Top three tips for overcoming stage fright; get off the roller coaster

Roller coaster

Get off the roller coaster of stage-fright

Your heart beat pounds loud enough for your audience to hear (surely…), your mouth is giving the Simpson desert a run for its money in dryness, your hands sweat, or shake, or both.

No matter how confident we are with our presentations, there will be one time or another where the stakes are raised, and our adrenalin hijacks our entire system.

In a recent book, The Organized Mind; Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload the human brain is described as a house renovation from different eras, that don’t often don’t communicate well with other parts.

What that means for us as presenters, is that the same system that saves us from being run over by a car, or eaten by a large predator, engages when we just have to get up in front of an audience and present. This is not ideal….There are a few things we can do to help balance this reaction out.

  1. Hold a Power Pose for two minutes.

  2. Breathe evenly

  3. Use the interrogative: Can I do this?

    Hold a Power Pose for two minutes

    When we open up our body language and take up more space, our physiology reacts by changing the hormone levels in our body. Researchers from Harvard University found that standing in a power pose for two minutes (think Wonder Woman or Superman) raised the level of testosterone (gives us a sense of confidence and capability) and reduced the level of cortisol (the hormone responsible for our reactivity to stress. There is a full post, and links to the work of the researcher, Amy Cuddy, here.

Breathe Evenly

Try a breath that goes in for two, and out for two. This doesn’t stop our heartbeat from racing, but it does stop it from being erratic- which is enormously helpful. There is more information on this in the last ten minutes of this video on How to Hack Your Biology.

Can I do this?

When we use declarative statements like ‘I can do this’, it opens up our mind’s favoured activity, which is problem-solving. That means that we look for reasons to dispute this statement. When we ask, ‘Can I do this?’ and write a list of the reasons why we can, we use that activity to help us. There is more on this research in Daniel H. Pink’s book, To Sell Is Human.


Which of these strategies can you use this week to get off the roller coaster of stage fright?

Be Disruptive; Subvert the cliché to Stand Out

Subvert the cliché to stand out

Subvert the cliché to stand out

What are your guilty clichés?

Every industry has its clichés.

Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

He was as mad as hell.

Weak as a kitten, strong as an ox.

At the end of the day….

Clichés are shorthand

They show us that we have a shared language, and understanding.

They are grounded in shared experience and that means they are shared over time.

But time bleaches words of meaning. Words left open to the light from repeated exposure lose their vividness and colour.

The danger of the cliché is that we give our audience permission to zone-out.

When our audience can anticipate our trajectory, we give them permission to get comfortable. That’s not entirely a bad thing. If I turned up for a corporate presentation in my pyjamas, there would need to be a compelling reason, and it would need to be tied to a theme in order for it to make sense. If I didn’t, I would run the risk of being so disruptive that nobody would pay much attention to what I was saying.

That said, we so often run in a default mode of repeating the familiar that we lose the opportunity to be fresh.

“time passed like ivory beads on a black thread” – John Hawkes, Travesty

“a stately ice pudding of a cloud” – Patrick White, A Fringe of Leaves

“[The] city lay curled up below like an animal infested with electric lights” – Angela Carter, Several Perceptions

We have so many tools at our disposal to engage an audience, why leave it to the poets and the writers to create something fresh?

Clichés are not just our words, but our actions

Must every presentation be at the front of the room?

Are we doing the same things all of our competitors are?

Think about the kinds of clichés that are in your industry, and avoid them….like the plague.

What are the clichés you are guilty of using the most?

What one clichéd way of doing things can you change this week?

How to be more likeable with (almost) no effort; Propinquity

Cat in the cannon of the HMAS Encounter, WW1

Show your face to be more likeable. Easier than being a cat in a cannon.

Proximity and Power

What if there was a way to be more likeable that didn’t take any special skills that was free and easy to implement?

What if you could be more likeable if you just show your face? There could be something useful in that.

Social psychologists have conducted studies on how proximity effects how we connect with others. Brothers, Ori and Rom Brafman detail some of these studies in their book, ‘Click; The Magic of Instant Connections – and how they can transform our work and relationships.’ The studies described below are resourced from this book, which is a fun and interesting read, and might help you understand what steps will help you build connections in life and work.

Propinquity; a powerful word for proximity

Here’s a quirky word to add to your vocabulary; propinquity. It’s the term social psychologists use when studying the effects of proximity on our relationships.

