Feel the Fear and Focus!

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!

‘What if….?’

‘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.’

Focus: Intention.

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.

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.

In our Storytelling course 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.

Want to experience this first hand?

Join our open course starting January 8th, 2021, join Art Partner’s ‘Into The Light’ Storytelling training: www.art-partner.nl/intothelight or contact us for possibilities of inhouse training.

Contact: Robert Tordoir, 0648409132 or robert@art-partner.nl


Emotion, emotion, emotion: finding flow

Author: Grainne Delaney, storycoach Art Partner

Meet Henry. As a Financial Partner he is deeply analytical, wants the facts clearly and simply delivered. He is not afraid to speak up, likes debate and follows the rules. We are discussing his Storytelling goal; to make more impact by being more personal when talking to clients.

I only have an hour’s coaching session to get him up on his feet, moving. He is one of those experts that comes across as distant and tense. A talking head. A very clever talking head, but disconnected from his body and can only broadcast data, the facts, in a serious monotone. He rarely smiles.

Facts + Personal Response = Story

I sense an allergy to actors. He is reacting to me with extreme caution as if any sudden emotional expression may trigger him to shut down.

‘I don’t want to look like a Clown and I’m not Sylvester Stallone!’ he tells me. ‘I want to stay authentic – too much jumping about it’s not me. It’s acting. I’m not an actor. It’s too much.’

‘Do you want to make an impact?’


‘Then we need more colour’, I say. ‘More landscape, more highs and lows, more geography. The audience need a reason to stay listening. And the glue that keeps them engaged is emotion. You need to show more emotion.’

We have to take a calculated risk and use this hour to experiment, to step outside our comfort zone, to stretch.’

‘I’m already out of my comfort zone sharing something personal.’

‘Yes, it’s personal’, I reply, ‘but that is only one part of the equation. You are presenting the facts of ‘Here is what happened to me’. We have to add the other half of your story: how you felt and thought about what happened.’

Circle Solution: Action – Reaction

I draw a circle on the board. For every (external) action there is an (internal) reaction.

Slowly, we build up an emotional map, ‘subtext’ in theatre-speak. His personal response to what is going on underneath the events and facts. The journey of his inner life. Discoveries, decisions, his thought process. I write these down on the inside of the circle.

I tell him straight.

‘Here’s the deal: If you don’t share the inside of the circle, you don’t really share anything personal.’

E-Motion = E (energy) + M (movement)

He feels more confident about the ‘why’, now we have to explore the ‘how’.

‘So what do I do with my hands?’ he asks. That is my next challenge. I only have half an hour left to get him active in the space, to ‘embody’ his story physically.

Energy comes through the body, but he is speaking so fast that his body cannot keep pace with his words. Information is streaming from head to mouth in statements that are all the same length. I ask him to speak in slow motion and as he slows down, his body starts to make more natural, congruent gestures. His words begin to pass through his heart before they come out through his mouth. He starts to relive his story, not just retell it.

We experiment with colour. Using emphasis, pause, scaling, different levels of tension, positioning in the space, hands open, closed and filming short extracts. Reviewing, repeating, rehearsing.

‘I feel awkward’, he says. But when I show him the film of his last 2 minutes, he is surprised.

His presentation is more dynamic. There is more flow. More variety. More Life.

‘I look quite normal on the outside!’ he smiles.

‘I still have doubts’, he says as he shakes my hand to leave.



‘Well that’s perfectly normal, you are pushing your envelope and stepping outside your comfort zone, big time. You have agreed with yourself to try something very different and of course it’s going to be uncomfortable, at first.’

Being a performer takes tremendous courage.

Tips for adding E-Motion.

There are many ways to add emotion to a presentation or story. It is not about exaggerating and expressing. It is about identifying your inner life, the emotional journey you go on.

You want to share not only the series of events that took place, but also the highs and lows, the changes, the twists and turns that affected you in such a way that you take us to that moment and allow us to experience your story as our own.

Here are some steps to start rehearsing with.

  • Identify your inner life, your E-Map (Emotional Map). You don’t have to share or demonstrate all of it. Choose the moments in your journey that have the most action or change for you.
  • Speak those moments as if you are in the present tense. Make it a live event, in the here and now. I am. You don’t retell a story, you relive it.
  • Use your breath. Remember when you were angry, sad, joyful. What was your breathing pattern like?
  • Rhythm. When we are emotional we speed up or slow down. Experiment.
  • Tension. Muscle tension affects the tone of your voice. Play with adding and releasing tension in your hands, jaw, shoulders.
  • Weight. We can bring attention to an important word by using more power behind the breath to make it stand out.
  • Pause. Again. Silence gives us status, but also signals a significant moment. Use it to highlight a decision, before a personal response, or after a reaction. Let it resonate.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Deliberate practice leads to peak performance.

