You’re about to give a presentation, and for whatever reason, the words you’ve diligently practiced are not coming out. If you’re like many of my clients, you’ll probably start criticizing yourself faster than you’ll remember to just take a deep breath. Instead, you’ll ask yourself self-defeating questions like, “What’s wrong with me!?”
The problem, obviously, is that this type of reaction only makes things worse. I once worked with a talented VP of communications for a major company. She was already a capable speaker, but she still couldn’t stop the negative self-talk, criticizing herself every time she watched herself speak. She refused to believe that she was flawlessly articulate, poised, and powerful.
As I saw it, the problem was more emotional than technical: She just wouldn’t accept the fact of her anxiety in the first place–which meant she couldn’t deal with it effectively. If you have stage fright that makes public speaking difficult, here’s a three-step process for channeling those negative emotions instead of trying to suppress or master them.
STEP 1: RECOGNIZE YOUR EMOTIONAL “SET POINT”
All of us have what I like to think of as an emotional “set point,” a basic level of stress that we can manage even if it makes us uncomfortable. You might feel excited or stimulated by that level of pressure, but it doesn’t make you so anxious that your performance tanks. This level of stress differs for everybody, but once it’s crossed, crippling anxiety sets in.
Maybe talking to your boss or your peers feels a little stressful, but you can still get your message across smoothly. But put you in front of a really daunting audience–your boss’s boss, your biggest client, or your board of directors, and your the temperature heats up. You zoom past your emotional set point, and all hope is lost.
By recognizing where your own emotional set point falls, though, you can know what to expect when you go beyond it. For example, you’re not surprised when you step into a sauna or a steam room, because you were already expecting intense heat before you opened the door. Similarly, instead of being overwhelmed by your feelings, you need to recognize that you’re just temporarily beyond your emotional set point. This is a far better approach than trying to avoid going past it in the first place (that’s hopeless).
Your heart rate is your barometer, so simply monitor it mentally, much as you would while running intervals on a treadmill. If your heart rate is high during your next big presentation, notice that, then take a deep breath. Slow down your exhales, and count to four in your head. This will help you get back to your emotional set point. You may still feel a little uncomfortable, but it won’t derail your talk.
STEP 2: COMPARTMENTALIZE (REALLY, IT’S OKAY)
You may have had a bad speaking experience at some point of your life. For example, one of my clients actually fainted in front of 300 leaders at her company. That’s an extreme example–but you might have your own triggers that spike your anxiety levels through the roof.
To get beyond this, try to imagine that you’re putting images of these memories away into mental boxes, not to be touched or opened for a period of time. Worried that repressing bad memories doesn’t exactly sound like the most emotionally intelligent strategy? It is! You aren’t feeling your feelings for good–you’re noting that they’re there, then setting them aside just for the time being. Think of it as strategic compartmentalization.
Then, concentrate on what you’re doing instead of what you’re feeling. Think about your breathing, your movement, and most importantly, your ideas. You can even try assigning a color to each of your ideas to help you focus–green for creative, red for emotional, and so on. By putting bad feelings away for the moment, you’re putting yourself in control of the situation so you can be present when you need to be.
STEP 3: FOCUS ON THE NEXT IDEA, NOT THE NEXT WORD
Speaking is a fast-action sport. You need to keep talking at 150–200 words per minute. Imagine driving at 150–200 miles per hour. I remember test-driving a Lotus Simulator years ago at the Montreal World’s Fair, and the only way I kept from crashing was by looking further ahead down the road than I was used to. It’s kind of the same thing while speaking, especially when anxiety threatens to kick your emotions into overdrive.
The best way to stay in control is to look further ahead than you’re used to in an ordinary conversation, and the way to do that is to focus on your ideas, not your words. The more you focus on your words, the more likely you’ll end up crashing into higher and higher levels of anxiety. By focusing on your ideas, you allow your thoughts to flow, one into the next.
Remember: There is no right or wrong way to speak, no single turn of phrase that will save or ruin your message. It’s your ideas that matter most. By the same token, there’s no right or wrong way to feel. It’s how you handle your emotions that makes the difference.