I was working with an extremely nervous presenter in a recent Mastering Your Presentations workshop. She described her presentation experience like this: “My head races and swirls, and then it switches back on itself. I know that words are coming out of my mouth, but I don’t have any control over them. I must sound like an idiot.”
We hear that sort of thing a lot. This presenter is not alone.
The path forward for this presenter was clear. There would be no improvement if we couldn’t find a way for her to manage her nerves. Notice that I write “manage” and not “eliminate.” There’s little I can do or say to a nervous person that will eliminate their nerves. The root cause of the nervousness and the psychological and physiological responses people have is too deeply ingrained in who they are.
What I can do is help them manage the nervousness so that it can be worked through. Over time, their ability to work through their nervousness will lessen its effect on them.
So, back to our workshop participant. Let’s call her Beth. Beth is a smart, articulate analyst. I noticed before the class started as she bantered with the other attendees that she was funny and charming.
But once she got up in front of the class during the first exercise, she crumbled inside. “I feel so dumb,” she said.
The other class participants came to her rescue. “No, you’re not dumb. Not at all. What you said made perfect sense.”
Beth replied, “But that’s the problem. I don’t know what I said.”
I stepped in. “Beth, your brain is a good one. You wouldn’t be in your current role if you weren’t smart. When you’re in a low-stakes conversation with someone at work, do you feel in control of your thoughts?”
She answered that she did.
“So what we need to figure out is what you can do when you’re under pressure that will help you gain control so that you’re as comfortable as you are in regular low-stakes conversations. We’re going to start with a pausing exercise.”
I instructed that when I raise my hand, she is to pause.
She started talking about a current project she was working on. I raised my hand. She did what many people do, she froze.
“Let’s stop,” I said. I went on to explain that a pause shouldn’t be like hitting the pause button on a DVR. “This is an active pause. You should breathe and think. Gather your thoughts. When you’re ready, you can begin speaking again.”
She tried it, and eventually she settled into the conversation. Her personality started to peek through and her description of the project was clear.
“Were you in control of your thoughts?” I asked.
“Yes. That was amazing,” she said.
Everyone in the class agreed. The transformation, in such a brief period of time, was amazing.
In the battle between nervousness and an active pause, the active pause won.
“Here’s the deal,” I said. You’ve experienced what it’s like to pause, breathe, and gather your thoughts before moving on. Now you need to remember to do it when nervousness sets in and the stakes are high. That will require a new level of self-awareness and engagement.”