Overcoming fears

“#Worrying won’t stop bad stuff from happening. It #stops you moving on from the bad stuff. Let go of the #worries.” – S Long. Tomorrow has enough of its own. – Matt 6:34












“Feelings will come and #feelings will #fade if we allow them to do so. How? Give your #attention to something else.” S Long


It’s not what you have that holds you back but what you feel you don’t have. –  S Long


“The only way to get rid of it [pain], is to stand your ground, and face it.” B Sisco DS9. And then let it go. S Long

We’ve all seen them: Keep calm and…

They’re everywhere. It might be quicker to show what hasn’t been ‘Keep calm’-ed than to show all the ones that have. It started in the Second World War and proved a powerful propaganda weapon against the threats of Germany. It wasn’t actually released to the public but it was made by the Ministry of Information. Here is the familiar Keep Calm and Carry On.

Keep Calm and Carry OnBut you know that of course. You might even be someone who’s been gifted or bought one of its spin-offs such:

Keep Calm and Call Batman

Keep Calm and Eat Chocolate

Keep Calm and Blog On

OK, I will then!

Psychology has things to say about so much we find humour in, sell, or just enjoy talking about. Sometimes, it’s in counter-intuitive ways too and here’s one for today by me:

Don’t get calm; get excited!

There was a fascinating article in Psychology Today. In 2012 researchers based at the University of Montreal discovered that women generally feel more anxious than men when hearing unwanted news. An woe betide the unfortunate so-and-so who tells someone else to: “Chill”, let alone: “Calm Down, Dear, it’s only a commercial.”

Harvard University conducted research with 63 men and 77 women. They were all asked to deliver a speech where they would be videoed and judged. Researchers discovered that those presenters who repeated to themselves: “I’m excited”, as opposed to: “I’m calm” gave presentations that were more engaging, persuasive, more relaxed and were longer. How we talk to ourselves about our feelings will dictate how we feel. Yes, thoughts dictate performance.

Further, rather than focus on what could go wrong, focus on: “I’m excited” thoughts. You can also send yourself “Get excited” messages. The point is to reframe your emotional state from ‘Oh no’ to ‘Oh Yes!’. This tends to address what could go right; the brain is very adept at helping you get there too so give it a helping hand with not so much keep calm but get excited.

To end, here’s a quote from The Harvard School Research by Alison Wood Brooks that sums up the power of getting excited:

Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying “I am excited” out loud) or simple messages (e.g., “get excited”), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance.

Brooks, A.W. (Nov. 2013) Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement, p 1

Image courtesy of "Rest Time" by Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of “Rest Time” by Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I have my new reading glasses. Typing on smart devices in the recent past has been fine but it’s amazing how, when I lift up the glasses I’m now wearing to see how things used to look, the text is blurry and really quite difficult to make out. Looking through my glasses, the text is razor-sharp, crystal clear, nice!

Loss of near sight focus is one of those things that generally deteriorates, as we get older. It’s the gradual deterioration that is worthy of mention. Humans are actually very adaptable. People often comment that they don’t like change; I suspect what they mean is significant change for them. Gradual change is much more acceptable and we adapt to it with little conscious thought. We are very habit-driven. The brain likes habits because it then requires very little response on its behalf to enact activities. Gradual changes largely go unnoticed. and what happens is that, over time, all those small changes add up to be a significant change over all. To repeat, only when I put on my glasses for the first time to write this blog post, did I realise how much my near sight vision had deteriorated over the years.

Habits are things that we are carrying around that have crept up and we’ve not realised. What might have started as a simple response has now become a routine, embedded response triggered by what the event in front of us means to us. And that’s also the point. It’s what it means to us for the same event may well have an entirely different meaning to another person.

So, what can we do to break a habit?

The first stage to breaking the habit loop, as Charles Duhigg writes in his fabulous book: The Power of Habit, is to recognise that we are doing it in the first place. We need to be much more aware of what is happening in our lives. And that takes effort on our behalf because our brain is essentially “a lazy piece of meat”. – Gregory Berns, from his book, Iconoclast.

