in the front row with their clothes off, will you be able to look them in the eye? Connecting via eye contact is important during a presentation because it makes the audience feel heard and involves them in your presentation.

It's the non-verbal equivalent of saying somebody's name aloud.

You can't be fully present.

The best speakers are truly "all in" for every single presentation. They're evaluating the subtle feedback in facial expressions of the audience, feeling the power of their message welling up from within, noticing the tone of each word they deliver, and even multitasking with technology. This takes all of your focus and energy.

It's better if you are the naked one.

Well, emotionally speaking that is. Picturing your audience in the nude is generally a tactic for increasing your feelings of authority and reducing your exposure to vulnerability. Believe it or not, however, a little bit of vulnerability goes a long way.

If you mentally strip your audience of their clothes, you are reducing them to a mindless blob with no identity, which takes away from the community you are working so hard to build through your message.

But if you instead strip away your wall of perfection and share something human, suddenly you are someone they can relate to, someone for whom they can cheer. When you activate the empathy of your audience by sharing something truly authentic about yourself, that is when you rise to the level of unforgettable.

It's better to just practice instead.

The more prepared you are for your speech, the less likely your nerves will be to attack. Just knowing the content is not enough, you must practice how you will say it and hear what it sounds like. Never forget to speak your presentation out loud. And remember, it's not about memorizing every word as much as knowing your content inside and out.

Then, show up early. Familiarize yourself with the technology available, the layout of the venue, and give yourself some time to breathe. The best practice is to perform a run-through in the actual space, if possible. Make yourself a checklist beforehand and make sure you have everything you need. 

Focusing on your audience is key.

When you shift your focus from the nervous, self-conscious energy instead to shining the spotlight on building community with your words, you are not only more prepared, but your message will have more impact.

Consider: What does this audience need? Why are they here to listen to you speak? What do they care about?

This will help you to anticipate their questions ahead of time, which will also help you feel more prepared and in control.

Imagining a person naked is not only potentially degrading to them, it also builds a barrier that separates you from your audience. Don't disconnect from your audience. They are people who want to be a part of your message and need to feel included.

Stay purposeful instead.

Perhaps even more important than why the audience is there is this question: Why are you there?

If you are staring down the prospect of speaking in public, you surely have something important to share, something that has motivated you to put in the effort of showing up for this audience. You are, indeed, the expert. The message you are delivering is always best coming from you.

For your next presentation, try seeing your audience for what they probably are: a bunch of well-dressed, well-mannered, and attentive people who want you to do well.

And, please know, you absolutely don't need to peel away their clothes to peel away your fear of public speaking!

Published on: Feb 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.