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Dealing with nerves

Feeling nervous is a good thing (just not too nervous) have a look at the chart below.

The Yerkes-Dodson (xi) law demonstrates an empirical relationship between arousal and performance. It dictates that performance increases with cognitive arousal, but only to a certain point: when levels of arousal become too high, performance will decrease.

When you present, you want to be in the grey zone, here your arousal or adrenalin is at the right level.  If you substitute the word arousal for fear you can conclude that a certain amount of fear is a good thing – too much is what we call stage fright where you stutter, stumble and sweat your way through a presentation.  So if you suffer from stage fight the trick is not to eradicate what you are feeling but to “knock the edge off” so you move into the grey zone.  Think of it like an athlete – if they are not pumped before going onto the field (in the grey zone) they won’t perform at their peak.  Too much adrenaline and they could perform poorly.  Listed on the next page are some techniques for “knocking the edge off”.

Ted Schredd has written a great article on the physiological similarities between fear and excitement, I’ve captured a piece of great advice here:

Most of your fears are imagined and should be treated as imaginary. Learn to distinguish the fears that are valid and those that are not. The next time you feel scared, challenge your fear and the thing you fear will disappear. Ask yourself, “What would I do if I wasn’t feeling fear?” then act accordingly. When you confront your fears, astonishing things will happen. Remember you are the master and you are in control.

The second thing I want to talk about is the importance of content and delivery.  Many presenters put undue pressure on themselves because they believe they don’t deliver well and as a consequence build up unbelievable levels of anxiety.  Remember if you get your content right using a solid strategy (like the one I’m taking you through here) the delivery will start to take care of itself.  You will come across as being confident, authentic and believable – your audience will sense this and will complement you accordingly. I’m not saying that delivery is not important; you just have to get the order right – content first then work on your delivery.

Some communication consultants site studies such as Albert Mehrabian’s work which states that the meaning of a message is communicated by:

Your words 7%
Your tone of voice 38%
Your body language 55%.

They then use this information to tell you that delivery is the only thing that matters.  In fact as Olivia Mitchell explains in Mehrabian has been miss quoted.  I would go as far as to say that to apply this rule in a business context is just plain wrong. The message here is don’t put undue pressure on yourself to deliver like your favourite business leader when it’s not necessary.

My top tips for reducing the effect of nerves and “knocking the edge off” are:

– Know your material inside out and try never to deliver someone else’s presentation unless you know the subject matter intimately. Know your environment; for example does all the equipment work? How much space do you have? Know your audience: even if you are at a conference mingle with the audience beforehand. Know yourself and be yourself; know what you are capable of, what you are not.and be the best you can be.

– Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; as often as you can where ever you can. Get a measure on your performance, look after your personal branding (xiii), and get honest feedback on what you can work on next time.

– Meditate, swim run work out; some people manage their nerves by undertaking some form of exercise. Don’t drop off your regular exercise routine. Don’t change your diet; eat well and don’t skip meals or drop off your fluids

– Breathe – this is potentially the most effective exercise you can use to calm your nerves. The exercise goes like this: start by exhaling all the air from your lungs (don’t breathe in first), then breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds and exhale for 5 seconds. Repeat this 4 times.  Do this on a regular basis, before the nerves kick in and prior to presenting.

Give yourself a break everyone makes mistakes – have a look at Steve Jobs bloopers

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Be authentic in your delivery

There are two types of presentations; Presentations that are made to large groups of people that you see CEO’s, politicians and VIP’s give – when done well, these are the ones you typically and unfairly think you need to emulate.

The second type is the one you give every day to colleagues, clients and at social gatherings. In these situations don’t feel you have to present like your favourite politician. You have to present the best you can and your style of delivery will depend on 4 things

Subject: what you are there to talk about.
Occasion: is a product launch, conference or birthday speech.
Audience: think about their expectations, communication styles, motivations and titles.
Your Personality: don’t try and be someone you are not, just be the best you can be.

Why is delivery important?
If you want to effectively communicate with your audience, to influence, persuade or just create a good impression, you need to adapt your delivery style to match the expectations and communication needs of your audience

This is about increasing the size of your delivery skill toolbox, so you can use the right tool for the job.  This takes work and practice but the good news is your tool box is different to everyone else’s.  So your version of dynamic voice will be different to everyone else’s, and your version of serious is also different to everyone else’s. But here’s the thing, the audience knows if you are faking.  So have a look at the eight behaviours listed below and ask yourself what you need to work on.

Once that’s established just focus on that element. Watch videos of people who do it well, try and emulate that facet and make it your own.  Please note that I’m not saying copy other people, but observe them and learn and see how you can incorporate that element into your style. This may be such things as noticing how a presenter may smile a lot or pause or emphasise with a subtle gesture.