Sometimes, those habits are reinforced because we don’t want to let go of things not helpful to us. We need to ‘Cut the Rope’ to those habit cues. If we ‘cut the rope’ to those cues, we break the ties to the habit routine that we carry out. Yes, this can be done. There are countless stories in books and on the Internet of habits broken. The common thread was that the will power ‘muscles’ were strengthened through determined practice and persistence leading to a change in routine and a loss of the undesired habit.

You see, I can see clearly now, the blur has gone. I could have chosen to hold on to how things were. After all, it was fine. I could see. Why change? Actually, things had changed and they weren’t serving me well but holding me back.

How we see things will dictate what we do about them. How do you see things in your life? Are you holding on when you would be better served letting go? What ‘ropes’ can you cut today to help free yourself from undesired habits?

It's lovely when your audience clap you isn't it? Read this and the previous two posts and it might be happening to you as well! Image used courtesy of Ambro. Ambro's portfolio is: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=1499

In the second part of Overcome Presentation Fears we explored a further three strategies to use. You can read about them in detail by clicking or tapping here for the second session or here for the first session but in summary they were:

1. The audience is on your side
2. Know your material / know its contents
3. Practise in front of an audience
4. Remember to breathe!
5. Never do these things
6. Focus on the audience and not yourself

The last three that I’m going to explore are:
7. Imagine and plan for potential issues
8. Communicate
9. Control the atmosphere

7. Imagine and plan for potential issues

Visualisation is a technique that proponents argue allows the person to influence the world around them by altering their thought processes. A change in thought process and a redirection to imagining success with a particular desired skill or goal in general leads to accomplishment of that goal.

Wallace Wattles (1860-1911) was one of the first people to use this technique and many organisations, athletes and establishments have advocated this strategy ever since such as: Ronald A. Finke, who wrote about this in Creative Imagery: Discoveries and Inventions in Visualisation.

I challenge that single approach to success, as I believe from my studies that there is a much more effective tool to use; it seems that psychology today agrees with me too. I wrote about this more effective tool that is called doublethink in a previous post on my personal blog and you can read about it here. The simple fact of the matter is that, contrary to what advocates of visualisation indicate, the overwhelming evidence is that visualisation alone will seldom bring the successes desired. Many studies (1) such as those carried out by, among others, Professor Oettingen have shown that those who solely use visualisation techniques are not as successful in reaching their goals as those who use doublethink strategies. (Please see the footnote for two such research sources.)
I strongly encourage you to read about doublethink by clicking here. It really is significantly more effective at helping you to reach your goals than merely visualisation. 
My reason for stressing the importance of employing doublethink is that imagining how you are going to perform, imagining the audience’s various responses and imagining the atmosphere in the room while simultaneously giving due diligence to how you are going to address any issues that arise is a highly effective toolset for overcoming the fear of presentation. “When it came to it, I just couldn’t cope!” is not something that you want to be saying. Using imagination and addressing hurdles to overcome, at the same time, put you in much greater control and you are far more likely to reach your desired goal of delivering a confident, well presented performance. 

Be very specific at this stage. What atmosphere do you want in the room? What expressions, questions, attitudes and behaviours do you envisage your audience showing? What will you do specifically when things ‘don’t go quite as you planned’? What awkward questions might someone ask and what bank of answers do you have that you can use to reply with? When someone fidgets or looks clearly disinterested in your direct line of sight how will you cope? How do you imagine delivering that key message and what will you do to ensure it is clearly expressed and then adopted by your audience? Or, in a musical scenario, if there’s an awkward musical phrase that you’re having difficulty playing imagine yourself playing it just as you want to as well as employing all the strategies you have put in place to play it to your best ability.

