Being an executive leader, were you ever called upon to speak in front of your team, or the whole office? And while standing in front of all those people, did you ever feel, what many professional speakers, actors, and stage artists call ‘stage fright’?
Well, that is what one business unit leader experienced in one of his town halls last month. The HRBP of this senior leader called me as they wanted help with the nervousness and anxiety this business leader feels while presenting. Performance anxiety of public speaking can shake the confidence of even the most experienced professional.
While coaching various public speaking contestants for their world contest, I’ve realized that these speakers by giving public speeches for years embrace the nervousness with practice. But that is not the case with other non-experienced speakers for whom stage fright is something they have to deal with seriously. In fact, as a TEDx speaker coach one of my key areas of work is to build on the confidence level of the speakers and work on their stage presence so that even if they realize that they are feeling nervous, it doesn’t show to the audience.
There is a wide misconception out there that presentation anxiety just happens when you first step on the stage. The truth is that you can have it anytime. In fact, leaders like Richard Branson still suffer from this fear of public speaking.
Having said that, there is a way to diminish this anxiety to a negligible amount. While there is a medical study out there that has compared this stress to that of “a small car crash”, we also have many neuroscience research reports suggesting an excellent solution.
Here is a two-step strategy to help you get you out of your own head and to ace the next business presentation with confidence, impact, and style.
The first thing that happens after you’ve had even a single case of freezing on stage, is that you keep thinking about the incident again and again. It’s like a cassette player playing negative things about you, on a loop.
Reappraisal (we psychologist call it Cognitive Reappraisal) would mean, pressing the stop button and putting in a new cassette in the music player. In other words, you have to ‘reinterpret’ the negative experience of your past business presentation. As a speaker revisit your emotional response to the last bombed presentation. Now view the outcome of that presentation as a way to challenge and better yourself. Say to yourself that you’re amazing and that you did a great presentation! Keep repeating the same again and again to your mind. You may not have anything positive to say about the event, but it’s okay. The old adage – Fake it Till you Make it – it always works wonders with the brain! This action of reframing your inner critic from negative to positive will help you to dilute your negative emotions around the past presentation.
Allow me to explain what happens in your brain post the negative presentation. There is a part of our brain, lying in its most primitive part, called amygdala. This is the part responsible for memory, emotions, and survival instincts. However, neuroscientists have found that the prefrontal cortex, a more sophisticated part of our brain can keep amygdala in check.
So, when you step on the stage next time and see your audience, your amygdala jumps in response – triggering a fight or flight response in you. Creating anxiety and fright. But with cognitive reappraisal, you switch the ‘on’ button on your prefrontal cortex, which tells your amygdala to basically say, “get a grip!” So, before your next presentation, begin with getting a grip on your emotions by reappraising yourself; and then move on to step number two – rehearsal.
When they say the practice is the key, they’re wrong. It’s not just a key, but the absolute skeleton key. As an executive coach, I always ask my clients to practice a certain set of behaviors before the actual event.
Visualization technique is an extremely potent way of rehearsal to get your desired results. So, don’t replay the past that happened, instead visualize the future you intend. Visualization is rehearsing using only your mind. You don’t necessarily need to be on the stage to feel the stress and the anxiety – you’re already familiar with what stage fright feels like. Similarly, you only need your mind to understand that audience or no audience – you are going to get it right! So, using this rehearsing technique as many times as possible you are putting the stress of that upcoming critical presentation to utter ease.
Also, focusing on your audience helps one give a great presentation. So, have your family, friends, or team around and rehearse what you’re going to present on the D-day. If possible, you should even go to the exact stage that you’re going to be on, and rehearse daily starting a few days earlier. Create a bit of a pressure situation for yourself – as close a situation to the real one, as you can have. Research proves how simulating low levels of stress helps you stay cool, calm, and collected in the real situation.
Summary: An executive leader is always expected to talk to stakeholders on various platforms. Using the 2-step method of rehearsal and reappraisal will help you reach a high-performance state of presentation. If you change your perspective about public speaking and rehearse ‘under little stress,’ you might find yourself looking forward to your next presentation and becoming a star speaker at your workplace! #BeTheStar
Comments: What other methods have you employed to overcome your presentation anxiety or stage fright? Share your thoughts. I love learning from my readers. And please do share this science of presentation skills and executive presence.