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90% of all people who need to appear before an audience complain about feeling nervous and the inability to overcome those emotions before going on stage.
If we mapped this anxiety onto a graph, we’d see that it grows steadily from the minute you find out about the forthcoming event to its highest point a second before you are due to go on stage. Lots of public speakers report that the anxiety then subsides as soon as you say your first words, and as you get closer to the end a feeling of calm does usually take over – as long as nothing unexpected happens. The problem of course, is that the unexpected often does happen: someone makes a sarcastic comment, or asks an embarrassing question, or maybe the mic malfunctions – at any such moment the tide of adrenalin comes rushing back in and suddenly you’re back in anxiety’s clutches. So what can you do when the unexpected strikes and an attack of the nerves starts to actually impede your performance? It’s really important to get this right, because if the first impression of you is of an anxious, nervous person, it could really get in the way of the message you’re trying to get across to the audience. You’ll never eliminate nerves altogether (and wouldn’t necessarily want to) – the key is to take the sting out of the ‘peak anxiety’ moments.
A while back my partners and I used to publish a magazine called “Business Presentation” and one edition was dedicated to overcoming anxiety. We contacted a number of top specialists from therapists and psychiatrists to schoolteachers and businessmen. We asked how they overcame anxiety and the replies ranged from taking calming pills and valerian root to a “take charge” approach of “I don’t care that I’m scared, I’m going to be scared no matter what I do, so I’m going to go and speak!”
Anxiety is the healthy reaction of a human body and brain to a physical threat or stress factor. Nature very wisely programmed us to be scared when we are faced with danger – and if she hadn’t, then the human race wouldn’t have survived, and you wouldn’t be sat here reading this today.
First and foremost, anxiety evolved to help us stay safe – and its main way of doing this is by making us inclined towards nervousness and taking precautions to avoid dangerous situations. “Be careful”, “go slower”, “don’t go in there” – these are just some of the messages that the anxiety producing part of our brain fires at us whenever we’re doing something even a little bit risky. Unfortunately, to really hammer the message home, our bodies also go through a whole variety of unpleasant physical effects – sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, racing heart, that sick feeling in the pit of our stomach – and it is these that can cause difficulties for a poor public speaker.
Nature wants us to think that public speaking is a dangerous activity and to a certain extent it’s true. Over the course of many millennia of social evolution, some people have got to the point where they can actually stand alone in front of hundreds of people quite comfortably while explaining and persuading their audience of something. But their natural ‘inner self’ is always in a state of shock at being asked to make themselves so vulnerable to so many potentially hostile strangers at the same time. In effect, from the point of view of our evolved emotional system, which developed over centuries to function as a highly sensitive early warning system – being on stage is like being in an extremely exposed location, with the potential of attack from any direction. Although the rational part of our mind knows we are perfectly safe and that the most threatening thing around us is the fish paste in the lunchtime sandwiches, our emotional mind is not listening – and constant anxiety is the result.
As useful as all this is when we actually are in a dangerous environment, we need to understand that outside of these situations anxiety can become a serious physical constraint on our lives – and impediment to achieving the success we want.
The key thing to remember is that although anxiety exists to get us away from danger, by firing a burst of adrenalin that gets us running before the threat has time to ‘get’ us – there is actually always a second option. If a big angry dog is attacking you, you can run away from it – and most people probably will, but you do also have the option of running towards the dog and attacking it first… Ultimately, this is the best way to handle stress and anxiety – lean into it, go with it – and don’t let it ever put you off your plan to get where you want to.
When you come out on to the stage and see all those people waiting for you to speak, your anxious self could very well lead you to shuffling out with your head down and mumbling “hello… I would… like to …maybe… if that’s OK… share with you what our company has done in the last quarter…”. If that happens, the nerves have already won. So instead, what you need to do is stride purposefully on to the stage as if you own it – and are by far the biggest, most confident and competent person in the room. Your walk is purposeful; your glance at the audience is the satisfied glance of a conqueror, not a shy schoolgirl. Your face expresses kindness and friendliness because a strong and confident person is always friendly. You then greet the audience warmly, articulating every word clearly – knowing as you do that each word is valuable and demands attention. All your willpower and effort should be brought together in creating this impression. I call this: flexing the “audacity muscle.”
