There is something about giving presentations that creates a particular sense of dread and fear. For some of us it is all consuming and we run away. For others it is manageable but at considerable personal expense. So are there are any inalienable reasons why we find presenting our thoughts, feelings and ideas to others so stressful?
I want to consider three proposals.
- Each of our needs must be fulfilled in a specific way.
- Every specific effect has a specific cause.
- Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Taking first things first: -
Needs and fulfilment
Why is it that we humans want to share our thoughts and experiences with others? It is a simple question but the answer is anything but plain. It presupposes that each of us will at some time or another have something novel to say or at least we hope that we do. When we have experienced something new we want to tell other people for two main reasons. First, to check if what we have discovered is really new and second to gain some appreciation of our worth as a contributor of new knowledge and understanding. Both of these desires are strong, we are born with them and this never disappears. These desires are founded upon our need to feel worthy and in turn be appreciated and hence needed by our families, friends, tribe, team, company or country. This need to belong is primitive and potent and is one of the main social traits that have allowed us, a relatively puny animal, to become the dominant large life form on this planet. Without this need to fit in and feel worthy society and civilisation would not exist. How might you ask, does this bear any relation to you the nervous presenter?
To be really useful you must do some of the work here and really engage with a hypothetical scenario; really try to be there. Feel free to substitute your own scenario if that works better for you. You have been told by your boss that you are to present to an audience of 200 or more well-informed intelligent people who are expert in your particular business sector. You have gone through the exercise of assessing your audience; who they are and their backgrounds and depth of experience. Now, does the thought of presenting to them intrigue you or threaten you? Are you inspired or intimidated? Are you informed enough to present or do you think of yourself as ignorant compared with the audience? If you are intrigued, inspired and informed then you are ready to rock and roll and should go straight to the next post in the Winning them over series. However, if you feel threatened, intimidated or ignorant to any degree then please read on!
If you are feeling unequal to this presentation challenge, the anxiety triggered within you stems from a fear of not being good enough, not being able to impress, not being able to join in and be counted as an equal with the audience. Let me tell you right now – WE ALL FEEL THIS TO SOME DEGREE AND IT IS COMPLETELY NORMAL AND HEALTHY! The context however is crucial. Someone who is in complete charge of themselves in one situation can be crippled with worry in others. For example, I can be completely at ease presenting to a thousand people on certain scientific subjects but full of nerves in other situations when presenting to just a few. When I investigated this further I saw that it all comes down to one question about me and that is, “Do I know enough to appear convincing enough as an expert, for after all I have been invited to inform an audience?” I needed my expertise as a kind of shield to protect me from embarrassing questions that could show my weakness and hence lack of worth. Until relatively recently I did not understand what was going on inside me and why I was so worried. After careful reflection I found the answer to be simple and I want to share it with you.
What we like to think of as our advanced skills and behaviours that allow us to operate in our highly complex world are in fact primitive. The context in which we live has changed but we still operate with our primitive range of emotional tools driven by the amygdala a small portion of our brain that creates emotional drive. Lucky for us evolution also gave us a large cortex and pre-frontal lobes that moderate our emotions. Using this primitive but highly adaptive brain we have rebranded our ancient skills to answer ever changing demands and situations but nevertheless we are stuck in what is an emotional Stone Age.
That said, what are we really doing when we move from one situation to another? In one place we are very comfortable but when we move to another it all changes in unpredictable and possibly scary ways. It is akin to going hunting in a well-known area then because the food has dwindled we travel further afield into unknown and potentially dangerous territory. In this new place our senses are heightened and our adrenalin courses through our veins ready for fight or flight. In our imagination every twig snapping is a lion coming to eat us or an enemy to kill us. The tension builds to the point where even when we see our quarry clearly our hands are shaking so much we cannot hit the target and we go home hungry. See yourself speaking to this big audience of people who you want desperately to understand and accept your message but because of your nerves and inability to deliver properly they simply just don’t get it and leave empty handed. You have missed your quarry and now you are running home from the head hunters who think that you are an idiot, your credibility is shot to pieces and perhaps your job is on the line and your house and marriage. WHOOOOOOAH THERE ONE STEP BACK PLEASE! See what I mean about primitive fears? The situations may be separated by millennia but the experience is just the same.
