Author: Grainne Delaney, storycoach Art Partner
Image: De Beeldvormers
Meet Pieter, co-founder of a consultancy firm that develops leaders. We are in the middle of a coaching session about a forthcoming event. Using a theatre exercise called ‘Open Speak’, he describes his thoughts and feelings about opening the conference and speaking in public.
‘I’m okay in front of a few people, but last time I presented, halfway through they started looking at their phones, so I started talking faster. I became really self-conscious, messed up my speech and I shut down.’
As he speaks, his hands become fists, he rounds his shoulders and the tightness of his jaw makes his voice sounds metallic. He looks like he wants to start a fight!
‘I know this doesn’t make sense,’ he continues. ‘Organising this conference is my dream come true. I know it’s important work. But now the idea of speaking in front of 280 strangers, makes me think: What if it’s not interesting enough? What if they don’t like me? What if my content is really off-target? What if I can’t answer their questions and the audience thinks I’m a fake?’
Pacing the room, he describes his heart in his throat, churning in his stomach and his dry mouth. ‘I can’t help it! What if I mess up again? How do I control my thoughts?’
The ‘What if..’ list of doom is getting longer!
Just the act of remembering the last time he spoke in front of an audience and imagining the next one, has put Pieter into a stress response.
‘It’s ridiculous!’ he declares. ‘I’m a professional.’
Focus: Feel the Fear
Getting a grip on this physical and mental state requires practice. The first thing we must do is understand where we are. I like to begin with how the body actually feels. ‘Open Speak’ helps us become more aware of and describe exactly what is happening physically, mentally and emotionally. Acknowledging our inner processes makes it easier to switch focus and do something about it.
Focus: Breath – Be Here Now.
One element that helps switch focus from freeze, (or fight) to flow, is observing the breath to bring us into the here and now. Seated with Pieter, we go into a 3-minute mindful exercise. But it’s not working. Pieter is still in his anxiety state. He is frowning, jittery and he can’t sit still.
Focus: Take Action!
You cannot escape fear, rationalise it away, or ignore it. You have to move through it.
We work through a good physical warm up, stretching and shaking to release the tension, allowing the nervous energy to move through the body, followed by a good vocal workout.
After 15 minutes, he is calmer.
‘I already feel better,’ he says. ‘My headache is gone,’
‘Great,’ I say. ‘Now focus on how you want to feel.’
‘I want to feel proud. But I don’t want to come across as arrogant,’ he replies.
This is a statement I often hear when preparing for a presentation.
The postures and gestures both look open, but arrogance is not the same as pride. They have different thoughts and intentions.
‘The audience is smart and emotionally intelligent.’ I tell him. ‘They will pick up on your body language, unconsciously mirror it and feel what you feel. So, let’s get really clear.’
We switch between the two, embodying Pride and Arrogance, becoming more precise about each thought and sensation, until he understands the difference.
For Pieter, ‘arrogant’ has the thought: ‘I am better than you’, connected with the intention: ‘You need to listen because I know more than you do.’ Physically there is more tightness in the body, less space on stage and less warmth in his voice.
He discovers ‘proud’ has the thought – ‘I am happy. I have worked hard and achieved insight.’ With the intention: ‘Now I want to share what I have learned with you because I believe it will help.’
‘What does proud look like?’ I ask.
‘Like this!’ He stands up straight, filling the room with presence, opens his arms in a welcoming gesture and smiles.
Now his mind and body are aligned and working together.
Let’s connect this to content.
Focus: W.A.I.T. Why Am I Talking?
What does the audience need to hear? Why is it important for them?
When I have doubts about content, I focus on the single most important person in the theatre: The Audience.
Every time I step onstage, I make sure, I want to speak and that I know why.
When we get our purpose straight, we can focus on delivering with impact. Because the reason and need to speak will override your fear. Pieter needs no support here.
‘I know how important this topic is for current and emerging leaders,’ he says passionately. ‘I know this can make a difference.’
He is speaking now for the benefit of others, for a group, for an organisation.
He has shifted his attention from Me to We.
‘Let’s try a thought experiment,’ I say. ‘What if…the audience really want you to succeed? Where is your attention now?’
‘On doing a really good job speaking.’ he says enthusiastically. ‘On enjoying myself.’ He smiles and stands up to rehearse his speech again. He takes on his embodiment of pride.
He looks confident and I hear the voice of a leader.
Focus: Mastery not Perfection.
Speaking in Public is a learned skill. It takes practice. As an actress, I know that Fear will never go away. It’s part of who I am and what I do.
When I think my performance must be perfect, I start doubting my ability. Telling myself, ‘After 20 years, I shouldn’t feel like this,’ also keeps me stuck.
But the goal is not perfection. The goal is mastery.
And from Mastery comes confidence.
Feel the fear . . . and focus.
Tips for Switching Focus.
- Channel your nervous energy into a good physical and vocal warm up.
- Get curious about your feelings. Don’t suppress them, it makes it worse. Use ‘Open Speak’. Acknowledge your anxiety and tell the truth. Then take action.
- Get curious about your thoughts. Which ones empower you? Which thoughts keep you small? Give yourself a more positive intention. How do you want to show up?
- Tell yourself a different story. ‘What if…’ is the actor’s most powerful tool of the imagination. What if I am not nervous? What if I am actually passionate, or excited? They are the same physical symptoms after all. What if the audience wants me to succeed? What changes?
- When there is too much focus on Me, switch to We. Focus your attention on others: Listen deeply to other speakers, give them the gift of your attention. Talk to the audience during the break, or before the beginning of a meeting.
- Remember your personal purpose. Your message is important. You are the only one who can deliver it.
- “Give them a present!”, Art Partner story coach, theatre playwright and director Andreas Vonder says. “You have prepared the best you can, wrapped it in rehearsal. And now, it’s time to give your audience a gift.”
In our Storytelling course www.art-partner.nl/intothelight you learn theatre techniques to set clear intentions and prepare your story, so the desire to share your message is stronger than your imagined fear.
We provide space and time to rehearse, with practical exercises for staying grounded on stage, controlling your breath, and placing focus.
Grainne Delaney is a performance artist, psychologist and story coach at Art Partner. The past six years over 700 consultants, accountants, directors and partners followed the storytelling course ‘Into the light: the Science & Art of Storytelling’ that she runs with Andreas Vonder and Art Partner.