Eight Behaviours

1. Facial expression
Smiling is a powerful cue that transmits friendliness, warmth, and approachability.  Smiling is often contagious and others will react favourably.  They will be more comfortable around you and more open to the information you are offering.

2. Eye contact
Steady eye contact helps to regulate the flow of communication, encourages participation, and can be used to develop rapport with the audience.  When the audience feels that you see them as individuals, they are more likely to trust you and be more open to your recommendations.

Some tips for using eye contact to build rapport include

– Length of Eye Contact: Try to maintain eye contact with one person at a time for at least 2-3 seconds. This helps to establish a connection with people and helps you to avoid darting eyes, which can be distracting and communicate nervousness.
– Movement of Eyes:  Direct eye contact towards different parts of the audience throughout the course of your presentation.  Staring too long in one direction may cause you to miss important information and can make certain audience members feel less important.
– Search for Friendly Eyes: If you are nervous, look for a friendly audience member and establish eye contact with that person.  Gradually, work to establish eye contact with everyone.

Some habits to avoid include:

– Talking to the Ceiling: Don’t present to a spot over the tops of the audience’s heads.  They may think you don’t care or they may feel that you are “above them.”
– Talking to the Screen: Don’t speak to your notes, to the whiteboard, or to your visuals.  The audience may not be able to hear you and may become disinterested.
– Clutching Your Notes: Be familiar with your material.  Being tied to your notes or a manual keeps you from establishing eye contact and may cause the audience to question your knowledge, preparedness, and confidence.

When presenting to groups you need to have stronger eye contact than usual.  Have you ever been to a concert and thought the performer was looking directly at you?  Maybe they were, maybe not – either way they were using a technique called clustering.  In this technique you group the audience into clusters.  If you have a large audience your clusters are very small in the first row – one or two people and the cluster becomes bigger the further you go back. If it’s a very large audience then the clusters may be as big as twenty people toward the back

Now target an individual in each cluster, and hold eye contact with that person as you deliver a thought or idea.  When focusing on the clusters at the front of the room hold for a duration of 4 -5 seconds and when focusing on clusters at the back hold for up to 10 seconds.  Move randomly amongst the clusters.  This gives the impression that you are looking at everyone in the cluster.

4. Posture
You communicate numerous messages by the way you hold yourself while presenting.  A person who is slouching or leaning with arms across their chest may be perceived as being uninterested or unapproachable.  Standing erect, facing the audience with an open stance, and leaning forward communicates that you are receptive and friendly.  Speaking with your back turned or looking at the floor or ceiling should be avoided as it communicates disinterest.

5. Body movement
Moving naturally around a room or stage increases interaction, adds interest, and draws attention to the presentation.  Staying frozen in the front of the room can be distracting and boring for people to watch.  Shuffling feet and pacing can convey nervousness and lack of confidence.

6. Gestures
A lively speaking style captures attention, makes the material more interesting, and facilitates understanding.  Use natural movements to emphasize topics and free, easy arm and hand movements to add personality to your presentation.  If you fail to gesture while speaking, you may be perceived as boring and stiff.  Gesturing too often can also be distracting for some audiences.

7. Proximity
Cultural norms dictate a comfortable distance for interaction with others.  When interacting, a presenter needs to be aware of people’s defined levels of personal space.  Signals of discomfort caused by invading other’s space may include rocking, leg swinging, tapping, and gaze aversion.  Do not invade an audience member’s intimate space.  Most adults will feel uncomfortable, even if rapport has been established.

8. Voice
Voice is another area of communication that can affect the quality of audience retention.  An interesting and audible voice will be engaging, while a soft or monotone voice can cause boredom or disinterest among participants.  While it may be difficult to listen to and change your own voice, with awareness and practice, it is possible to use one’s voice effectively.  The first step to refining your voice is to understand the components of voice and identify common voice problems.  Once identified, most voice problems can be improved by being aware of the problem, altering some habits, and practicing new behaviors on a regular basis.

Pace
Pace is how long a sound lasts.  Talking too fast causes words and syllables to be short while talking slowly lengthens them.  Varying pace helps to maintain the audience’s interest. If you are continuously talking too fast or too slow:•be aware of your normal conversational pace and keep in mind how tension affects the speed in which you talk, •use breathing and natural pauses to slow down your pace, constantly vary your pace in order to maintain audience interest.