8. Communicate

One could spend a whole book on effective communication; there is so much that can be said. So as not to make this blogpost hours in length to read!, I have highlighted some of the most critical points to remember. 
– Make eye contact with as many people in the room as possible, as often as possible. If you don’t know your material and its contents (see point 2 in the first post) you will simply not be able to maintain eye contact as much as possible with your audience. You might even start reading your slides and using them as your prompts! That is one of the worst communication errors that you can make. Remember, you are presenting, not your slides. Know your slide’s contents well enough that you only need one or two words (a short sentence at the most) to be able to present. The biggest error you can make is to display slides with dozens of images and symbols as well as reams of text. That is one sure-fire way to switch off your audience! 
– If you fail to recognise the difference between presentation and conversation you are actively encouraging your audience to ‘switch off’. I have discussed some of this in Part Two under number 4: Remember to breathe! but I want to explain this in more detail in this last post. Powerful motivational forces run when we are conversing with someone. We recognise ‘turns’, we pay attention so that we can reply with a point or even change the direction one the conversation and, if we’re confused or disagree with a point made, we invariably voice that confusion or disagreement in the hope that the person speaking will further clarify their point and then continue, with perhaps ourselves or others going in the conversation. No such opportunities exist when presenting. There is no ‘turn-taking’; the presenter is doing just that: presenting. They understand that for all intents and purposes they will not be interrupted, they generally won’t need to clarify their point since most people are too afraid to raise a query and if confusion arises in the audience: tough on them! When confusion arises in the audience, rather than immediately querying with the presenter in the hope to getting back ‘on-track’ in the conversation – which is what would naturally happen in a conversation with someone – the confused person ‘back-tracks’ in their mind in the hope of checking their confusion and hopefully increasing clarification. The speaker, of course, hasn’t waited for this to happen (they don’t after all know!) so they carry on speaking. This means that the confused person is now behind what is presently being spoken about. Often, the effect in the audience is to ‘switch off’, clearly, this is absolutely not what you, as the presenter, want to have happen.
How do you avoid audiences ‘switching off’? Aside from making your presentations so much more interesting!, as a presenter you must make sure that your audience doesn’t ‘switch off’ and the following suggestions will help prevent that happening:
a) People attending presentations naturally assume that they are going to listen – not speak. It is the psychological drive to ‘take turns’ that you must therefore harness. ‘How many of you agree with me?’ might be a question that you ask to your audience. Better yet, if you can engage a ‘crowd response’ you are really on to a winner! Find ways of expecting your audience as a whole to respond e.g. ‘Share what you’ve learnt in the past 10 minutes with the person next to you.’; ‘Hands up if think what I’ve said is true for you!’ .

‘Crowd responses’ like you get at pantomimes are even better. All that collective ‘Boo-ing’ and ‘Cheering’ is immensely powerful at getting us engaged, and staying that way. I’m not suggesting having your audience boo you is good on any level but having your audience sincerely laugh with you at something you’ve said is a powerful retentive influence. They will actually listen out for further opportunities to do something that they enjoy doing: laughing. Don’t tell jokes (unless you’re a successful comedian!) but humorous anecdotal experiences are effective ways of engaging ‘crowd responses’.    

b) Avoid ‘um-ing and er-ing’ 
Your audience will ‘switch off’ from hearing the meaning that you are wanting to communicate and will start counting the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’. It’s OK to ‘um’ in conversation; it’s not OK in presentation. People who ‘um’ are looking for inspiration, to give themselves more time to articulate their answer or what they are going to say on the next slide. If you’re thoroughly prepared you know what you’re going to say and what might be the possible questions your audience might ask so the likelihood of ‘um-ing’ is dramatically reduced. If you’re ‘um-ing’ a lot practise a lot more.

c) Show enthusiasm and passion about what you’re presenting. If you’re not showing positive emotion: you shouldn’t be presenting. Simply put: if you’re not passionate about what you’re saying how can you expect your audience to be? Remember though intonation dissipates with distance. You need to exaggerate your intonations and expressions so that these characteristics reach the back of the audience. Speaking slower, pausing every 6-10 words and repeating and emphasising key words will all help to communicate your meaning as effectively as possible. 