Now you might think this is too far-fetched for you and your modern situation but in reality your physical body has changed very little over the last million years so why do you presume that the most fundamental of our emotional and intellectual capacities have evolved to a greater extent. There have been insufficient generations born in the interim for new capabilities to arrive and bed in to our genome; our social behaviours have evolved but our bodies have not caught up yet.
When it came to me I found this simple realisation at once enlightening and comforting, not because it alters my physiological and emotional responses to stress but I did at least understand where it all stemmed from. There was a reason for how I felt and becoming aware of it was my first step to managing my stress symptoms when they arrived. Of course self-awareness alone is not the entire answer and I will speak more of this later but let us return to your presentation and your stress.
You now understand that we are all subject to our fight or flight response (and a damn good thing too as there are times when we need it). However, you were also born with deep intelligence and self-knowledge. You have the power to choose whether you will be crippled by the fear of stressful situations or alternatively you will utilise the adrenalin for superlative performance.
This section began with Need and Fulfilment and there are two sides to this equation one for you and one for the audience. If you deal with your needs and fulfilment first it is almost inevitable that the audience will have their needs satisfied. You want to be counted as someone worthy. So, start behaving like one and others will perceive you in that light.
Every effect has a specific cause
It is highly likely that given sufficient time the majority of your audience would eventually learn what you want them to know, all by themselves without your intervention. However, this will be a slow process rather like a slow burning chemical reaction. But now think of yourself as a powerful catalyst for your audience so that when you release your high energy trigger you set off a fast breeder chain reaction in them. They start to think things that they did not think before they came to hear you. They will do things that they had not planned to do before they listened to you. They will tell others and their actions will involve others and so on…….. You have power and influence in your hands as a gift to give them.
You are a detonator setting off a massive explosion. The detonator is small in comparison with the main charge but it injects very high energy, sufficient to set the whole thing off. What does this tell you? It tells you that you do not need to be bigger or know more than your audience. All that you have to do is be that high energy catalyst and package your knowledge in a new way. You have to drop just one or two high energy thoughts into their minds and they will do all the rest. The bang may be immediate or it may be days, weeks or even years later but the explosion will happen. The only question left is what kind of catalyst do you need to be to set off this particular type of audience? What information and messages must you present and in what format must you deliver it? This thought should move you from, “can I do it” to “how do I do it?” Once you realise that this is the role you need to play, take a few moments to reflect. This one realisation may be enough to reset your emotional balance. If not let’s do more to help.
From where does your fear of presenting spring? I know exactly where mine comes from. I am four years old and it is my first day at school. I was a few days late starting because I seem to remember I was ill. I walked into the classroom and all the kids were dressed in aprons to protect their clothes from the poster paints they were using. Every face turned to mine and I felt like an interloper, a newbie. Somehow I felt that they already knew something that I did not and I felt excluded. Wow! Can it be that such early experiences embed themselves so deeply that they resonate for decades? Yes, the earliest experiences we have in our childhoods create a set of core assumptions about others and ourselves that control our behaviour. I had absolutely no reason to think that the kids thought anything about me other than, “who is that interesting new kid?” I had created a perception of them and made an unwarranted assumption. I then spent much of my early life finding ways to reinforce those assumptions. Luckily I also managed to balance this less than helpful assumption with some other really positive ones. It was much later in life that I took the time to investigate my personal bedrock assumptions and see them for what they are. The simple act of looking back as non-judgmentally as possible was cathartic. I could not change my history nor want to but I can look upon it in a new way that helps me view myself differently, more gently and less destructively. Once I was able to do this it is remarkable how much pressure it released. I am still self critical but in a much more constructive way, always looking for the good, always trying to find wisdom out of life’s experiences. I no longer see the yin and yang of success and failure. I see only my path to deeper and more rewarding understanding and what springs from it. It is interesting that if I know and learn more about myself and others and I enjoy doing it then my performance and achievement seems to go up without even trying.
Please take the time to indulge yourself in this process, to support yourself and be the most authentic person you can be. Investigate your core non-negotiable life values and live by them. To be strong at your core creates self-worth, self-worth generates confidence and this in turn creates an aura of wisdom around you that people yearn for. You do not need to be old in order to be wise, you must however know yourself first.
So, here you are, you know and accept yourself simply for who and what you are. You know your subject and you know your strengths and your limitations. It must feel like standing on a firm foundation when others around you are balancing on unsteady ground hoping that they can hold on to people like you for guidance. Now be the catalyst. The only question remaining is what kind of catalyst and that depends on presentation style a subject of a later post?
