Public Speaking: Why we fear it and 7 tips on how to dispel presentation nerves.

If you’ve always enjoyed stress-free public speaking then I am very happy for you and you can stop reading right here. This is for those of us who’ve been crippled by the fear of public speaking and no amount of supportive advice and good will seems to help.

This week I gave a presentation to 300 people; no butterflies in my stomach, no dry mouth, no sweaty palms, but it wasn’t always like that.

I used to be a mess; caught in the grip of “Fight or Flight”. That annoying vestige of our million year evolution. What wild animals practice every day: the instant choice of stand your ground or run. An essential survival instinct that modern western life has allowed us to forget about, until of course we’re confronted by something like facing 100s of faces staring back at us! Then our brains kick in with fight or flight. The rush of adrenaline, racing heart, a stiffness in our muscles, bowels ready to evacuate, dry mouth, flop sweat and those darn butterflies are all biological outcomes of our sub cortex stuck in a loop of fight or run, while our neo cortex where conscious thought sits is saying: “Damn it, why can’t I just get up on that stage and do it!?”

Unfortunately, just knowing about fight or flight is not enough to cure ourselves of it. The sub cortex (and specifically the Amygdala) is where memory, decision making, and emotional reactions sit, but not language. Language sits in our neo cortex. So simply telling yourself not to stress, or other people telling you it’s not so bad speaks to the wrong part of our brain. To fix this you have to rewrite your own story.

That’s enough for the neurology! The fix is psychology.

I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the notion of “Cognitive Dissonance” and how we humans strive for internal consistency. Our brains are constantly re-writing our life story in the name of consistency. We do it every day and we’re practically hard-wired to fight against opposition to it.

A gambler can believe with 100% certainty he has an innate talent for wining blackjack or roulette even when the facts are that randomness is at play, and he’s losing money. This isn’t simply lying to oneself. The gambler is taking each new piece of information and his brain is rewriting it to avoid the dissonance of a clash. Every time he wins the gambler will add that memory into his internal assertion that he is skilled. Whenever he loses his brain will adjust the new information in one of two ways; forgetting it or qualifying it. A loss is suddenly blamed on an assumed external factor: someone distracted me, I wasn’t told all the information, I was feeling under the weather, somebody cheated. A million excuses, so that the information is dumped or devalued as inconsistent. This can also be referred to as “Confirmation Bias”, where we have a bias for any new data that backs up our own world view.

There’s a reason why law enforcement don’t like depending upon eyewitness statements, it’s because our brains keep picking, discarding, and making up facts to bring new information into line with our world view.

It’s not just gamblers. We’re all doing it. Ask us how we think of ourselves in our most intimate thoughts and we may say smart, funny, kind, thoughtful, selfless, calm, wise and that’s our internal story of ourselves. But is it a story written with 100% unbiased facts? Or do we discard all the thoughts and deeds that bring into question that story? When confronted by someone saying,: “Actually you’re kind of selfish, you make more mistakes than you think, and have you noticed you’re the only one laughing at your jokes?”  …well, we get offended, and we discard that opinion as crackpot.

So what does this have to do with my dumb brain making me need to go to the bathroom 30 seconds before I go on stage?

Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias work to reinforce your personal story, not just the good stories, the bad ones too. You will not be aware you are doing it. You have amassed a list of memories that convince you you’re no good at presenting. Every forgotten line in a school play, every snigger in class as you read an assignment aloud, every silence after a joke told kept and filed as evidence you’re terrible at presenting. Meanwhile, every pat on the back and every bit of praise from people who’ve seen you present has been discarded, written off, forgotten.

