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Tag Archives: Calm Under Pressure

Swim to the Deep End!

Thirty minutes into a challenging indoor cycling class when I was “seeing Elvis,” the instructor said, “If you have anything left in the tank, turn the tension up one more time.”  At that moment I had an epiphany:  the human body is capable of much more than the mind allows.  Once we push past the mental barrier that yells, “I can’t! It’s too hard!,” we find that we are stronger, smarter, and open to new possibilities.   Medal-winning athletes know this, and so do successful speakers.

When you are about to stand up and speak, what’s going through your mind?  Odds are it’s something like, “Let me just get through this without embarrassment,” or “Please don’t let me trip on the electrical cord.”  Chances are that you are not thinking, “I can’t wait to take a risk and really put myself out there.”

This blog post is an invitation to let your body move past the limits that your mind imposes.  If you want to really impress your audience and leave them with a pleasant aftertaste, consider incorporating one of these physical techniques:

  1. Change your volume.  If you are naturally on the church mouse end of the continuum, try speaking much louder.  If your style is closer to the carnival barker, try softening your voice.  Notice what it does to the rest of your delivery.
  2. Sing loudly right before you present.  You will be more energized and relaxed when you begin your presentation.
  3. Make a sound effect where you would normally use an adjective.  Go from bland to “Now that got my attention!”
  4. Step away from the lectern.  It’s a crutch.  Try speaking in the “magic circle” – that space front and center of the room.  Your audience will thank you.
  5. Break the wall.  Most speakers deliver their presentation at a “professional” distance from their audience.  Try moving closer into the personal space for an important point and then move back.

Break the mental barrier that keeps us stuck in the safe-and-average shallow end and move into the risky-and-fabulous deep end of the pool!  Your body should be in the lead role, not your mind.

– Barbara

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Lather, Rinse, Repeat

“Does anyone have any questions for my answers?” – Henry Kissinger

Want a sure-fire way to speak extemporaneously without sounding like the captain of the All Drone Team?  Here it is: Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Lather:  While you’re waiting for your brain to kick into gear, fill the silence with build-up words rather than empty filler words like um and ah.  You could say “Thank you for that question [insert name here], I always appreciate an opportunity to talk about this important issue.”  This technique gives you a minimum of five seconds to formulate an answer without uttering one boring filler word.  Another option is to repeat or rephrase the question before you answer.

Once you’ve identified your primary message point, deliver that message with a confident tone. Your non-verbals need to say “I know this stuff and I stand by my answer.”

If you don’t know the answer to the question or don’t want to answer it, you can invoke the age-old trick of redirecting to your preferred question.  For example, last fall, when Congress was dragging their feet on whether to raise taxes, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell tried to get White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod to talk about the split among Democrats when he asked, “Who’s right?  The ‘go-home now’ Democrats or the ‘fix taxes first’ Democrats?”  But Axelrod did not want to criticize his own party so he answered, “Well, the question really is ‘what about the hold-the-tax-cuts-hostage Republicans,’ which is what this debate is really about.”  This redirect allowed him to emphasize his key message.

Rinse:  Provide supporting and interesting details for edification.  A compelling statistic, an example, a story – all these strategies work well for enhancing the attention and interest of your audience.

Repeat:  Now that you’re in the groove, simply summarize your key point in a more articulate manner and then stop talking. The stopping is just as important as the starting.

– Barbara

The Power of Superstition

I slammed the back door and heard a resounding crash. The Irish plumber ran in from outside to see what caused such a loud racket.  We looked at 1,000 pieces of shattered glass. In a heavy brogue he said, “You know, it’s not seven years of bad luck if you weren’t in the house when it happened.”

No, I didn’t know that, thank you very much. In fact, I’m too busy wondering if I would still be yelling my head off at one of my kids had they just done this. But now I have to worry. And come to think of it, did I not just break last night’s wine glass while cleaning up this morning? So, I’ve got potentially seven years of bad luck and we all know that bad things happen in threes. Now what? Throw salt? Spin in circles? Touch a tombstone?

