Most of us have heard the phrase “first impressions last”, but when faced with speaking to a room full of people, many of us find it difficult to portray a sense of ease and confidence.
When we encounter stressful situations, our brain functions like a command centre communicating a fight or flight response through the sympathetic nervous system. This can result in physiological impacts like sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, digestive problems… there are at least 50 signs and symptoms of stress.
So how do we make the inevitable nervous responses work for us rather than against us?
Keith Bain , who was the inspiration behind Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom and former movement teacher at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), wrote in his book The Principles of Movement: “to conquer challenges, and so build confidence, work on your ability to break down material into digestible portions”.
But what does he mean when he says “digestible portions”? He uses the example of an actor who is afraid of heights but who has to work on a stage with a steeply-raked ramp, a staircase with no handrail, or a suspended walkway. The process of overcoming the fear is broken down into components that can be trialled in a safe and controlled environment before they are taken to the stage.
For example climbing a ladder, stepping up onto a chair, standing on a table, or attempting basic acrobatic rolls and tumbles: trial, test, repeat. These are specific exercises that are designed to address the overriding fear and lack of confidence.
If we apply this same logic to managing nerves in preparing for a presentation, the “digestible portions” that could be worked through one by one include:
1. Getting comfortable with your content and knowing your audience
You probably already wear the “content expert” hat at work, so you have all the information required for the presentation in your head, or at least at your fingertips. When crafting presentation content, ask yourself the questions what do you want your audience to think, feel or do differently? What is in it for them?
These questions will help you identify your key messages and inform the level of detail you need to cover so that it is not gratuitous or rudimentary. To practise your knowledge and your ability to shift from the detail to the high level information, try an Advance and Expand improvisation exercise.
2. Using breath to reduce nervousness
Shallow, rapid breathing is a typical part of the stress response. Fortunately, we have the power to deliberately change our own breathing. Controlled breathing can promote relaxation and reduce the effects of stress and the feeling of nervousness. Renowned voice coach Cicely Berry suggests you “lie on the floor to release the tension that causes most of us to breathe from the throat when we speak (bad), rather than the stomach (good)”.
Try this exercise and concentrate on inhaling to a count of five and exhaling to a count of 10, then add a humming sound with a long, drawn-out “ha”.
3. Standing tall and maintaining a sense of personal presence
Presence is an unmistakable quality we identify in another person when we meet them. It begins with posture, but translates into authority and confidence. Some things – such as fidgeting, squirming, gratuitous gesturing – hinder the creation of presence. Critically acclaimed actress, Cate Blanchett, said, “You need constant awareness, from your front to your back.
Not only when you’re working on stage, but when you’re in front of the camera. You need to know where everyone and everything else is. And therefore how you physically fit into the picture you are all creating.”
Try practising a centred and neutral stance by putting your feet hip width apart, holding your hands by your sides and imagining there is a string pulling from the top of your head to the ceiling. You might feel awkward, but it is a great way to ensure you don’t distract people from the important words you are speaking and the message you are delivering.
4. Silencing your inner critic
OK, we know you’re a bag of nerves but stop with that self-flagellation! Our inner critic – that voice in our head which says, “They’re not listening; you are not interesting” – needs to be silenced. It’s all too easy to be extremely tough on ourselves and we need to get better at self-compassion. Here is an exercise from the School of Life on how to lessen the critical voices and learn to appreciate the role of self-care in a good and fruitful life. When rehearsing your presentation, write down three positive things you achieved rather than dwelling on the negatives.
5. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
Rehearsals are effective because they create a sense of comfort and control. No great actor goes on stage without a rehearsal, just as no great athlete succeeds without training hard. Get up on your feet and speak it aloud. Verbalise the message you are sending – you could even film it and watch yourself in playback.
You’ll observe that it can often look and sound different to the way you thought it came across. You might even surprise yourself by appearing to look more confident than you felt!
It’s all about channelling the nervous energy from feeling totally uncomfortable and out of control, to manageable. Nerves will always find their way in, but there are some technical and very practical tools you can use to reduce their impact physically, mentally and vocally.
Vanessa White is the Head of NIDA Corporate at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. NIDA Corporate offers practical skills-based training in communication, presentation and leadership for individuals and businesses in the public and private sectors.
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