So you’re going to have to rewrite that story. Here’s how I do it:

  1. Practice. Practice. Practice. Not alone but in front of people out loud. Just start with one person, and for the last time you can tell them to expect it to be terrible. Guess what? At the end they’re going to give you some feedback to improve, and they’re going to tell you it wasn’t nearly as terrible as you had suggested. Grab that feedback, and don’t forget that comment that it wasn’t so bad. Repeat. Move to two people, three, six. Whoever you can get your hands on, colleagues, friends, family, anybody. And stop telling them it’s going to be terrible, you’re only allowed to say that the first time.
  2. Banish negative words. ‘Stress’, ‘worry’, ‘clumsy’, ‘forgetful’, whatever words you use to describe your stress or to describe your perceived inadequacies, they’re all banned. Somebody asks you if you’re feeling stressed? You answer “no”; regardless of how you feel. This might sound crazy but trust me, every time you vocalise these fears your brain is happily adding the experience to your life story! Stop the reinforcement, and if you’re presenting with other people who are talking about their fear then avoid them or tell them to stop reinforcing it too, fear is contagious.
  3. Smile. I mean a lot, and when you’re feeling most frightened then grin the hardest. I’m amazed at how much this helps me, and how it can dispel presentation anxiety in seconds. I’ll grin for a few minutes before jumping on stage and feel much happier when I do it. There have been several studies in the last decade on the power of smiling to reduce stress; and there is a feedback loop (JD Laird, 1974), where smiling makes your brain more open to happy thoughts and you smile more. There’s plenty of writing on smiling like The untapped power of smiling and The science of smiling.
  4. Keep praise. Print it out, post it on your wall. When you get praise make sure it is kept where your brain is not allowed to dispel it. Positive reinforcement, you’re using confirmation bias for a positive effect not a negative one.
  5. Be comfortable with doing your best. You do not have to operate at Martin Luther King jr presentation levels. Your best is good enough.
  6. Be comfortable with making mistakes. You’re human so you will make them. The beauty of presentations is the only person in the room who knows what “right” sounds like is you. Everyone else is going to be happy with whatever they get. Forget a line? No one is going to notice except you; and there’s no need to broadcast your mistakes, no need to swear, exclaim “whoops!” or insert any other words to identify a break in continuity to your audience. They don’t need to know.
  7. Be patient with yourself. While I’d love to say this is a quick fix, true success comes from repetition.

In my second year of “nerve-free presenting” I am happy to say that the story is rewritten in my brain. My confirmation bias now works the right way, I keep the good news stories and discard the negative ones. Gaining confidence becomes automatic.

Good luck!

People Don’t Buy What You Do, They Buy Why You Do It

In this TED video from September 2009 Simon Sinek gives a fascinating overview of how so many companies and leaders make a fundamental error in focussing on the what rather than the why.

He considers how the why speaks directly to our Limbic brain (the sub-cortex) which is responsible for learning, memory, emotion and motivation but not language. This is the part of our brain which leads to our “gut feel” or when we say we are “led by our heart”. Conversely, the what triggers our neo-cortex, our language centre and the home of conscious thought where we can process great amounts of complex information but fail to ever feel compelled to act on it.

To make his point he offers examples as diverse as why the Wright Brothers managed to invent a flying machine without a college education; how Martin Luther King Jr got 250,000 Americans to hear him speak on the 23rd of August 1963; and the success of Apple, a simple computer company who has us all in love with the why they “Think Different”.

Titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, the topic is relevant to both how to motivate your team and also your customers.

Plain Talking

These days there’s not a lot of call for plain talking. So I actively practice my ‘exec-speak’.

I make sure low hanging fruit gets cherry picked when deep diving and blue skying outside the box. I don’t get on my high horse or try to flog it when it’s dead like a bull in a china shop; and I certainly don’t look it in the mouth in case it tries to bite the hand that feeds it.

I try to push the envelope with my wheels in motion, and my plates spinning as I get the inside track on the ground floor with my irons in the fire and my ducks in a row, they’re certainly hatched so I’ll be counting them, but in more than one basket, if you catch my drift?

Adept at the full court press, I come out swinging, with the gloves off and my fingers in the pies. When it’s the bottom of the ninth and you’re on a sticky wicket, about to strike out or hit for six, I’m not going to be pulling any punches or throwing towels in.

There’s an elephant in the room but I know how to eat it. If you need a shark who can roll up his sleeves like a fox rather than an ostrich, who fights his corner and gets a hole in one before it all goes to the dogs, then this lone wolf is your 800lb gorilla.

So reach out soon, and we can take this offline. After all, throwing the baby out with the stones in a glass house won’t gather much moss. You have to make sure it washes its face before you cut its nose off. I’m not one to walk on eggshells like everything is peaches and gravy, but I will make lemonade.

