As we move into the New Year it is a good time to make plans… I didn’t say resolutions. Resolutions don’t always work. But you can plan how you can improve your presentations and get exercise. I know it is a win-win. Here is a section from my new book, Strategic Communications in Public Speaking.
The best way to help manage your nervous energy and create better focus prior to your speech is through relaxation techniques. It doesn’t matter what activity you choose. When anxiety grips you, find a quiet place. Begin to dissipate some of your extra energy by taking a walk, or jumping up and down and shaking your hands. Then take three long, slow breaths to feel centered. Use the rest of the energy to fuel your presentation with strength and vitality.
Another way to promote a more calm, controlled and confident presence is to make relaxation or meditation practices part of your everyday life. It might mean reading your favourite book, going to an exercise class or just practicing feeling peaceful, happy, or excited about your life. You will learn you can choose and control your emotional state, and with a little practice, you’ll soon be able to consciously impact your speech by injecting your emotions. This will help your audience feel as passionate about your topic as you are.
By now you understand your fear and how to create and build presentations. This gives you knowledge; knowledge is powerful and reduces anxiety, because you understand what is happening, you now know how to control and use it. The next step is to create new and positive experiences using rehearsal and practice. You will create your own routine or rituals that can calm your body and reduce your nervousness. Routines and rituals also create muscle memory for speaking in front of an audience. Muscle memory is memory for tasks or activities that are stored in your muscles and brain. It’s like riding a bicycle. When someone first rides, they will likely experience difficulty with balance, however, after riding several times one could discover they can take their hands off the handlebars – these are memories that help you become very good at something through repetition and also teach your body what to expect. When you know what to expect, you are less nervous. This is why rehearsal and practice are so important. For instance, every time I play the piano, I warm up first. I play long tones, scales, vibrato exercises, etc. I don’t really know how or why, but I believe that these warm-ups improve my subsequent practice sessions and have long-term benefits to my technique. But I certainly don’t have any scientific papers to establish these facts; as far as I’m concerned, it’s wisdom taught to me by my teacher. That’s good. The purpose of this ritual is to apply wisdom that has been accumulated over however-many generations.
The essence of a ritual is in the order it imposes in our chaotic lives. For instance, if you want to marry someone, you might be confused about how to propose – I know I would be nervous. I would worry about all the details, about any little thing that might go wrong. Luckily, there’s a standard format for a proposal that everyone knows. You drop down on one knee, and ask, “Will you marry me?” Above and beyond that, you add your personality.
Adding ritual and rehearsal to your speaking process will make you a more powerful and less anxious speaker. Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago, found that working memory, housed in the prefrontal cortex, is what allows us to organize our thoughts and reason through a situation. When we are in a stressful situation or we perceive stress, the pre-frontal cortex shuts down because it has a limited capacity. Sometimes, presenters will get in front of a group and worry the presentation is not going to go well. As a result, they can become obsessed with those thoughts that take up all of their pre-frontal cortex capacity. So what is the solution?
I believe in rehearsal and deep breathing, but Sian has some excellent suggestions:
• Writing your worries down may seem as though it would make you think about them more. It doesn’t. Writing down worries for 10 minutes before your presentation releases your anxiety.
• Retrain yourself to see your reactions differently. Your beating heart doesn’t mean you are about to fail, but that you are ready to go.
• It is all about how you interpret your reactions. If you interpret your clammy hands as a bad reaction, you are more likely to perform badly, and your pre-frontal cortex will shut down.
Sian’s study shows that proper preparation – taking the time to understand your audience and rehearsing your speech – can reduce nervousness up to 75 per cent. You’ll also be able to structure the content of your presentation so that it’s relevant and culturally sensitive. Start to think about your rituals or routines that would work for you.
Two weeks before your presentation, find out about:
• Your audience.
• Developing your intent.
• Deciding what is the best method to structure your presentation.
• Creating your open and close.
• Rehearsing the presentation and making any necessary adjustments
The week before your presentation or speech:
• Work on your deep breathing exercises and practicing tongue twisters every day.
• Practice, practice, practice.
• Make any revisions and alterations to your presentation.
• Make notes on index cards instead of paper to avoid shaking them.
• Memorize your opening and closing.
• Do your vocal exercises – warm up with a poem or a tongue twister.
• Record yourself delivering your speech. This is an amazing tool and so easy to do. You can use a camera, iPad, even a phone. Recording gives you amazing feedback, but be gentle on yourself – it can be hard to look at yourself on camera.
• Get enough rest, and eat a small healthy meal a few hours before your presentation and exercise.
Day of Presentation:
• Get some exercise. This will reduce the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ and adrenalin running throughout your body.
• Practice your presentation during the exercise.
• Do your vocal exercises and warm up with a poem or a tongue twister.
One hour before your presentation:
• Triple check everything including your notes, checking the audio-visual equipment and speaking to any organizers.
• Drink some non-caffeinated tea to relax your body and throat.
• Bring an mp3 player and listen to a song that relaxes you. Take a quick stroll outside. Begin to take deep and slow breaths. Close your eyes and visually walk through your presentation. Imagine the audience responding and think about the goal of your speech, and concentrate on how great the presentation will be.
• Speak to other presenters or audience members to feel more comfortable.
• Prepare to speak. Take a small sip of air, exhale and begin to speak on the next inhalation of breath.
• Wait for the audience to settle. Count to three and start your presentation.
If anxiety strikes during your presentation:
• Slow down and breathe.
• Remember the audience is likely not going to notice if you take a moment to control it.
• If you are twitching or suffering from trembling legs, move casually or slightly lean on the podium.
• Look at people you know in the room, or the friendliest audience members and make eye contact.
It is important that any routine or ritual you create include exercise. Take a walk, run or go to the gym; this will use up some of the adrenalin in your blood stream. And at the same time you can practice your presentation; aloud, not in your head if you feel like it. Remember you want the adrenalin – just not too much.
You now have all the tools to control your fear and anxiety. Don’t wait, start your practice, work on your breathing and begin creating your rituals or routines now!