A client asked me recently about how to stop the fearful, negative thoughts which kick in like clockwork in the hours before she has to present. You probably know how she feels: so unhelpful, isn’t it?! And while there are a few different ways to tackle this issue, there’s a practical strategy – which I’ll share in a moment – which I’ve been using successfully with my speaking clients. I’ve also used it myself for years, before giving a keynote talk or playing in a high-pressure concert.
And as I’ve been planning this article – while working my way through a table groaning with books to catch up on during the summer break – you can imagine how pleased I was to find an interesting chapter in one of the books, which details some research on this very idea. The book Choke, on brain science, explains why the technique works. The explanation is this:
that thinking about yourself from multiple perspectives before you go up to speak means that you’re less likely to panic and stuff up.
Choke (2010, Simon & Schuster) is written by Sian Beilock, a cognitive science and performance expert at the University of Chicago. She’s done tests which show that if you think about different aspects of yourself which you feel are “conducive to success” in the minutes or hours before you speak or perform, it relieves some of the pressure, and stops the downwards spiral of self-doubt and negative thoughts.
Here’s an example from the book (p166): “when a female college student is asked to describe several different facets of herself – to give a complete description of herself as a woman, athlete, friend, family member, artist, and actor – she is less likely to screw up on a high-stakes math test than if she weren’t asked to think about all her complexities”.
So giving a complete description of yourself as e.g. a friend, spouse, business person, cyclist, knitter, volunteer – whatever you can find that you feel competent at – seems to give you a buffer against negativity. It makes sense really.
The strategy works by highlighting that you’re not defined by one dimension – your prowess (or perceived lack of) in public speaking – and stops negative thoughts from taking hold.
So why not give it a go the next time you have to speak to a group?
Action step: spend 5 minutes in the few days before giving a talk or speaking up in a meeting, drawing a diagram (a mind map is good, click here for an example) of every facet of your life which you feel good about. Maybe you’ve built a close relationship with your child, or are great at chess; or you put your elderly neighbour’s bin out each week for them. Whatever builds you up. Then keep it nearby to look at whenever you need a lift.
Of course this only works if you have – if you’re realistically prepared. No amount of perspective-shifting can save you from the sinking feeling that comes with knowing you haven’t done enough practice/don’t know your stuff.
Do let me know how you get on with this exercise.