So, research on mindful attention tells us that if, when we begin to feel those anxiety symptoms, we simply greet our anxiety and say hey, this is me feeling nervous. I’m about to do something of consequence. And simply by greeting your anxiety and acknowledging it, that it’s normal and natural. Heck, 85% of people tell us they have it. You actually can stem the tide of that anxiety spiraling out of control. It’s not necessarily going to reduce the anxiety but it will stop it from spinning out.
So the next time you begin to feel those anxiety signs, take a deep breath and say, this is me feeling anxious. I notice a few of you taking some notes. There’s a handout that will come at the end that has everything that I’m supposed to say, okay? Can’t guarantee I’m going to say it, but you’ll have it there.
In addition to this approach, a technique that works very well, and this is a technique that I helped do some research on way back when I was in graduate school, has to do with re-framing how you see the speaking situation. Most of us, when we are up presenting, planned or spontaneous, we feel that we have to do it right and we feel like we are performing. How many of you have ever acted, done singing or dancing, I am not going to ask for performances now, okay. Many of you have. We should note that we could do next year, maybe, a talent show of alums. It looks like we got the talent there. That’s great.
So when you perform, you know that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. If you don’t hit the right note or your right line at the right time, at the right place, you’ve made a mistake. It messes up the audience. It messes up the people on stage. But when you present, there is no right way. There’s certainly better and worse ways. But there is no one right way.
So we need to look at presenting as something other than performance. And what I’d like to suggest is what we need to see this is as is a conversation. Right now, I’m having a conversation with 100 plus people. Rather than saying I’m performing for you. But it’s not enough just to say, this is a conversation. I want to give you some concrete things you can do.
Start with questions
First, start with questions. Questions by their very nature are dialogic, they’re two way. What was one of the very first things I did here for you? I had you count the number of fs and raise your hands. I asked you a question. That gets your audience involved, it makes it feel to me as the presenter as if we’re in conversation. So, use questions. They can be rhetorical. They can be polling, perhaps I actually want to hear information from you.
In fact, I use questions when I create an outline for my presentations. Rather than writing bullet points, I list questions that I’m going to answer. And that puts me in that conversational mode. If you were to look at my notes for today’s talk, you’ll see it’s just a series of questions. Right now I’m answering the question, how do we manage our anxiety?
Use conversational language
Beyond questions, another very useful technique for making us conversational is to use conversational language. Many nervous speakers distance themselves physically. If you’ve ever seen a nervous speaker present, he or she will say something like this. Welcome, I am really excited to be here with you. They pull as far away from you as possible, because you threaten us, speakers. You make us nervous so we want to get away from you.
We do the same thing linguistically. We use language that distances ourselves. It’s not unusual to hear a nervous speaker say something like, one must consider the ramifications. Or, today we’re going to cover step one, step two, step three. That’s very distancing language.
To be more conversational, use conversational language. Instead of one must consider say, this is important to you, we all need to be concerned with. Do you hear that inclusive conversational language? Has to do with the pronouns. Instead of step 1, step, 2, step 3. First what we need to do is this, the second thing you should consider is here. Use conversational language. So being conversational can also help you manage your anxiety.
The third technique I’d like to share is research that I actually started when I was an undergraduate here, I was very fortunate to study with Phil Zimbardo of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame. Many people don’t know that Zim actually was instrumental in starting one of the very first shyness institutes in the world and especially in the country. And I did some research with him that looked at how your orientation to time influences how you react. And what we learned is if you can bring yourself into the present moment, rather than being worried about the future consequences, you can actually be less nervous. Most of us, when we present, are worried about the future consequences. My students are worried they’re not going to get the right grade. Some of you are worried you might not get the funding. You might not get the support. You might not get the laughs that you want. All of those are future states.
So if we can bring ourselves into the present moment, we’re not going to be as concerned about those future states and therefore we will be less nervous. There are lots of ways to become present oriented.