I can’t believe that my chest is slightly constricted. Not only do I have a big mess to clean up, but I have to consider whether fate has knocked on my door and decreed a future outcome from this present state. Is this fear real?  Facts and science say no, but we all know that when our heart is beating fast, the relationship between facts and feelings is as disconnected as the vast difference between hearing and listening.

When I am presenting to a group and something unexpected and uncomfortable comes up, I experience this same chest constriction. It triggers a physiological “danger” response.  The motor of my inner voice starts gunning.  It takes concerted, against-the-flow effort to slow down the voice(s) and stay connected to what is happening in the room.  And then, most importantly, to genuinely move on. This is so hard to do and not unlike extricating myself from thousands of years of superstition. I cleaned up the shattered mirror, reflected on where this crash had led and wrote it down for you.  Now that was a good day’s work.

– Charlotte

Stating the Obvious

Why do we need and value feedback and coaching? Because it is nearly impossible to 1) clarify your thoughts, 2) organize them into a cohesive presentation and 3) deliver them effectively while at the same time observing your own distracting quirks, de-railers and inconsistencies.   This 82 second video-test is a great example of this. Tell me how you do. -Charlotte

Manage Your Nerves Like a Hollywood Actor

“I’m very pleased to be hosting the Oscars again because fear and nausea always make me lose weight.” – Steve Martin

There’s a theme emerging this month with my coaching clients: the battle of the public speaking butterflies. In a couple of cases, a more accurate description would be “Overcoming Crippling Stage Fright.” If you have your own dose of public speaking anxiety, you are in good company. Barbara Streisand and Carly Simon are two examples of talented performers who can be gripped by stage fright before a show. As Carly herself once said, “I can’t say I’m really comfortable about [performing in front of thousands of people], but I’m very positive. I know that, as nervous as I might get, or as shell-shocked as I might feel, I’ll get through it and I’ll give the audience a good show.”

Perhaps the best story I’ve heard on making lemonade out of nervous lemons is the one about comedian Steven Wright who is best known for his droll and deadpan delivery style. As the story goes, he was so nervous during his debut standup act that the audience thought he was in character and as a result, his stage persona was launched.

We may not all be as lucky as Steven Wright, but we are capable of managing the butterflies. My advice today is to print out the poem below and keep it handy so that you can recite it before your next presentation. I stumbled across it when I was researching stage fright and it spoke to me. If it works for stage and screen actors, it can work for the rest of us.

The Actor’s Vow (condensed)

I will take my rightful place on the stage
And I will be myself.

I am not a cosmic orphan
I have no reason to be timid.

I will have my throat open.
I will have my heart open.
I will be vulnerable.

I may have anything or everything the world
Has to offer, but the thing
I need most, and want most, is to be myself.

The best and most human parts of me are
Those I have inhabited and hidden from
The world.

I will work on it.
I will raise my voice.
I will be heard.

Break a leg…

– Barbara

The Pros and Cons of Audience Facial Expressions

“There is a link between facial expression and emotion, but it’s not a one-to-one kind of relationship as many once thought. There are many situations where emotion is experienced, yet no prototypic facial expression is displayed. And there are times when a facial expression appears with no corresponding emotion.” – L. Camras, Psychologist, DePaul University

After many years in the classroom, the conference room, and the ballroom, there are few things that can trigger a nervous reaction in me. For example, last week, when the laptop I was promised for my workshop never materialized, I shrugged it off. (See our post on always having a Plan B). I made the necessary calls to track it down, but when it was time to start the program, I moved on without being thrown off my game. (See also Charlotte’s previous post about decreasing the use of PowerPoint).

It’s a mystery why I could not apply that same coping mechanism to the other issue I encountered that morning: audience facial expressions – specifically, one audience member in particular. I kept getting an intense, thousand yard stare from a participant near the front of the room. It continued for three hours. The best analogy I can provide is Stanley from NBC’s The Office. The more I looked at him, the more agita I felt. I kept waiting for him to pull out his crossword puzzle book and check out.