I’m green lighting this grey area before we all see red.

At the end of the day, it’s not my first rodeo.

Will We Be A Speedboat Or An Oil Tanker?

I’ve heard more than one new leader tell their team why their business needs to be a speedboat and not an oil tanker. Agile, fast, reactive and responsive rather than heavy, awkward, hard to steer, slow to change and slow to start. It’s not a bad metaphor if all you want is to highlight the merits of agility over inertia.

The speedboat however isn’t for me. There are many qualities of a speedboat I don’t like and I can’t put aside. They don’t have room for a lot of people, unless you’re very very rich. The person driving the speedboat rarely needs any expertise or qualifications, In fact as speedboats can have almost no indicators and simple controls most people think they can grab the wheel without any practice at all, which scares me silly. They’re not very suited for long journeys and they’re far from comfortable in rough seas or bad weather. In fact the worse the weather the more exposed and vulnerable you’ll be. And they can whiz round all day long making a lot of noise and waves without actually getting you anywhere.

But I don’t want to work on the Exxon Valdez either.

I want to work on a battleship. The running and maintenance of a battleship has several attributes that a business could mirror to be more effective.

  1. Expertise is essential. Not just the captain, but every man and woman aboard needs to be well trained to perform their role. The bridge of this boat has many systems and indicators, which all need to be interpreted accurately. There is no place for guesswork here.
  2. Don’t panic. Decisions need be informed and best taken without emotion or panic. Panicking does not only slow down reaction time and effectiveness, it’s also contagious and can spread quickly. People tend not to panic when they are skilled at what they do.
  3. Command and control. Every crew member is expected to know their role and perform it to the best of their abilities. Because the hierarchy is clear and every crew member understands thier position in the organisation, orders are relayed to the right destination and actioned.  Because crew members are clear on what is expected of them they take pride in the execution of their duties.
  4. The ability to avoid icebergs. Information needs to be relayed down through the organisation quickly, accurately, to the right destination and people. If that fails you’re sunk. Equally, information needs to be relayed upwards with the same accuracy and efficiency. The bridge’s ability to make correct tactical decisions relies entirely on factual and relevant information received in good time. Everyone understands the danger from the distorting of messages and instructions, or ‘Chinese whispers’.
  5. It’s about teamwork. There may be one captain but the boat can not function without many men and women on the bridge to help steer it and everyone throughout the boat working together. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s about knowing your role, but it’s also about helping the colleague next to you and recognizing that they needed the help. In other words, you’re only as strong as your weakest link so look out for your shipmates.
  6. Target the enemy. I’ve had plenty of experience watching businesses try to take on multiple issues or competitors at the same time with limited resources. A battleship can not fire in four directions at once. It’s a sure way to use all your ammo and hit nothing. So an effective battleship positions itself in relation to a single foe and directs all its fire on that target until it achieves success. And this is possible thanks to good communication where all the crew know what and where the target is.
  7. Built to endure. This boat can take its share of bad weather and enemies’ attacks. It can be months at sea, and still support a large crew of men and women. It can follow a predetermined course, with specific destinations to ensure time to refuel and restock; and maybe a little R&R. But this is not a boat for recreation, it has a purpose, a direction, and a goal.
  8. Fight like your life depends on it. You’re on a warship, this isn’t a game. Everyone on the boat pulls together as I’ve mentioned above: they apply their skills expertly and ‘man their station’, they communicate clearly and calmly, and action the orders they receive, they help each other out and work together to achieve a common goal.  When times are tough they put everything into it, and they demand that of all their fellow crew members.

OK. You’ve probably guessed that I’ve never been in the Navy! But I did see the film last year, and I was quite impressed with a 50 year old battleship with pre-digital systems and a steam engine engaging 3 alien ships that had come from 100s of light years away with advanced technology superior enough to keep the rest of the US Pacific fleet at bay, kicking their asses and saving the world. So there has to be a lesson in there somewhere.

I’ve professed a love for metaphors before. If anyone out there actually has worked on a warship and wants to correct or add to this one, all feedback gratefully received.