Projection
Projection is directing the voice so that it can be plainly heard at a distance.  Problems with projection are often the result of tension, breathiness, and breathing from your throat. Try to avoid projecting from your throat which can lead to sore throats, coughing, and loss of your voice. Take slow, deep breaths, initiated from your abdomen.  Open your mouth fully and speak to the people in the back of the room.

Articulation
Articulation is the ability to pronounce words distinctly.  It often reflects your attitude towards the words you are speaking.  Clear enunciation reflects self-confidence and interest, while slurred or mumbled speech, indicate insecurity or indifference. To remedy this speak at a slower pace than your normal conversational tone, take the time to pronounce each letter or sound within a word. and listen for common articulation problems, such as dropping the “g” at the end of words such as finding or going.

Pitch
Pitch is the normal range of the voice – its highness or lowness.  Think Pee Wee Herman for high and James Earl Jones for low.  Everyone is capable of a wide voice range.  Stress and poor breathing can greatly alter the pitch of your voice. Try to adjust your pitch to convey different meanings throughout a presentation. To alter pitch, control your breathing; breathe from your abdomen and slow your rate of speech, take pauses to relax between pitch changes

Inflection
Inflection is the manner in which pitch varies as you speak.  Inflection serves as verbal punctuation and involves changing pitch to convey meaning.  Upward inflections ask a question, suggest uncertainty or doubt, and communicate hesitancy.  Downward inflections give information and convey strength and authority to the audience.

Use upward and downward inflections appropriately. Avoid constant middle inflection where the voice neither rises nor falls but just drones on and on.It may help to think of these seven things as a graphic equaliser – there’s one on page 37. Each event, meeting or interaction you have has a different setting and combination.  So if you have only one setting, every presentation better be exactly the same.

Have a look at these presenters and identify what you like about their style – they are different but they are all passionate.

Helen Fisher: The brain in love
Siegfried Woldhek shows how he found the true face of Leonardo
Aimee Mullins: It’s not fair having 12 pairs of legs

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The Three Ways the Brain Creates Meaning

I recently viewed an interesting TED presentation by Tom Wujec titled “The Three Ways the Brain Creates Meaning.  Wujec explains it like this:

We make meaning by seeing, by an act of visual interrogation. The lessons for us are three-fold. First, use images to clarify what we’re trying to communicate. Secondly make those images interactive so that we engage much more fully. And the third is to augment memory by creating a visual persistence. 

What does this mean for us in a presentation context?  In the Extreme Presentation Method program we design presentations using five essential elements: Logic, Rhetoric, Graphics, Metrics and Politics.  We then apply these five elements to one of two presentation idioms either the “Conference Room Style” or the “Ballroom Style”

I believe we can apply Wujec’s findings to the graphics element when working with the “Conference Room Style” idiom:

  1. Use images to clarify what we’re trying to communicate.

We can do this by designing each page so that the page layout itself reinforces the main message of the page. Sample layouts that achieve this can be found here.

  1. Make those images interactive so that we engage much more fully.

This is achieved by having all the information on one page and contained in or around an appropriate layout (see point 1) including charts. Most importantly this page is handed out, not projected. By doing this we can get the audience to absorb and adopt what we are presenting to them by allowing interactive discussion, which then gives them the opportunity to engage with our material and reflect on it.  Here’s an example.

  1. Augment memory by creating a visual persistence.

If you look at a well-lit scene and then close your eyes, you will notice that the image can still be sensed for some time after your eyes close.  This is visual persistence.  Under the Extreme Presentation Method we can determine whether the presentation will create visual persistence by applying the “Squint Test”.

Another way of applying these lessons is to think of a traditional painting, one that tells a story, such as Shearing the Rams, by Tom Roberts 1888.

Here Roberts depicts six men hunched over in a staggered pattern extending towards the back of a narrow sided room which belongs to a large shearing shed. By creating such a line, Roberts brings the viewer’s focus on the men’s positions, leaving the sheep secondary. Furthermore, he orientates the painting so that the viewer is directly in line with the shearers, practically hiding the sheep from view. But of even greater significance is the presence and position of the foreman to the right of the shearers. The foreman represents the shearing industry, which at the time imposed brutal and oppressive working conditions upon the shearers.

Hence in Roberts painting he uses images to clarify what he is trying to communicate – the struggle of the shearer not only with the rams but also against oppressive working conditions. He makes those images interactive so that we engage more fully through the different characters, their ages, their ranks and the painting’s location. And finally he creates a visual persistence through his artistry.

So the cognitive science research  as described by Wujec seems to confirm what our great classical artists have always known. That is, we need to use images to clarify our message, enable audience interaction and create a visual persistence.  This in turn further reinforces our knowledge that the Extreme Presentation Method provides the means by which this can be achieved in our business presentations.