I used every tactic in my bag of tricks: I made meaningful eye contact, I smiled, I spoke his name, and none of it made a dent. But here’s the catch: At the end of the workshop, “Stanley” approached me and asked for my card. He explained that he wanted me to run the workshop again for his entire team. What?! How could I have been so wrong about him?

Turns out, I could easily have misinterpreted his expression and assumed it was a direct response to my presentation. Psychologists are all over the map when it comes to facial expressions. Some researchers have found a correlation between the expression on a person’s face and their internal emotional state. Others have found no correlation at all. Given that reality, why not play the game in your favor rather than assume the worst? That’s what I am taking away from my experience the other day and hope you will too.

If you notice a negative vibe coming your way early in a speech or presentation, first remind yourself that there may not be a direct correlation between the scowl you see on the person’s face and their opinion of your presentation. Second, move past that individual and look for a friendly face that will put you back on firm footing. I’m reminded of that famous quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

– Barbara

The Dog Whisperer Speaks!

W.C. Fields once said, “Never follow kids or animals on stage.”  Sage advice for any public speaker, unless you are Cesar Milan, aka, the Dog Whisperer.  I had the pleasure of seeing Cesar on stage a few days ago.  He didn’t “follow” an animal on stage, he actually co-presented with Junior, his Blue pit bull. That’s Junior in the photo on the right.

As the show started, the audience didn’t know whether to watch Junior or Cesar. I think we all missed the first few minutes of Cesar’s talk because we were fascinated by Junior’s behavior – walking to the very front of the stage and sniffing the first row of audience members, following Cesar back and forth trying to figure out if he had a job to do.  But then he settled down and took a nap, and all eyes turned to the pack leader. And it was worth it.  Cesar not only provided many lessons for dog owners, but he also put on a clinic for how to be a kinesthetic speaker.

Kinesthetic speakers go beyond killer PowerPoint slides and great stories.  They don’t rest on their verbal skills or their perfect pacing. They use their entire body to make a strong connection with their audience.  And that’s what Cesar did.  In the span of 75 minutes, he mimed a cat cleaning its fur, a human trying to make a puppy sit, a Rottweiler checking out its new home, and a fearful canine trying to hide from the world.  And because of his physical delivery, his words were more powerful – and memorable.

Here are a few tips for anyone wishing to be a kinesthetic speaker:

  1.  You Need Your Hands.  Hands-free communication is not just a new law regarding the use of cell phones while driving; it’s a requirement if you want to add physicality to your delivery.  Holding notes holds you back.  Gesturing is essential to making that deeper connection with your audience.  You can still have notes, just not in your hands. Place them nearby so you have access to them, but don’t let them inhibit your communication.
  2.  You Need to Move.  Presentation coaches have a special term for the primary spot on stage (or at the front of the conference room). It’s called “the magic circle.” The term is intended to convey that a great speaker can do big things when they are front and center.  That’s true, but not sufficient.  Kinesthetic speakers know how to move out of the magic circle and break down the wall between the stage and the audience.  Cesar could not have come any closer to us when he wanted to make an important point.  Most of us increase the space between ourselves and a stranger.  Great speakers decrease it by moving into what psychologists call “personal space.”
  3. You Need to See Your Audience.  If you look down, up, or to the side while you speak chances are good that your audience will start compiling grocery lists in their heads.  Some might even start writing it down.  And you might as well stop speaking.  Eye contact is the equivalent of a 7-iron to a PGA golfer – they’d be lost without it.  You can practice this skill anywhere.  Walk into any superstore and notice how many times people look down or away instead of acknowledging you.  Next, make a point to look the next five people in the eye and say hello.  See what happens.  The more comfortable  you get connecting with strangers, the more comfortable you will be when you want to look directly at your audience.

– Barbara