Surprise Release

They say a powerful story is one that grabs you by the throat and that’s definitely what UNCUT GEMS staring Adam Sandler did to me, but not a good way. It consisted of Adam Sandler yelling  and swearing and talking over the top of everyone else for 120 minutes – but I was determined to see it through because my son said it was a great movie. Having said that I think the story line was fantastic as Sandler got into and out of trouble – tension release, tension release – all the way through.

However, overarching the entire story was the tension created by Sandler’s delivery style.  When this tension came to an end, the release was one I wasn’t expecting. I think the writers did this deliberately but the emotion I felt was very much a surprise.

How Not to Choke Under Pressure – Public Speaking

Missfire #1 #2 #3 KaBOOM!

Conquering the fear of public speaking from Scatterbrain by Henning Beck.

The perfect storm of presentation poor performance presents itself when

#1 we focus on every single step making the very thing we don’t want to do top of mind,

#2 worrying so much about non-performance that we forget why we are there and

#3 letting our emotions run riot to the extent we would rather be dead.

And don’t forget we are doing all this under the watchful eye of an audience who are distracting our brains further!

So what can we do?

We need to realise that our brains stress response is doing exactly what we want it do.  It’s just that sometimes we are either pumping too much fuel into the engine or not enough, which results in under performance. It’s this realisation that is important.

The next thing we can do is practice under pressure.  So if we are rehearsing, rehearse without stopping – just keep going, errors included. Think about it, if you are presenting in front of an audience you cant just say “sorry I made a mistake I need to go back to the beginning”

Don’t learn your presentation word for word. If you miss out a phrase or a word you may become distracted and send your presentation into an abyss. Instead break your presentation down into main messages or key phrases and then link them together.  It’s much more interesting for you and your audience.

If your fear is failing in front of an audience, then Henning Beck suggests “you should try to visualise the pressure situation  as intensively as possible before it takes place….You should then play out the various scenarios in your mind in order to break down your fear of them”

One last helpful point Henning makes is not to cover up mistakes. If you lose your way, let the audience know, regain your place by checking your notes and then continue. For example, say “I may have jumped an important point let me just check my notes” or “I’ve gotten off track a bit, let me just see where I am”.

In addressing the fear of public speaking we need not only strategies for developing, designing and delivering our presentation,  just as importantly we need strategies for when our brain misfires!

How Not to Choke Under Pressure #3

Mental misfire #3 “The Over Excitement Trap” from Scatterbrain by Henning Beck.

Most of us have felt this over excitement at some stage of our careers – typically when giving a presentation. Here our autonomic nervous system is getting our body ready for the fight, flight or freeze response and pumping a cocktail of chemicals through our body including adrenaline.

But what causes our body to respond in this way? Henning Beck suggest that it’s the thought of either punishment or reward that contributes to this response. The reward might be winning an account or pitch and interestingly the higher the stakes the higher the error rate. Beck goes on to say “one of the most violent forms of punishment is social rejection.”  People are afraid of what others might say.

There are two things we can do here.

First, realise that this excitement or pressure is a good thing – it’s getting us ready to perform. Hans Selye said “it’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”  Likewise Susan David says in her book Emotional Agility, “We own our emotions, they don’t own us.” So we need to turn the table on this over excitement and realise we can mange it.

However as Beck notes “too little pressure and we perform just as poorly as when the pressure increases tenfold.” So rather than trying to rid ourselves of the excitement all together just pare it back enough so that we are more focused. 

One way we can pare it back is to practice paced breathing. If you don’t already, practice paced breathing everyday and before your event. Paced breathing is simply gently breath in on a count of 4, hold for 4, breath out for 4 and repeat for 5 or 10 minutes.

The effect of this breathing is it will balance the autonomic nervous system, so we can become more focused and alert and less over excited!

How Not to Choke Under Pressure #2

Mental misfire #2 The Distraction Trap from Scatterbrain by Henning Beck.

Whilst a small amount of distraction is important to help engage the subconscious in a step by step process, such as in sport when you are kicking for goal, this doesn’t work so well when we are undertaking complex tasks such as an exam, test or interview.  Here we need all the brains energy to focus on the task at hand and any anxiety we experience robs us of that energy.

Beck suggests we “combat the anxiety directly by simulating the pressure situation in practice, thus growing accustomed to it.”

For example in an interview rehearsal you create the pressure by allowing yourself only one attempt at an answer. The key however, is to make sure you are observed, that you have one or a couple of people play the role of the interviewer. This observation is incredibly distracting and creates the pressure we need in a safe environment.

So going over and over something doesn’t help as much as rehearsing under pressure.

How Not to Choke Under Pressure #1

I’ve just started reading Scatterbrain by Henning Beck, and in his chapter called Blackout he offers a number of strategies for helping us to avoid “choking under pressure”. He calls them Mental Misfires and here’s the first one:

Mental misfire #1: the step-by-step trap.

When we rehearse something over and over and imbed that process into our subconscious why is that when we go to perform we mess-up?

It has to do with our observant and operative systems of action. Our operative system embeds the process and our observant system scans the environment for obstacles. When we are about to perform the observant system starts looking for things that can go wrong – so guess where our focus goes? To help this to not occur Beck suggest the following:

“If you find yourself concentrating too much and thereby tensing up under pressure, it might therefore be wise to try distracting yourself a little with something else. Pause and look out the window briefly, let your thoughts drift to something else, recall a pleasant memory, play it through and linger for a few seconds and then, as you turn back, don’t concentrate on your task deliberately but simply act. Just as my athletics coach always said to me: ‘Henning, you think too much.’ Such a criticism is offered far too seldom in the modern world.”

Beck, H 2019, Scatterbrain : How the Mind’s Mistakes Make Humans Creative, Innovative and Successful, Sydney : NewSouth Publishing.

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