It is the area of research that describes why we are likely to have a connection with a neighbour (at work/in a dormitory, 40% likelihood) and that likelihood halves if they are two doors down.

Should you turn up to a meeting early?

One of the proposed reasons for this exponential growth in how proximity affects who we connect with, is spontaneous communication. These are the conversations about the weather, or everyday life that create cohesion in groups. Small talk is the ‘social glue’ that creates trust to communicate about bigger things.

Why would showing your face make better connections?

When we take the small talk out of the equation, even the people who we repeatedly see make an impact on how we perceive them. Psychologist call these ‘passive contacts’ and this is where we get the idea that just showing up and showing your face will make you more likeable.

 Email, phone or face-to-face?

Of all the choices, email is the weakest for creating connections.

One manager expressed her exasperation at having to constantly direct staff to pick up the phone, or walk around to a colleague’s desk and talk to them. This manager got it. If we want to communicate better, and create better connections, we need to talk to people. In fact, if you want to dehumanize someone, you’re more likely to kill someone through the push of a button, than if you have to do it face-to-face (but that’s another study). If you only communicate through email about important issues, it might be time to rethink the short-term convenience over the long-term impact.

What choices can you make this week that will make you a better communicator?

This five minute video has ‘Click‘ author, Rom Brafman explaining our likelihood of making connections and working with others based on proximity. It comes from a longer talk that explains how much better teams perform when they are more connected.

How to hook an audience; Don’t Bury the Lead

Don't bury the lead

Start with your most attention-grabbing information

Too many times we see a brilliant speakers with compelling content who have their audience listening politely for the first ten minutes. If we are lucky, we discover their brilliance, and end up taking photos of their powerpoint and scribbling down notes in the last ten minutes of the presentation. How can we avoid the same trap in our own presentations?

What if we could plan to ‘hook’ our audience from the outset?

There’s a term from journalism called ‘burying the lead (or lede)’ It’s when we put vital information in the second or third paragraph, rather than ‘leading’ with that information in the headline and first paragraph.

Our biggest trap is that we experience events in chronological order, and our default approach is to re-tell events in the same way we experienced them.

Don’t get stuck in chronology

Just because something happened first, it doesn’t make it the most interesting part of your presentation.

The lead is often referred to as the hook; what will hook your audience in?

Aristotle organised the elements of how we persuade in three categories: ethos, logos and pathos.

Ethos is our reputation, logos our logic, and pathos is the emotional content of our communication. The most likely place for your lead is to be anywhere you can find the pathos. Find the emotional moment in your presentation, and you are more likely to hook your audience.

What is the easiest way to identify you lead?

Summarise the information for your presentation, and ask yourself, ‘What is the most important, or compelling part?’ You can always circle back to how you got there, but if you want to get your audience’s attention from the beginning, start with the juiciest information.

It’s easy to lose perspective on what is most compelling about our own stories. We often think of all of the information as having equal importance. How can we get some perspective?

Ask a friend

  • Present for a friend and ask them to tell you what the most compelling part of the presentation was.
  • If there is a presentation you deliver repeatedly, ask a friend to sit in the audience. Get them to pay attention to when the audience is most interested.
  • Create a twitter friendly headline to tell your story. Having the discipline to fit your message into 140 characters can help you hone in on what is most important. If you want to take this a step further, create a message map.

Pacing is important when we are telling a story. The more we can plan how we will pace a presentation before we share it with others, the more we can take our audience with us from the very beginning.

When planning your next presentation, how will you identify your lead?

What do your surroundings to to your communication?

Business Meeting

We may make harder negotiators when we sit on harder chairs

Have you ever wondered if you hold more of a ‘hard-line’ if you sit on a hard seat?

Probably not.

Neither had I until I read something on a new area of research called embodied cognition.

Dr Thalma Lobel has researched extensively in the area of how what we do with our body impacts on how we think and behave. In her book, ‘Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence‘, Lobel details studies that show that we perceive someone to be a warmer person if we are holding a hot drink in our hands, than if we are holding a chilled drink. Although the entire area is interesting, what is most pertinent for us as communicators, is the impact that language has on our audience.

