He stood up there, rigid and frightened, like a wild animal caught in my headlights on the highway. His eyes were darting about, avoiding the audience all cost. He kept wiping his hands on his pants, giving away his sweaty palms. When he started to speak, he robotically read from his notes, as if being forced at gunpoint. Breathe, I was silently telling him with my eyes. Please breathe. But he never looked at us so he couldn’t see we were on his side.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing thousands of people present and what is evident is that the issue isn’t about them not knowing how to make eye contact or gesture or move in space, the issue lies deeper than that. But nobody seems to be talking about it. When told in their performance reviews that they need to improve their presenting skills, HR swoops in to save the day with a reputable presentation skills class and they’re given the prescription for presenting, like the yucky medicine we had to take this when we were kids. Take this, and it’ll be better. You’ll be fixed. Hold your hands like this. Don’t do that. Move like this. Don’t move like that. They dutifully study and practice, and do their best to incorporate the laundry list of shoulds and should-nots, and still…when they present….mmnnn….not so good.
Here’s the thing: It’s not because they’re simply bad presenters.
We like to think that. We like to think, “Well, some got it, and some don’t.” And yes, there’s truth in the fact that some people are more naturally gifted presenters, but it’s complete hooey to believe that it’s a skill relegated to talented few. People just need help getting to the root of what’s going on for them individually. And it’s not about learning more skills, it’s about dealing with vulnerability.
(But we hate talking about vulnerability at work! It’s taboo!) Too bad. That’s what’s real.
Speaking is inherently a very vulnerable thing. When standing in front of a group of people, we feel exposed. Our “lizard brain” (as Seth Godin likes to call it), or amygdala (in scientific circles) – that almond shaped group of nuclei in our brain that processes our emotions – sensing danger, starts working over-time, sending all kinds of crazy chemicals through our system in red alert. “Fight or flight! Fight or flight!”, it’s telling us, as our heart-rate increases, our breathing grows shallow and our heads start to swim. “What was I going to say…?”
And it is in this setting that we expect ourselves to present powerfully. When everything in us is screaming, “Run! You’re gonna die!” you’ve got to stay up there and somehow find a way to get your point across and deliver your message while being charming, influential, and inspiring people to action. Fat chance.
Knowing what you shouldn’t do with your hands, doesn’t help you at all, because all of the sudden, as you’re standing up there getting ready for your big client presentation, all you can think of is what to do with your hands. Learning how to scan the room with your eyes so people think you’re making eye contact, only succeeds in making you more nervous. The sensations mount. Your bad-speaker-reputation has been sealed.
When we feel vulnerable we instantaneously feel the need to protect ourselves physically. It’s a human thing. It’s as if we’re standing in the middle of the field with a sabre-tooth tiger coming at us and we need to find a way to hide, so we make ourselves small. It’s not a rational thing, it’s a survival mechanism. Some of us, when we make ourselves small round our shoulders and slouch, some of us protect ourselves with our hands, some of us lower our voice (maybe if they can’t hear me they’ll go away!), and some of us evade eye contact (maybe if I can’t see them, they can’t see me!). Some of us hold our notes like a shield – never using them, but clutching tightly in case we need to fend of an attack. And some of us decide to take the opposite approach, instead of hiding from the tiger, maybe we’ll scare the tiger off! So we over-compensate, gesturing wildly, and pacing frantically, channeling our adrenaline through our feet.
All things we do in attempts to deal with the vulnerability we feel.
So the place to begin, if you want to present powerfully, is to ask yourself: what do you do to hide when you feel vulnerable? Where does it show up for you physically, emotionally, and mentally? Because without dealing with that, all the prescriptions in the world won’t help.
There’s something underneath all of our bad speaking habits. By dealing with what’s real, it will no longer have a grip on you. Dig deeper, you may just be a better presenter than you even know!
©OnStage Leadership, 2014
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