Hate Public Speaking? Ace Your Next Big Presentation With This Strategy Used by Olympic Athletes.Share
How elite athletes turn anxiety into an asset, not a liability.
You have probably seen comedian Jerry Seinfeld's bit where he explains how more Americans are afraid of public speaking than death.
I don't know that this is actually true (here's Quora's take), but it's no secret that performance anxiety can be exceedingly unpleasant and lead to some pretty awkward and publicly embarrassing moments.
Naturally, we jump to the conclusion that being nervous is a bad thing, and direct our efforts at reducing anxiety. In my own efforts to manage stage fright, I ate bananas, drank chamomile tea, raided the local GNC for supplements, imagined the audience in their underwear (either distracting or traumatic, depending on the audience), and even experimented with sleep deprivation. None of this, of course, reduced my anxiety or did much to help me perform any better.
As it turns out, nerves are not the enemy. Elite athletes have known for years that peak performance requires that extra boost of adrenaline. Studies of athletes in sports as diverse as track and field and pistol shooting suggest that many - if not most - athletes perform their best at a moderate to high level of anxiety.
The real problem is that most of us have never learned how to access the physical, mental, and emotional states that are optimal for peak performance. So, when the adrenaline kicks in, nature takes over and the pounding heart, cold, clammy hands, butterflies, dry mouth, racing thoughts, fears, and doubts tend to be our undoing.
How do elite athletes prepare themselves for high pressure situations?
Many athletes rely on specific routines to ensure they are focused on the right things in the last few moments before shooting a basketball, hitting a golf ball, or throwing a baseball. These routines can look very different from person to person, and each athlete has to figure out what works best for them.
However, a good starting point is sport psychologist Robert Nideffer's "centering" routine, which has been used by a diverse range of athletes, performing artists, business executives - and even SWAT teams.
Like any skill, it takes practice, but if you want to make a memorable first impression and nail your presentation even if public speaking usually brings out the worst in you, it goes something like this:
How to Center
Step 1: Pick a Focal Point
Select a fixed point in the distance, somewhere that feels comfortable. This point could be on the podium, the back wall of the room, or anywhere in between. Why? Without a focal point, your eyes will tend to wander or dart around the room taking in too much irrelevant and distracting information.
Step 2: Form a Clear Intention
What do you intend to do when you step out in front of the crowd? How exactly do you want your voice to sound when you begin speaking? What precisely do you intend to communicate to the audience?
Use assertive, declarative language, like “I am going to speak with conviction and energy!” as opposed to “Umm...ok...don't screw this up." In other words, learn to focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want.
For instance, if we're playing golf and on an important hole I say “Don’t hit the ball in the water!", what’s the first image that pops into your mind? Ball going into the water, right?
What image do you see when you tell yourself “Hit the ball one foot to the right of the flag?"
Step 3: Breathe Mindfully
One of the most effective techniques for taking the edge off the stress response is diaphragmatic breathing. When stressed, our bodies have a tendency to revert to shallow, rapid, chest breathing. Doing so keeps us in fight or flight mode.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the most biomechanically efficient way to breathe, and helps to quiet our racing thoughts and kick the parasympathetic nervous system response into gear (our body’s answer to the fight-or-flight state). It’s also how you breathe naturally when you sleep at night.
Try taking a few easy, slow, deep abdominal breaths right now, and you'll feel your energy level go down a notch or two.
Step 4: Scan and Release Excess Tension
One of the most detrimental consequences of performance stress is muscle tension. As our thinking becomes more negative, our muscles tend to tighten up. And not just any muscles, but often the ones that we most need control over!
Our shoulders get tight and hunch over, our vocal cords constrict, and we sound different. Of course, that just makes us more self-conscious and anxious as we worry that others will hear a tremor in our voice.
As you take a few deep breaths, scan your key muscles and release tension on the exhale. Really pay attention to what your breathing feels and sounds like, and you'll find that the racing thoughts begin to fade into the background as well.
Practice releasing tension on a regular basis, when you are in stressful situations with your spouse/in-laws/irritating neighbors, and you'll become increasingly capable of keeping things under control and appearing more at ease even when the stakes are high.
Step 5: Find Your Center
Are you familiar with the martial arts concept of ki or chi? In Eastern philosophy, chi is described as being one’s “life force” or energy (I suspect this is where the idea of “the force” in Star Wars came from). In Western cultures, we think of it as our center of gravity.
If you have ever observed the movements of a great martial arts master or certain athletes and dancers, you will notice a presence, grace, and balance about them regardless of their size or body type.
Bend your knees a bit, and see if you can feel a sense of balance and weightiness, as if there is a magnetic attraction between your center of gravity and the center of the earth. Or as one of my karate teachers suggested, just stand tall with knees bent and imagine trying to suck the ground into your butt.
Not only is the feeling of being centered a very calming and reassuring one, but the mere act of searching for you center will help to quiet your mind.
Step 6: Repeat Your Process Cue
There is a tendency when stressed to hyperfocus on minute details and experience “paralysis by analysis”. The solution is to focus less on how what your hands should be doing, what your posture should look like, and how you should smile, but instead on the big picture - what it sounds, feels, or looks like to start off your speech exactly the way you want.
Golfing great Sam Snead is said to have used the cue word "oily" to remind himself what a smooth, effortless golf swing felt like.
My mentor used to cue up an image of his friend, who always had a twinkle in his eye and an ease about him in front of a crowd. Simply conjuring up this picture in his head helped him emulate these characteristics on demand.
Step 7: Direct Your Energy
By the time you have gotten to this step, you will have made the shift into a more quiet and focused mental state. You will have taken the edge off of your nerves, and in this last step you will use your imagination to channel the remaining energy that remains into a dynamic and inspired performance. This will probably seem rather hokey and new-agey, but give it an honest try before dismissing it out of hand. It’s interesting what our imagination can do for us sometimes, and I think you might surprise yourself.
Do a quick internal search for all of the energy that you feel in your body, and imagine gathering all of it at your center - a little like those plasma balls that Sharper Image used to sell. Now, direct that energy upwards, through your torso and neck, into your head, and blast it out through your eyes or forehead like a laser beam at the focal point you identified in Step 1.
Yes, it’s all just in your imagination perhaps, but this is a way to work with the adrenaline and use it to add more intensity or energy to your speech, much like a martial artist will focus their energy and direct it at a stack of wooden boards as they strike.
Practicing, practice, practice
When you first try to center, it will take several minutes to go through all of the steps. That's too long to be useful in a real pressure situation of course, but if you practice centering consistently for 5-10 minutes per day and begin using it in your everyday life, you'll be able to combine steps, do them quicker, and get the whole process down to 5-10 seconds.
Whether it's making a presentation to the board, confronting your boss, asking someone out on a date (or breaking up with them), or sinking a putt to win your local amateur golf league championship, a pre-performance routine like Centering can help ensure that you put your best foot forward when it counts!
The one-sentence summary
"It's okay to have butterflies in your stomach. The key is to make them fly in formation." ~Unknown