If you find yourself wondering how you can communicate more effectively contact me by clicking here.

9. Control the atmosphere
The reason Control the atmosphere is no. 9 is simply because doing all the previous 8 will generate the atmosphere that you want and allow you to control it in the ways that you want. If you recognise that the audience has come to hear you (so you must be worth it otherwise they wouldn’t); are thoroughly prepared in what you are going to say or do and have a good grasp of what the audience might ask you; have practised – a lot (the late Steve Jobs practised and practised for days before his world-renowned Keynote presentations); let your presentation breathe; avoid saying things you shouldn’t (start being your biggest fan; not your biggest condemner); focus on the audience and not on yourself to deliver the best presentation that you can; use visualisation and address the hurdles to overcome, together; and communicate as effectively as possible not only will you have the atmosphere you want in the room but you will have the kind of presentation that people will want to hear again and again and again!      

(1) Oettingen, Pak and Schnetter: “Self-regulation of Goal Setting: Turning Free Fantasies About the Future into Binding Goals” (2001)
(1) Oettingen and Gollwitzer: “Self-regulation of Goal Persuit: Turning Hope Thoughts into Behaviour” (2002)

In the first part of Overcome Presentation Fears we explored three strategies to use. You can read about them in detail by clicking or tapping here but in summary they were:

The audience is on your side
Know your material / know its contents
Practise in front of an audience

The next three that I’m going to explore are:
4. Remember to breathe!
5. Never do these things
6. Focus on the audience and not yourself

The remaining three will be in the next post: How to Overcome Presentation Fears – Part Three. Back to today’s post; let’s continue:

4. Remember to breathe!

Few, if anyone, would doubt the merits of breathing! However, if we’re nervous our breathing can fail to get enough oxygen into our bodies and just as importantly enough carbon dioxide out of our bodies. If you’ve experienced hyperventilation before then you will understand what I mean.

A simple technique to practise in the moments before you go on stage or when you find yourself feeling nervous and your breathing is becoming erratic is to do the following:
Breathe in to a count of four and out to a count of seven or eight. The breathe out rate is deliberately longer than the breathe in rate.

This has the desired effect of not only expelling excess carbon dioxide but helping to calm our nerves. The breaths, whether out or in, should be taken in a slow, deep breath way.

Not only must you breathe!, but your presentation must breathe as well. There is no ‘hard and fast’ rule but experts generally believe that a pause every 7-9 words is a good strategy to adopt. Quite possibly, this will be at the end of every sentence or phrase. Insufficient presenters understand the difference between presentation and conversation. A pause that might seem like an age to someone you’re conversing with will seem natural to a room full of people. So, remember, you are not conversing with someone: you are presenting to someone. Pauses are vital to give your audience the time that they need to understand the points that we are making.

There are few more highly gifted in explaining the difference between conversation and presentation than Professor Max Atkinson in his book, Lend Me Your Ears. I highly recommend it. In it he says:

Things like hesitations, pace, volume and intonation combine in a style of delivery that makes such speakers come across as though they are merely ‘chatting’ their way through the presentation… But when you’re in front of an audience, speaking in conversation mode is unlikely to do much to help them with the problems of attentiveness and understanding discussed… (p 47 Lend Me Your Ears.)

I cannot underestimate the difference between conversation and presentation enough. Allow your presentation to breathe and give enough time for your meaning to reach all of your audience. This is essential if we are to stand the best chance of getting our meaning across as effectively as possible.

5. Never do these things

A list of ‘nevers’ can seem a strange thing to record. Further, isn’t it counter-intuitive to not tell the audience these things? Surely, that would put the audience on ‘our side’? Evidence supports the argument that keeping schtum is in fact the best policy to adopt. One such article advocating the general decision to not apologise can be read here.

Let’s explore those areas for where apology is unwise in more detail.

