Adrian Furnham in the Sunday Times recently highlighted the need these days for leaders/business people in organisations and politicians to be able to give great memorable speeches. Now Mr Furnham touches on all the main points of presenting, speech making and creating a lasting impression. So pointless us going through those aspects again. However, all of these learned abilities and skills are all well and good, but what if your knees are knocking together, palms perspiring and mouth is as arid as sandpaper, then what? Nerves, stress and performance anxiety are all aspects the budding and even the experienced presenter may want to overcome at some point. Though how? Why do people feel so debilitated with a “brain freeze”, the shakes, or blind panic of presenting or speech making? Well hopefully we can touch on a few points to help the process along.
Some research a while ago in the US suggested that presenting in front of people was a fate worse than death. Although it all depends upon how the question was asked. Nevertheless, public speaking is scary to most of us, I am sure you will agree. Rehearsing, preparing and creating a mental image of successful outcomes are all great ideas, along with checking out the place you are presenting so that there are no surprises. However, if you have done all of that and you still feel like you just can’t face the stage then read on.
Fight, Flight, Freeze & Flock
Now this is a well known evolutionary theory states that animals (and us humans) react to threats with a discharge of the sympathetic nervous system that primes us to flee or fight out the threat. Clearly when presenting we are technically not under threat – or are we? Needless to say, it may well be imprudent to run from the stage screaming as a career move, so we are left to slug it out. Under the increasing limbic threat, stress & anxiety build up creating all manner of altered behaviours and emotional states. The threat is clearly not from a Sabre Toothed Tiger any more but more now toward our identity or perhaps how our peers and colleagues may perceive us as a result of a wobbly voice or a puce perspiring face. We may unknowingly feel a poor performance will impact upon our promotion prospects, or even livelihood in some way, thus creating the threat response. Ultimately we cannot differentiate between actual and imagined threat it gets the same treatment in terms of our reaction to it.
Of course our limbic system has a very powerful reaction to our sense of being threatened. If we feel that we are in danger, of any kind, the limbic system sounds the alarm bells and our body is immediately put on high alert. We are physically prepared to “fight or flight” and we instantly have an enormous amount of energy available to us to either run away from danger, attack it head on, or if we don’t know what to do to “freeze” and hope it goes away. All these things are not helpful when giving a presentation I am sure you will agree. Though with adrenaline pumping through your system and as it can’t be used up though running or fighting it has to go somewhere, so makes your heart beat faster, skin perspire, eyes widen, mouth dry, nausea etc etc. With all that kicking off in your system you are a small human time bomb just waiting to go pop!
As we get older more “threats” are added to memory and of course we may well have had a bad experience of presenting or something similar in the past to aid a short cut to our nonconscious reactions to what is probably an innocuous event. So the mere mention about a presentation will spark up the belief that it will be bad and there is a drive to run away, whilst experiencing the doubts about self, may feel nauseous, emotional (angry, sad, embarrassed etc) or may change behaviour to something unusual for the person concerned.
So what can be done?
In some ways knowing it’s there and working on it is a positive way forward. We may need to view the “threat” in a different way and not put so much pressure on ourselves to perform brilliantly all of the time. Our perception of brilliant is different to others of course but knowing where to improve helps to focus upon your strengths. So here a few ideas you may like to consider to stop them knees a knocking.
- Create a compelling narrative, write a story that is easily engaged with and understood by the audience. Feeling at ease with your material will help you relax and allow the material to flow better. A story flows better and you can knit lots of information into an easily remembered tale that will potentially help your memory and avoid the brain freeze.
- Rationalise and objectify the “threat”. Is it really something you are a slave to that will guarantee a catastrophe or flat spin of an emotional meltdown? How useful are all this misplaced emotions to the thought of the presentation? You will nervous but because you care about it and want to do you best. So no unrealistic demands just rational and objective thoughts about what you need to learn or do to achieve a great speech of presentation. Have a look at this short article that explains the ABC model of cognitive behavioural coaching that may help put things into perspective.
Of course these are just two of the many issues around managing your nerves whilst or approaching a presentation or speech. You may need support from a coach or a mentor or even a training course to help you and your team along the road toward powerful and engaging presentations. Perhaps even the Toastmasters are a great place to try out new skills and hidden talents.
Though whatever you decide, rest assured the threat may not be as real as we understand it to be, and understand that you are going down a well trodden path of managing that pesky limbic system that hasn’t quite caught up with the 21st century life. So take a deep breath and jump in you never know you might even get to like it.