Four Things to Combat Your Saber Tooth Tiger
“Oh great!” you may be thinking, “Now I know (since you read yesterday’s blog post) that my presentation woes are due to saber-tooth tigers (you really should read yesterday’s post first), but now what???!”
All is not lost my friend. There are tools to deal with these things.
Once you have identified what happens to you physically/emotionally/mentally when you feel vulnerable (presenting being an uber-vulnerable-thing), and you’ve named it specifically, then you can do something about it. But you have to get specific first – you have to name it. To simply say, “I feel scared.” or “I feel tense.” doesn’t cut it. How do you know you’re scared? Where is it showing up in your body? What’s happening with your breathing? Where do you feel tension? In your shoulders? In your neck? In your hands? It’s different for all of us. The more specific you can be about what happens to you personally when you feel vulnerable, the better.
In the acting world, actors will do a full-body warm-up before they ever hit the stage – before rehearsals, and most definitely before performance, because they know that tension blocks authentic expression. They cannot perform powerfully if they’re a tense mess. Now, I get that it’s not likely that you’re going to have a full hour before you have to jump into a high-stakes meeting to remove your tension – “Excuse me. Happy to present today, but I really need to go do my full-body warm-up first.” – Not gonna happen. So if you truly care about great results, then you have to get to know yourself a bit better. Be a detective with yourself. Where do you carry your tension? If you can name it, you can do something about it.
Once you have some clarity around what happens to you personally in the face of vulnerability, then you can take action! There are four things you can do to set yourself up for success so you can present powerfully and combat your saber-tooth tiger:
1. Breath! – Most of us human beings (and if you’re reading this, I suspect you’d qualify) tend to normally breath from our chest. Chest-breathing is our baseline. But when we find ourselves feeling scared, or anxious, or stressed (natural responses to vulnerability – like when we’ve got to present) our breathing gets more and more shallow. We take less and less air in into our bodies and some cases, cut it off altogether. Remember the whole amygdala-thing we talked about in yesterday’s blog? Well it’s going crazy because it’s sensing danger and your breathing is the fist thing to take a hit.
Now this is a big problem, for you see, our brains need oxygen to function. If you find yourself forgetting what you wanted to say, or your head swimming, or feeling like you’re having an out-of-body-experience, it’s an oxygen-thing. Those sweaty palms and pounding heart? They’re taking their cue from your brain freaking out, which causes your amygdala to kick it into a higher gear. Breathe and the whole system settles down.
What actors and singers know how to do, since their entire livelihood depends on being able to perform powerfully in the face of feeling vulnerable, is to maximize their breath. Their baseline is different. They’ve trained themselves to breath from their belly. Try it. Put your hand on your belly, just on top your bellybutton (it’s okay, nobody’s paying attention). Take in a low deep breath to filling the space beneath your hand. You should be able to feel your hand rise and fall when you breath. Allow the breath to move up into your chest cavity, expanding your chest. When you exhale, keep your chest cavity open – don’t collapse (you’ll feel your shoulders slightly round if you’re collapsing). Now you’ve got a massive space for lots of oxygen which will make your brain very happy. Practice this as much as you possibly can so it becomes muscle-memory. The first thing to do whenever you feel vulnerable is to take low and slow breaths. It’s nice having your brain on your side.
2. Remove Tension – Since you’ve been such an awesome detective and have identified specifically where you carry your tension, it becomes easy to address it. Target your specific areas that are tense. Roll your shoulders forward and back, or do some gentle neck rolls, or massage your jaws. It takes all of two minutes, if you know where your tension tends to hide. Scan yourself.
3. Get Present – Most of the time when we’re getting ready to speak in front of a group our brains are going a million miles an hour. Let’s first assume you’ve adequately prepared, so you’re not thinking about what the heck you’re going to say (or you’re already not set up to succeed…). It’s critical to shepherd your mind into the present moment. One way to get present is to get clear about the impact you want your presentation to have. Why are you giving it? After you’ve finished speaking, how do you want your audience to feel? What do you want them to do? What is your purpose beyond giving information? Because if you’re just there to give info, you’re better off sending them an email. If you’re going to take everybody’s time to give a presentation, it’s your job to have an impact.
4. Connect – When we feel vulnerable, we tend to avoid what scares us. When it comes to presenting, that means we tend to avoid our audience – which isn’t serving us. We stop making eye contact, flitting our eyes around the room, or looking down, or looking up, or looking right through the people in the room as if they’re invisible. The more we avoid them, the scarier they seem. The thing is, the people in the audience are just…people. You talk to people all the time. You’re great at it! So instead of looking at your audience like it’s a big mass of judgement waiting to get you, focus on the individuals in the room. Just have a real conversation one person at a time. One person in the front. One person in the middle. One person on the side. One person in the back. Connect, for real, with the people in the room and every person there will feel as if you’re talking right to them.
When it comes to presenting, most of us are better than we know. We just have to learn to get out of our own way. The saber-tooth tiger isn’t real. But that figment of your imagination is what’s standing between you and your best. Don’t let him win.
©OnStage Leadership, 2014
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