Fight, flight or freeze -- the three "F" words that anyone who has to speak in front of an audience will experience at one time or another. Although we've all probably had to face the fear of public speaking at some point in our lives, it's hard to imagine why anyone would put themselves through the torture of sweaty palms, a fast beating heart, tunnel vision and a host of other side effects all in the name of delivering a message. I've got some tips for the next time the fight or flight responsekicks into high gear and how you can use it to your advantage to really drive the message home.
The Wrong Place at the Wrong "Tribe"
It would be hard to pinpoint when exactly the first case of the fight or flight response took place. I could spend the next few paragraphs talking about various cases, and how it was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon but anybody with an internet connection and five minutes to spare could do that. Instead, I'll give you the short answer and example, the fight or flight response takes place when we believe we are in a situation of threat or distress. It's our body's way of telling us we probably shouldn't be doing what we're about to do...so where did this come from? I've heard many explanations over the years, but this one is by far my favourite (and although it has not been proven as fact) it always gives me a chuckle thinking about it before I go out on stage.
I was once told that the feeling -- at least for us as humans -- stems as far back as our "caveman" days. When we were first settling into tribes, a number of people would attempt to establish themselves as the tribe leader or alpha. Each person would approach the tribe, show off a special skill or talent that would deem them worthy of the leading role. Either it would go over well and the glory was theirs or they'd be clubbed to death. Regardless of the validity of this story, one thing is evident, it's not easy to approach a group with a new idea or expression, especially with the fear of death looming over our heads. The good news is, this is no longer the case, our bodies just need a firmware update -- little techie joke there.
You're The Expert -- They're None The Wiser
Whether we mean to or not, subconsciously we still have this fear that we are being judged or will be rejected by our tribe. The truth is, these feelings are unwarranted and in fact, most people who have come to hear you speak, want you to succeed. Take a company-wide meeting for example, do you think most employees would want to see you stumble over your words, sweat profusely and have no idea what you're talking about? Or take charge of the room, educate them on something and lead them with pride and vigor? In the end, it's the same amount of time and most would opt for the latter as it would give them a boost for the day. The problem is, the majority of people giving presentations feel that they have to perform word for word what they've prepared. Wrong. Even in the most calculated of presentations, there's room for a word or phrase change here or there. Typically, the audience has no idea what you're about to say, so remember this -- you're the expert on the subject matter. If you trip up on the words, it's no big deal. Take a deep breath, relax, and move on.
Harness Your Heart Rate
Confession time -- even though I've given hundreds of presentations, I still get nervous each and every time I'm about to go on stage. It's not because I feel I'm going to get booed, it's because I am passionate about what I do and I want to deliver the best possible experience to the audience. I'm never able to fully cease the effects of the fight or flight response, but instead, I use my increased heart rate and adrenaline to my advantage. Of course, this doesn't mean I come out on stage like a raging lunatic, swinging my arms everywhere and shouting loudly. I take a deep breath, remember why I'm there to begin with and turn that energy into assertiveness.
As it turns out, I'm not alone. Even the world's most sought after performers experience these feelings. An article on the Huffington Post describes many well-known celebrities who have experienced or still experience stage fright in their careers. Actress Megan Fox was quoted as saying:
"I don't have the stomach for [the stage]. It takes a very brave, courageous person, and I'm too neurotic..."
This is not to suggest you WILL experience this, but rather, take solace in the fact that even after countless times performing, these entertainers are still just humans and experience the same nerves as you or I.
Show Them What You're Made Of
The biggest tips I can give is to be authentic and have fun. Regardless of what you have memorized, have written on cue cards or have spent hours rehearsing in the mirror, none of that counts if you're not being true to you. One of the things we've gained after years of evolution is the ability to subconsciously pick up on body language and social cues. Today, being the "Alpha" doesn't mean you have to have the biggest club, authenticity is what turns heads. If you lead with a passion and a purpose with what you're saying, others will follow suit.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and tell the world what's on your mind. After all, being a caveman (or woman) is SO 2350 BC...so what's the worst that could happen?
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