Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Managing Fears and Anxieties

Feeling some pangs of anxiety? It’s helpful to understand how fear affects us physically. Derived from the Greek word for almond, the amygdala sits in the brain's medial temporal lobe, a few inches from either ear. The amydgala fires off circuits when it senses you are in danger and alerts the body to flee, fight or freeze. Physical reactions may range from an accelerated heart-beat to shaky knees or a dry mouth. These are natural and involuntary reactions that are wired into our animal brain.

After the first involuntary response, you can effectively manage and minimize nervousness by your expectations of the situation, your self-image (self-appreciation) and your self-talk. Interpret any physical discomfort as normal. Do not exaggerate by saying to yourself, “I’ll never live through this.” Chill out for 10-15 seconds allowing signals from the amydagala to reach the cortex where you can make a rational decision instead of an emotional one to the current situation. Fear will diminish as you objectively observe what is going on in your body such as increased pulse or perspiration.

You may instinctively react by taking shallow, frequent breaths. This creates tension in the muscles in your upper gastrointestinal tract, which can irritate your stomach. If you are truly upset, those muscles start to “flutter” – hence the expression – butterflies in your stomach - making you feel queasy.

Begin slow deep breathing. Normally, the brain uses one-fourth of the blood supply. In stressful situations, the blood rushes to our muscles and the brain is shortchanged. We can’t think well, ad-lib, be funny or creative. A conscious choice of “circle breathing” or “heart breathing” is a great way to switch off the stress hormones and get back to normal. Just before you’re introduced, practice deep breathing and see the calming breath going to any parts of the body that feel tense – neck, back, jaws, etc.

Be relaxed but stay alert. We’re not trying to achieve total relaxation. We would be devoid of energy; you want some adrenaline flowing. You're working for relaxed alertness, ready to respond and adapt to the audience.

Get more sleep. The amydgala are triggered more frequently and react in a stronger fashion when we are fragmented or fatigued, especially if you fly to a different time-zone. Your body will be more responsive if you schedule a massage and relax instead of last minute cramming.

Focus on the audience and your objective. John Aylward, veteran stage and television actor, says that he doesn’t experience stage fright as he is concentrating on the task at hand. He doesn’t have time to allow negative thoughts to intrude. Think about creative ways of calling up images in the audience’s mind and your mind won’t be capable of indulging in past negative memories or predicting future failures.

Your biggest fear should be of boring the audience. Would you like to hear yourself speak? Are you fun to watch? Do you entertain as well as inform your audience? Is your information useful? Say to yourself, “I’ll never bore my audience again!” Get your audience involved, discovering, laughing, thinking, and understanding. You will be so centered on your goal and enjoying yourself, your fears will diminish and your self- confidence increase.

"I have been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I have never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do" … Georgia O'Keefe, artist

Books: The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience by Carmine Gallo. Learn how Steve Jobs electrifies his audiences with his incomparable style and showmanship. He tells a story, paints a picture and shares a vision. You will find lots of ideas to apply to your next presentation.

Website: This is the best site on the web to watch the best and brightest speakers in the world. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. Speakers are usually limited to 18 minutes and many break every speaking rule you’ve learned. But their information is so compelling and they are so charismatic, you will be mesmerized. Do keep going back to analyze their styles of delivery and see what you can adapt to your presentation style.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Facing Your Public Speaking Fears

An executive client called to say, “I’m so nervous about my upcoming presentation. I’m afraid I’ll shake or do something embarrassing. I don’t want to make a fool of myself by forgetting what I intend to say. What if the audience thinks I’m incompetent or it’s a waste of their time?” He paused, and said almost to himself,” My job may be in jeopardy.”

The phone caller expressed a common concern. Sometimes my prospective clients are disappointed I’ve no magic wand. There are times when a presenter will be uncomfortable or even rejected when speaking in public. Your slides may be mixed up or the computer could shut down. You can have a humiliating introduction like the emcee who said my client had achieved a lot considering she was going through her second divorce. It took discipline to smile and stand up to speak after that.

Embarrassment did not stop General David Petraeus when he collapsed during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and his head fell forward on the table. His aides quickly escorted him from the room. Twenty-five minutes later the General returned, grinning sheepishly, and told the committee that he "got a little bit lightheaded there.” He even interjected some humor, adding, “It wasn't Senator McCain's question." He said he was prepared to continue. However, the meeting was adjourned and the General walked briskly from the room. Who knows if it was fatigue, not eating, or the stress of the tough questioning from Congress on the drawdown of Afghanistan forces? Was it an embarrassing, uncomfortable situation with videos replaying his fainting again and again? You bet. It comes with the territory. You get up and go forward.

Hopefully, you will never experience something as extreme as General Petraeus’ collapse in front of the world but things happen. People will text in your audience or take mental vacations. Being embarrassed or nervous, even when your job is in the balance, shouldn’t prevent you from being a compelling communicator unless you fall prey to the Critic and Doubter in your head. When the thought comes that maybe you can’t pull off the presentation, renew your determination to connect with the audience and get your message across. Believe in yourself and the worth of your ideas. Be confident that if you keep going, the nervousness will subside and you will feel more comfortable.

Gradually, you'll be able to be more objective and even have a sense of humor about the faux pas, like the General. Besides, such situations always make for great stories in the future.