When we communicate with language around texture, our brains process the information in a similar way to when we experience that sensation. What that means, is that tactile metaphors have a much bigger impact than we could have imagined. We engage the senses of our audience when we use those words. That’s much easier than handing a hot cup of coffee to everyone in our audience.

Are there ways you can add sensation and texture to your language in your next presentation?

For extra information on embodied cognition:

In the first five minutes of this video, Dr Lobel talks about metaphors.

This short article is a great overview (and might explain how magicians can influence us when guessing a number from one to ten); ‘Embodied cognition: thinking with your body’

Voice 101

Cat yawing and singing

Even cats use a variety of pitches to communicate their needs.

How can we use our voice to influence?

The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.”– F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Great Gatsby

 “Her voice was like a bagpipe suffering from tonsillitis.”

Our voices are capable of a broad range of expression. The voice is designed to reflect our inner-state to the outer-world and has the capacity to invite or repel an audience.

One of our main challenges when we are presenting is to keep our audience interested. Think of your voice as a musical instrument, and your presentation as a piece of music, and you will be well on your way to engaging your audience.

  • Think melody: if a piece of music consisted of one note, it would get boring very quickly. Experiment with varying the melody in your vocal range.
  • Music is sound and silence; leave room for the pauses. A drone, like a bagpipe, consists of the one sound uninterrupted.
  • Vary the rhythm; think Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, or the Rolling Stone’s Jumping Jack Flash. It’s the rhythmic stops and variations that get our attention

One easy way to get a clearer picture of how you are using your voice is to record yourself. Try recording yourself giving a presentation. It is going to sound weird- not because you sound weird, but because we experience our sound differently than everybody else. When we hear our own sound, it’s like we are in the middle of a speaker. As you can imagine, we get a clearer ‘sound-picture’ in front of a speaker. If you are behind (or inside) a speaker it will sound muffled.

Use the points below to guide your listening.

  • Are you varying the melody or speaking in a monotone?
  • Are you leaving space for words to have their impact by pausing?
  • Are there places you might speed up, or slow down to underline what you are saying?

What can you do this week to raise your awareness of how you are using your voice? Are you matching the same melody and rhythm in your presentations as your conversations?

Top 3 Presentation Myths

Susan Ferrier (national managing partner of people, performance and culture for KPMG) believes that soft skills “are the new hard skills”. Because the internet provides a great storehouse of easily accessible knowledge, “having big parts of your brain storing technical stuff is going to be less valuable in the world of the future”, she says. “How you collaborate, solve problems creatively and authentically lead people will matter more.” from ‘The Rise of Soft Skills; Why Top Marks No Longer Get the Best Jobs’ by John Elder, The Age, March 15, 2015

If soft skills are the new hard skills, how do we develop them? How can we tell the truth from the baloney?

Every industry has myths that seem to hold more sway than the truth. Often they arise from a relevant statistic or study that is so compelling it creates a life of its own. Here are the top three in the presentation world, and some tips on how you might grow your skill set from an informed perspective.

  1. You either have charisma/great people skills, or you don’t.

    This myth is an excellent excuse to not have to do any work. It is an excellent way to abdicate responsibility for improving. When you think about people who have that ‘star quality’, it’s possible to break down all the elements that contribute towards how they communicate. The strangest part of working as a coach is hearing people talk about individuals I’ve coached as being a ‘natural’, and they just have that special ‘star quality/X-factor’ and yes, I also hear ‘you can’t teach that.’

  • The secret is deliberate practise. In a cross disciplinary study on expertise across domains from music, sports and medicine to software design, Anders Ericsson et al found that deliberate practise was the key to improvement. The often misquoted number of hours for mastery is ten thousand. That’s the number of hours if you want to reach a world-class level. Think about twenty hours, and you’re more on the mark for communication. It’s the first twenty hours that we have the steepest learning curve, and we get the biggest return on our investment for time.
  • If you chose one area of your presentation skills to work on each month, but the end of a year, you could have improved in twelve areas- that would be at least twenty hours. Five areas could be: Networking, Appearance (wardrobe and grooming), Voice, Body-language/Nonverbals and Volunteering for presentations.
  1. 97% of your communication is nonverbal.