After making his film “Shall we Dance?”, Richard Gere said: “I’m a bad dancer but a good pretender. So it was easy for me to pretend that I could dance.”
This attitude can work for anyone. You might not be the tallest, strongest or most competent and coherent speaker – but you can always pretend that you are! And the great miracle if you pretend well enough, is that it starts to be true!
Some people ask me – how can I believe myself while I’m doing this, when I know I’m not really that super confident a person. My answer is always the same: you don’t have to believe it, the public has to! It’s also important to remember that our anxious tendency also means we usually have a far too pessimistic view of ourselves – so you really don’t know how good you can get at this until you try.
Although the human brain is a very, very complex thing, scientific research over the past few decades has revealed more and more about how it works – and one of the most interesting concepts to come out of all this research is the idea of our minds containing two elements which are almost in conflict – the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’. Put very simply, the animal side of our nature focuses on the immediate fulfillment of animal urges and pleasures – food, sleep, warmth, relaxation etc… These are “bodily pleasures” which come effortlessly and are usually achieved in the short term. For example to drink a pint of beer, you only need to raise it to your lips, to eat a cookie you just need to reach into the bag, and to watch TV on a sofa you needn’t do anything at all, because the remote changes the channels for you. These pleasures are what I call “freebies”. On the other hand, there are those fully human pleasures that come only when a person faces and overcomes a complex challenge – often after sustained effort over time. The biggest of these challenges of all of course, is to overcome your own animal nature.
By overcoming our inner animal voice, with its “I don’t want tos”, “I cants”, “I’m not going tos” our human side receives a great deal of pleasure. This pleasure comes from obtaining one’s rational goals – from overcoming something that just yesterday seemed undoable, and over time it can be as motivating and addictive as any of the ‘animal’ pleasures.
Professional sport is built on this principal – an athlete is told every day that the success he has achieved so far is not his limit – he can always do better. He takes pleasure from his accomplishment but is already looking to improve and get to the next one. Investment banking and business are built on this drive too – most of us might think that after making a few million a person would put it all in a bank, quit his job and live stress-free on the interest, but in fact many businessmen and investors always want to go further – expand the business, open new stores etc., reach another goal. The same goes for writers – it’s very rare to see a novelist write one successful book and then just sit back and live on the proceeds.
When an athlete, writer or businessman realizes that they can’t go on being productive at the rate that they used to or that there are no more worlds to conquer, they can start to speak publicly and will again regain the pleasure of overcoming obstacles.
There is always a natural resistance to doing something out of the ordinary. In my opinion, anyone who can walk out on stage, utter their first words and receive their first applause deserves huge respect for having fought off the siren call of anxiety pulling them away from all that ‘danger’ and enticing them with the safe prospect of staying on the couch with a beer and the TV for company. This person has genuinely started out on a journey of self-improvement, and will make progress with every little step from here on in. Of course, it’s still not going to be easy – and some degree of anxiety will always be present. I am yet to meet a person who when giving a presentation, or a speech at a wedding or a lecture to students felt nothing in the process, no excitement, no panic, no anxiety. That is simply impossible, because speaking publicly is a big deal and is not part of our everyday life routine.
The key thing is not to go down the road of suppressing your anxiety or medicating it away to a trance-like state of serenity. Instead, I suggest that you learn to harness that nervous energy and use it to “push the pendulum” from a state of discomfort to a state of excitement. It’s when you do this that you will start to get to the human pleasure of public speaking. I know lots of people who get a huge amount of pleasure out of every public appearance they make. And if they were told that they never had to speak publicly again, they wouldn’t be relieved – they would be devastated.