What can presenters learn from sport?
Top sportsmen and women know how to perform. They know that adrenalin is their fuel of choice and that if they feel flat before a performance they will lose. So, why is it that when faced with the challenge of presenting we try to suppress the very thing that will make us great. Those of you who read my Blog regularly will know that apart from being an academic scientist I am also a kayak coach. I assist good kayakers to improve their paddling technique. Our sport all about technique which is complex involving the entire body and considerable psychological input to success. Done well it requires the smooth connection of a number of complex physical motions. Pursuing the perfect stroke is addictive and can be really aggravating if it doesn’t come together; not unlike presentation. We paddlers are obsessive about getting technique correct. There are two things I have discovered whilst I have been a kayak coach. The first is that much of what works as a coach on the water also works well in other parts of life including business. The second is that when a particular element of someone’s stroke is not working for them it is always something occurring earlier that is the problem.
We have already discovered that trepidation about giving presentations is more to do with our childhood experiences than it is to do with the present day. Now we can see that treating the signs and symptoms are not the answer. We have to determine the underlying causes and deal with them. For example, if your hand always shakes so that the laser pointer looks likes a demented firefly the answer is not to hold it with two hands, it is to investigate why you are shaking and that may be much more deeply rooted than at first sight. If your voice is croaky and your mouth dry taking a drink of water will help there and then but the next talk will be much the same. Investigate whether or not some much earlier events in life placed you in stressful situations where you might have been shouted down or your opinion denigrated regularly. If that happens now as an adult when you present, your subconscious is dragging you back to that earlier experience and telling you, “Remember your opinions are always worthless why should this time be any different?” Then you might hear that other voice that tells you to, “Grow up and get this job done”. Where do these voices come from? The first voice is your remembered child and the second is the amalgamated voice of parent, siblings, teachers, bullies all telling you what they want of you. No wonder you are nervous, all of these imaginary voices of authority are sitting in your audience testing you. So, what can you do with these voices? The first thing to realise is that they are not really you; they are psychological constructs and not real.
Your remembered child voice is the voice of all of those historical assumptions you have created. It can be thought of as your frightened shouty child. How would you react to a real frightened child in your presence? Yes you would comfort them, tell them that you understand why they are frightened and that everything will be OK. At the risk of sounding too flaky for me the hard-nosed scientist, be nicer to yourself you deserve it. What, you have to learn is to dance in the moment and do that all the time. This child voice is your history and history cannot be changed but your present can. Tell yourself you are prepared and that it is going to be fine. You have the power to change but this can only be done in the moment, right NOW.
What of the second voice? Well how do you like being told what to do? I tend to sulk and say to myself “I’m an adult I should not be spoken to like that”. Just like the child voice, this is actually external and is a psychological construct that is not really you. This voice will always use the “you” pronoun. Telling you that, “you must” or “you should” do something or not do something. For me life changed when I chose to hear this voice in a new way. I listened to it more like it was a concerned friend who had their own insecurities but they were voicing them on my behalf. Now I hear their instructions more as interesting suggestions rather than commands. Once I did this it freed me to behave as a mature adult and consider each life event in the moment. I now ask myself questions about how I wish to proceed based on my own real experience and shape my actions in real time. I now stand on an even firmer foundation upon which I live my life. This attitude has exercised its effects in every part of my life not just professional and has enriched me immensely.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction
What is it you want your audience to do when they leave the room? You want them to think differently, if only a little, you want them to behave differently, if only a little and you want them to feel differently, if only a little. Small can be good. When you present being your authentic self your actions will create a positive reaction from your audience.
I must now break my own rule and propel you into your future. I am going to use the first person so that you are in control of what is now your story.
It is six months ahead and I am about to give a talk to an audience of 20. I know exactly who I am, how I came to be who I am and why I am here. I have identified my core non-negotiable values and I live and act according to them. I stand in front of this audience having studied them and what they need from me. I have prepared my thoughts, messages and materials with care and precision. I know that what I am going to say is important. I believe that I bring my audiences gifts that move them forwards towards where they wish to be. I immerse myself in this vision, indulge myself in the power of the relationship I have with this audience. My presentation is a sensation and I am the catalyst of this change, YES ME!
If you believe this, truly believe it of yourself it will become your truth.
Remember, you are whole, healthy and of unlimited potential. You are the only barrier to releasing it all.