I built my confidence with presenting when I was in my teens. At age 15 I was teaching Karate to students who ranged in age from five to fifty.
Since then, I have spent many hours, both in and out of work with prepared, and sometimes unprepared material. It wasn’t just this experience that gives me confidence in speaking, it was actually reading one of Geoff Thompson’s* books on self-defence that I connected stage fright, with an issue some experienced Martial Artists face in a real street encounter – they freeze.
As a result I have come up with a tip that contains just two rules;
- Don’t think
So maybe a little more detail is needed? First thing, I don’t want this post to lead you to think I’m fearless when it comes to presenting. The reason I’m so comfortable with it is because I’m aware that most of the issues that people have on this subject is not really anything to do with fear. Like anyone else, I have the flight or fight mechanism built into my body. Great for running from danger, not so great when you are attempting to play the opening chords of an opening song on stage where your hands just stop working (my friends tell it better than me, but I once had an epic fail on attempting to play Master of Puppets by Metallica).
Now there is no easy way to stop this type of thing happening, but most things I have seen or read on presenting that deal with the notion of ‘stage fright’ seem to deal with the problem in the same way – by assuming it is something to do with your confidence, or some psychological issue that causes the problem. My bet is that it's neither of these.
Let’s talk biology for a second, (please note - I’m no expert!), but in basic terms, your body prepares itself for action (to run away or fight), it does this by;
- Getting your muscles, and your heart into gear (preparation a fight or to run)
- Minimising digestion to make sure the focus is on the muscles (it’s not needed while you are fighting or running)
- Taking away blood from the brain (you don’t need to think, you need to run or fight)
So you are on a stage about to present to five hundred people, and an adrenaline dump, or ‘rush’ happens, your hands are shaking, you are sweating (you can’t run or fight, so you freeze). What do you do?
There are only two things, considering this biology that make sense;
- Don’t think; Just understand what is happening to you. Realise that you have chemical that is slowing your thought process down (your mind has gone blank because it’s supposed to). So stop thinking, if your hands are shaking, let them shake, if your voice has gone just wait.
- Prepare. If you know that you get this chemical cocktail running through you, then prepare. What works for me is ensuring I am comfortable with the structure of what I'm talking about, I personally don’t memorise word for word. As doing this means that you have to think (and that would contradict number 1!).
Okay, this seems mega simple. That’s because it should be. During the time of an intense adrenaline rush, you just can’t think straight, there are many examples of Martial Artists with years of experience that struggle in a real conflict as they are thinking about what move they should use next, they freeze, instead of using a simple, well drilled response.
As a part of your preparation, especially if presenting is a major issue for you, you may want to drill certain habits in to your mannerisms as well as stalling techniques while you wait for the surge of adrenaline to pass (so you look like you are intentionally not speaking, as opposed to looking like a cat in head lights!). I won’t go into detail here, but an example of clearing your throat and then sipping on water can give a natural five to ten seconds for your body to sort itself out, a smile, anything that doesn't involve thinking - that will lead to trouble.
Final note, "Don't think" comes first for a reason, as adrenaline can hit at any time, you might be in a meeting and your boss says "Matt, can you just take us through X, Y and Z" so you have no prep time. Make sure if the adrenaline hits - don't think.
*There are a few self-defence authors I would recommend such as Jamie O’keefe, and Dave Turton, but Geoff Thompson was where I learned on the effects of adrenaline on the body.