    55% facial expressions 38% from tone of voice. We’ve all heard this at some time or another from communications professionals. This is one of those statistics that you don’t question, but if you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense. If ninety-seven percent of our communication was nonverbal we would immediately understand people having a conversation across the room in a foreign language. Being a spy would be the easiest job in the entire world. Listening devices? No need. This is a misquoted study. If you hear a communications specialist quote this statistic to you, it might be a good idea to critically examine the other information they quote as being based on science.

    The Mehrabian Myth

    Professor Albert Mehrabian’s experiments looked at the impact of inconsistent messaging, where someone means something different from the content they are communicating. Think of an argument with a friend when you ask, “Is everything ok?’ and they spit out between gritted teeth, ‘Fine!’Mehrabian made clear that these statistics were relevant to feelings or attitudes. Check out this video ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ and you will be a step ahead of the crowd. What can you do? Think ‘scriptwriter and actor.’ Even the best actor with a terrible script will bomb. Most likely, the audience will think it is the fault of the actor. Pay attention to polishing both your content and delivery. Check that they are congruent with each other, and congruent with you for the best presentation possible.

  2. If you work on it, you’ll be fake.

There is some truth to this one. We’ve all seen someone so plastic they would melt near a naked flame. But experts in any field continually work on improving their game. It is vitally important to be present for your audience as well as understanding your content. You will sound more natural if you talk from prompts than if you read notes verbatim.

If soft-skills are the new hard-skills it pays to get informed, and put a little bit of work in to improve. The great part about this is that we don’t need any special equipment, as we communicate all the time.

What communication skill will you practise this week?

Top 3 ways to break the ice; Permission to mingle

A stack of name tags you might see at a networking event

Networking 101: Get off your device, show your smile and ask a low-stakes question to break the ice. Photo courtesy of Gratisography

Networking 101

Meeting people for the first time can be daunting. Add to that the pressure of meeting strangers, and you have something called networking. I was at a Business Chicks breakfast speaking event last week to see the Red Shark, the founder of Red Balloon, Naomi Simson. The breakfast was a great opportunity to meet some dynamic women in business.

I arrived early and had the opportunity to meet new people before my friend turned up. Around the hotel foyer, there were lots of people waiting on their own. In the early morning light, these individuals were craning over the blue glow of their mobile phones. It was hard to catch anyone’s eye.

I walked around to the top of the escalator to wait for my friend, and noticed there were some other people waiting on their own too- maybe I could start a conversation there.

As nonverbals are my forte, I noticed the closed body language, arms crossed and clutching bags, bodies turned away. Ah, maybe not. I was thinking ‘This is ridiculous, I’m in the business of communication. Maybe it’s just too early in the morning.’

Then, a smiling woman strode up to the group

‘Hi, I’m Ineke. Do you all know each other?’

And that’s all it took to meet Ineke and five other interesting, very friendly people. We were all waiting for permission to mingle. It took one person to give us that permission, and it was something we could have given ourselves.

From now on, I’ll try to be a bit more like Ineke. It’s easy to make excuses for our own shyness. Next time I’m at an event where I don’t know anybody, I’ll remember what relief it was to have someone start the conversation.

Top 3 ways to break the ice

  1. Turn off your phone.

    It might make us feel less awkward to be on our device in a public place where we don’t know anyone, but it cuts us off from the people in the room. To add to our isolation, looking at a small device can reduce our confidence to engage with others. A Harvard Business School study, ‘iPosture: The Size of Electronic Consumer Devices Affects Our Behavior’,  demonstrated that people behaved less assertively, the smaller the device they looked at. Put down your phone to be available for conversations and increase your confidence.

  2. Make eye contact, and smile.

    In other words, look approachable. Although our tendency is to close off our body language when we feel nervous, try to keep open body-language. What would that look like? Arms uncrossed, and a friendly facial expression are a good start.

  3. Say hello, and ask a low-stakes question.

    Or; be more like Ineke. ‘Do you know each other?’ ‘Have you been to one of these events before?’ Great communicators shine the spotlight onto their partner.

How will you approach your next networking event?

Accent on Accent

Can you change your accent?

Can you learn a language? If you can learn a language, you can refine those language skills even further.

Remember the beginning stages of learning a new language, and how hard it was to make unusual sounds? Refining pronunciation follows the same process you’ve already been through to master the sounds you have now.

Why do we have an accent when we speak another language?