Never apologise for nerves!

Surely, it makes sense to apologise for feeling nervous? It’s a hard lesson to learn but you did choose to present didn’t you?! Since you decided to present to your audience, your audience expects a degree of self-assurance and will recognise your expertise in what you’re saying or doing (as long as you’re well prepared – see last time’s post). Yes, you might well feel nervous but apologising openly for it will make your audience nervous for you. It will stop them focusing on what you’re saying or doing and make them focus on you. That is not your intention but it will happen if you say so.

A similar scenario can occur, by the way, if you tell your audience why you’re doing something such as explaining why you’re showing a photo or justifying why you’re doing something. I’m not questioning the decision to use something; I’m questioning the decision of thinking that you need to justify that decision to use something. You don’t need to justify it: you are presenting and your audience would expect you to do whatever is necessary to make your presentation as good as it can be. If you justify it you can give the impression that you are apologising for it (apology has its root meaning in arguing and defending). To repeat: you don’t need to justify your decisions and if you do you will generate unnecessary anxiety in your audience.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t be nervous? Certainly not! Of course you might be nervous. Just don’t tell your audience that you are. After all, have you ever attended a First Night at a theatre performance and had every actor come on the stage and apologise for feeling nervous on their first occasion of performing this play or musical?! Then neither should you.

– Never apologise for what you thought was a mistake

This point is a little more contentious but I still argue that you shouldn’t apologise for mistakes; mistakes that you have made, that is. They might not have noticed!
– Never share your mistakes. Again, they might not have noticed! Technology will fail at some stage. And you can be sure that it will fail just when you need it to work! What was your back-up plan in the event of technology failure? You did have a back-up plan didn’t you?

In this instance it is acceptable to apologise; don’t dwell on the apology though. Apologise quickly, but sincerely, and then deliver the solution with confidence. Remember, fail to plan: plan to fail. Contingency plans are more important today in our ever-increasing reliance on technology.

So, should I apologise for things that were ‘mistakes’ such as ‘slips of the tongue’ or errors in your performance? No. Assuming you thoroughly planned your ‘mistakes’ will probably only be noticed by your No. 1 Critic: namely you. Research constantly reinforces the point that others don’t notice our mistakes; yet, we of course do. Apologising for those ‘mistakes’ will create anxiety in your audience and they might even start listening out for the next ‘mistake’ in the same vane that repeatedly ‘umm-ing and ahh-ing’ in presentations can cause the same response in your audience.

– Never be overly critical

We are our No. 1 Critic, as we were just saying. We notice and log in the failure column every error, miscalculation, mistake and flaw in our performance. We are very good at being our No. 1 Critic. Strange how we are seldom our No. 1 Fan! What would that be like if we were? It’s not that being critical (as in objectively analysing, not slaying and condemning) isn’t helpful. Rather, it’s seldom balanced by assessing the successes. Before you criticise yourself find two or three things that went well. Then, consider how you could make those ‘mistakes’ even better next time.

It’s easy to forget that your audience is only too delighted it’s you standing there and not them! Further, they’ve come to see you perform or present. Practise objective assessment of your performance. Here’s how:

Identify more successes (What Went Well’s) than opportunities for improvements next time (Even Better If’s). Celebrate the successes; commit to the opportunities for improvement. And finish with giving yourself a ‘pat on the back’.

6. Focus on the audience and not yourself

The presentation is not about you. That is a hard lesson for some of us to learn. You are performing for the audience; they have come to see you. Amazingly, when we make what psychologists call reframing, the emphasis is shifted from ourselves and to someone else. It’s as if the pressure has been lifted off our shoulders. Taking the pressure off ourselves and focusing on our audience simply helps us feel less stressful and nervous.

Looking up(wards) is a highly effective technique to relieve anxiety. And, by the way, this also relieves sadness as well. It’s no wonder that the phase “Looking down” means feeling sad. We literally look downwards to the ground. This triggers a chain reaction in our bodies and the sadness gets reinforced. Looking up does the reverse. It triggers a more positive mindset and it actually becomes increasingly more difficult to feel sad. Or feel nervous.