Grainne Delaney is a performance artist, psychologist and storycoach 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.

Want to experience this first hand?

Join our open course starting January 8th, 2021, join Art Partner’s ‘Into The Light’ Storytelling training: www.art-partner.nl/intothelight or contact us for possibilities of inhouse training.

Contact: Robert Tordoir, 0648409132 or robert@art-partner.nl

Romeo en Julia: leren van een repetitieproces

Auteur: Sandra Boer, oprichter Art Partner

Plotseling bevind ik mij bij een repetitie van Het Nationale Ballet tijdens het Global Corporate Ladies Event van Houthoff advocaten. Een leeg podium. Twee jonge dansers, Romeo en Julia. Adjunct-artistiek directeur Rachel Beaujean beschrijft aan de dansers waar ze zijn.

“We zijn in de slaapkamer, er staat een bed in het midden van de ruimte, een deur waar elk moment iemand binnen kan komen aan de rechterkant en een raam aan de linkerkant waar Romeo door kan ontsnappen. Dit is de laatste keer dat jullie samen zullen dansen.”

Ik merk dat mijn aandacht niet naar de dansers uitgaat, maar dat ik in fascinatie kijk naar Rachel Beaujean in haar rol als regisseur. Heel even mag ik getuige zijn van een repetitieproces dat waarschijnlijk al weken aan de gang is. Het is voelbaar dat er een unieke en heldere visie ten grondslag ligt aan deze vertolking van Romeo en Julia van Rudi van Dantzig (1933-2012). De pianist, de dansers, de regisseur, ze wéten wat het einddoel is, waar ze naartoe op weg zijn met elkaar. Wat maakt nou dat ik zo gefascineerd ben door Rachel Beaujean?

Er is niets te zien behalve het podium, maar we zíjn in de slaapkamer van Romeo en Julia. De muziek begint en als de dansers beginnen met dansen realiseer ik me dat we getuige zijn van een intiem en kwetsbaar moment.

En ik leer. Ik leer ter plekke van de regisseur en ik merk dat ik volledig in de ban ben van de wijze waarop ze met dit team werkt. Er is helderheid in rolverdeling en door die helderheid zijn de pianist, regisseur en dansers volstrekt gelijkwaardig. Alle vier wéten ze waar ze aan werken en alles is erop gericht om samen de hoogst mogelijke kwaliteit neer te zetten.

De aanwijzingen van de regisseur zijn helder. En wat bijzonder is, is dat elke regieaanwijzing, de feedback, gericht is op wat ze wél wil zien en niet op wat ze niet wil zien. Datgene wat ze anders wil, duidt ze door heel precies aan te geven welk effect een bepaalde beweging of gezichtsuitdrukking heeft op het publiek. Ze beschrijft het ‘gedrag’ dat ze zojuist heeft gezien en is daar niet ondubbelzinnig in. Ze beschrijft de feiten en benoemt wat er gebeurt. Ook de timing van de regieaanwijzingen valt me op. Niet achteraf, maar direct en met voldoende tijd om de aanwijzing uit te proberen, te kijken of het werkt.

De reactie van de dansers op haar aanwijzingen is minstens zo bijzonder. Ze gaan niet in discussie en lijken haar aanwijzingen niet als kritiek op te vatten. Ze vertrouwen haar en accepteren haar feedback als iets positiefs, als een kans om te leren. Ze schieten niet in de verdediging en voelen de ruimte om toelichting te vragen als ze iets niet helemaal begrijpen. Dit geeft haar de gelegenheid om te kijken of haar regieaanwijzing het gewenste effect heeft en zo nodig aan te passen, fijn te slijpen, net zo lang tot ze allemaal ervaren dat het klopt.

Geen woorden om ons te vertellen wat we zien, alleen het beeld dat de dansers oproepen met hun lichaamstaal. De ‘regisseur’ is op deze manier niet alleen de tolk tussen visie en dansers, ze is ook tolk tussen dansers en publiek. Deze korte repetitie is een spiegel voor mij en mijn persoonlijk leiderschap en laat eens en te meer zien hoeveel leiders nog van de kunstwereld kunnen leren.

Met dank aan: Houthoff Cocktails, Culture & Change
#GlobalCorporateLadiesEvent #rachelbeaujean #timothyvanpoucke #salomeleverashvili #hetnationaleballet #houthoff #michaelmouratch