Each language has a set of linguistic habits. When we learn another language, this information passes through the filter of language habits we are accustomed to using. One example in Spanish is the single ‘r’ and the rolled ‘rr’ sound. Many English speakers have trouble rolling the r sound, as it is not part of the language. But in Spanish, the difference between having that sound, is the difference between pero- (but) and perro- (dog).

Although there is room for misunderstanding, the important thing to remember is to focus on an adequate level of communication.

When we get to business communication and positions of leadership, it can help to get a linguistic ‘tune up.’ Especially if the work requires presentations to groups.

How do we work on clarifying accent?

  • Working on a few key words or phrases. Each language group has similar difficulties around pronouncing certain words and sounds in English.
  • Understanding how the words are being formed in your mouth. You can investigate this for yourself on youtube, or work with a coach on how you are forming your sounds.
  • Get feedback and practise. If you have the right information, and you practise, it is inevitable that you will improve.

The good news on accents

In our international age, a lot of people speak more than one language. So long as we can communicate clearly, we can easily engage an audience.

There’s some interesting information in the book, Compelling People that some accents are perceived as warmer or stronger than others. The examples used are the perceived strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘I’m back.’  If you imagine his Terminator character with a more melodic or rounded vowel accent, say French, or Italian, it might sound quite different.

The main point to consider when we’re speaking a second language:

Are we being understood?

In all of our communication we want to make it easy for our audience.

Easy to listen, easy to be engaged, easy to respond.

If you’re getting feedback that some of your words are difficult to understand, with a little feedback, it’s easy to improve.

What are nonverbals? Or; Are your dinosaur scales showing?

There is a fine line between effective, strong leadership and embarrassing displays of dominance.

Our meeting was running on time; the interstate meeting my business associate and I had been asked to attend to discuss working with a high profile client of ours.

Within the first five minutes, there were signs that working with these people would be risking dropping our client into the jaws of an ancient reptile, the business crocodile.

With only cursory eye contact on introductions and shaking hands, small talk was almost non existent. Once in the meeting room our hosts thew their business cards on the table. The leader of the meeting chose a chair at a distance from the rest of the group, and extended himself back in his chair, crossing his outstretched legs at the ankles and broadening through his chest.

These collected elements are what we call the nonverbals of the meeting. Though each element is significant on its own, we look at, and respond to clusters of non-verbal information.

What are nonverbals?

Beyond ‘Body Language’

Nonverbals are everything we communicate that is not verbal. That goes from the building your meeting is in, to how you are greeted by the receptionist. The architecture and how people are dressed. The tone and pace with which people move and talk. This is what Joe Navarro in his book, Louder Than Words’, calls ‘curb-side appeal.’

  1. Tone of voice (paralinguistics) which communicate how we feel about what we are saying. This is exactly why there is so much room for misunderstandings in email and text messages.
  2. What you are wearing? One female manager I know wears a dark, matte shade of lipstick popular in the 1990s. Do you think this communicates an outlook that is up to date?
  3. The use of space and distance, in the nonverbal world, this is called proxemics. In our meeting, the choice our meeting partners made of the seating arrangement communicated their intention to be collaborative (one manager seated next to us) or combative (the other manager, who had also displayed a cluster of dominance displays, left a seat between himself and my partner.)

How do we become fossilised?

Crocodiles have been around for more than 55 million years….Often working within the same company or role for an extended period of time can lead us to being stagnant with our nonverbals. A way of being that seemed appropriate at the beginning of a career can be based on mentors and role models who were already behind the times. Our nonverbals are something people don’t feel comfortable giving us feedback on. It’s too personal. Unless I have been contracted to give someone feedback on their nonverbals, there is no way I would intrude on a person’s personal choices in their communication.

How can we fix it?

Outsource. Find someone who has put in thousands of hours research into what will help you be more up to date. That can be anything from books, magazines and online videos to personal consultations.

I have a one piece jumpsuit from the 1980s that would have looked very chic when it was made. The shoulder pads in themselves would have indicated up-to-date power, and the slashes of hot pink colour would have communicated an edginess, contrasting with the more sombre background beige. In 2014, I wear that jumpsuit to dress-up parties. Every time I wear it I get a laugh. When we stay in a time warp, everything from our wardrobe to our nonverbals can become a joke. We can’t expect our business behaviour to remain the same for twenty or even thirty years without appearing out of date, and out of touch.