So, look up at your audience, remember that they are there because they want to see and hear you perform and you will feel the nerves easing and your confidence rising.

Some of you might not believe me though. If that’s you I want to encourage you to contact me for a free and informal 15-minute chat. You might only need a coaching session or two after that and your confidence in presenting in front of an audience will be changed for the better.

Do let me know in the comments section below if you practise some of these techniques and you notice a positive difference in your performance.

Until next time, when we’ll explore the last three techniques in how to overcome presentation fears.

The strategies in the next three posts have come from training sessions that I have led, courses that I have attended and material that I have gleaned from books. Possibly, not all the strategies here will work for you; we’re all different after all. However, I am confident that you will find a number of strategies that will work for you. Please do let me know what you tried and how you got on!

While the title might indicate that this post is primarily for those presenting in front of an audience the strategies here will also work for any person performing such as those singing or playing in a concert or exam and no doubt many other situations too.

I am going to present the strategies over the next three posts. Today’s post will focus on the first three.

What are the first three strategies?

1. The audience is on your side
2. Know your material / know its contents
3. Practise in front of an audience

1. The audience is on your side

In fairness this might not always be the case and certainly won’t be if you’re a politician attempting to persuade doubting voters to vote for you! The reality though is that few of us will face situations where the audience is quite so hostile. And if you do, point 2 becomes even more important!

In the majority of cases the audience is on your side. They may well have paid to hear you, you may be their relative or friend and they may well be genuinely interested in what you’re saying or doing. Audiences are vastly more forgiving than we think, don’t notice what we do and want us to do our best. Focus on the audience working for you. Take due diligence of point 2 (and 6 in the next post) in particular though otherwise they might stop being on your side!

2. Know your material / know its contents

Fail to plan; plan to fail. It’s as simple as that. There are an incredibly small number of people who can perform on stage without rehearsing. In my opinion no one should do this, however good they are. Steve Jobs, one of the best presenters in history and someone sadly missed by many including me, rehearsed and rehearsed until he not only knew the material in terms of fully comprehending it but barely if at all needed notes when actually presenting it. He knew not only what slide was coming next but crucially its content too. It’s essential that you not only comprehend what you’re going to be saying or performing but you have a good grasp of what’s coming next in your presentation.

Too many presenters or performers have learnt this lesson the hard way. There’s only so much that you can control; IT in the form of laptops, projectors and memory sticks has a funny habit of failing just when we need it most. Just think how impressed your already on your side audience will be when you can carry on without the slides! Remember, you are presenting, not your slides. Far too many people rely on PowerPoint to do the presenting when the audience came to hear you present. Practise your presentation, or recital!, without your material several times at least. OK, it might not be flawless but if it’s ‘pretty much there’ you know that you grasp and can present your material as well as manage an effective solution if software, hardware or other failures occur.

3. Practise in front of an audience

There’s one thing being able to perform it in front of yourself; it’s quite another when it comes to performing to the audience. If I had a pound (dollar) for the number of times I’ve heard, “I was fine when I practised on my own but when I performed in front of others it all went wrong!” I’d be a rich man. We can do little about failing technology; we can do a lot about failing nerves. Simply practising in front of an audience (it’s highly likely that they will probably be in the last performance audience as well, smiling away – see point 1) will help give you the feel of what it will be like on the day. Notice, like, it won’t be exactly the same. However, we need to start somewhere and practising in this way will help you develop and control your nerves.

While not as effective as performing to an audience (see the quote above), if there’s no one to practise with, performing in front of a mirror will help you to control your anxieties. A mirror also allows you to see what the audience sees (facial expressions and your body language in general) and could give valuable feedback of things that you can change for the better.

Next post will explore three more techniques for overcoming presentation fear. Let me know what happens when you try these techniques by posting comments below. Until next time!