That Back-to-School Feeling. No kids required

The vibes of Back-to-School still motivate us. Even as adults!

by Peter Watts

Fresh paint is the smell of back-to-school. At least for me. It was always industrial yellow with raised lumps of white stuff. As you queued the corridor for lunch on the first day back, you could still chisel out paint patterns with your thumbnail.

That fresh paint smell is so imprinted on my mind as part of the Back-To-School that come September I now experience a primal urge to start decorating!

We live surrounded by artificial calendars. When exactly is the new year? The calendar tells me it’s January 1st. The tax year tells me it’s April 5th. The multinational corporation I spent 11 years working for used to insist it was February 1st!

The most powerful of all though is the new year that we grew up with: the September – July school year.

You don’t need kids in your life to experience the gravitational pull of Back-To-School. It’s hard-cored into us. That slight drop in temperature, the heavier dew on the lawns in the morning, the first tell-tale color-shift leaves and the shortening days. They all point one way.

Don’t under-estimate what powerful formative experiences those Back-To-School occasions were for you. There were new teachers, new subjects, and most scarily of all, there were occasionally whole new schools.

Take a moment. Put your mind back into those days.

That strange feeling that you’re getting, that sense of equal parts excitement mixed with fear, that’s the Back-to-School Feeling. It’s the feeling we get when we’re facing something big, challenging, and largely unknown. It’s the feeling we get when the only direction we can move in is forward, even though if we had a choice, we’d quite like to turn and run!

It’s a feeling that is priming us to be at our best in the face of challenge. It was actually a pretty cool feeling. If given the choice to click our fingers and physically return to those days, not all of us would do it (I for one am fairly sure I’d turn-down a time-ticket back to teenage), but still this time of year can deliver a major kick.

Think of your next presentation as being your very own grown-up Back-To-School. Access those old feelings that are just below the surface for you right now.

How can you give your presenting, and your presentations, that new paint smell?

Presentation nerves

Nine proven routes to calm and confident presenting

by Peter Watts

Beating presentation nerves can seem like a battle; a no-holds-barred FIGHT to overcome your fears. Bosses and colleagues, like drill sergeants, urge us from the trenches and up onto the no-mans land of the stage.

“You’re team needs you. Get out there soldier!”

This approach is completely wrong.

First point to be aware of: Presentation nerves can never be eliminated, and it would not be desirable to do so. Controlled nervous tension can promote excellence.

Second point to be aware of: The tangible bodily sensations that come with presentation nerves, can be easily managed if we understand the mechanics that create them.

That’s what this article will help you to do. I’m not going to tell you how to beat presentation nerves, because I believe that as a natural bodily reaction we should work with our jitters, not against them. When we focus on beating nerves we just drive them deeper into our psyches. Instead, we can understand them, and adopt simple measures that make presenting a significantly easier process.

Do any of the following affect you when presenting?

  • Tightness of breath
  • Rapid heart-rate
  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Cold or clammy hands
  • Trembling
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Nausea
  • Tension headaches
  • Loss of concentration
  • Dry-throat
  • Scratchy voice
  • Low self-esteem

If yes, then within the following articles, you will find practical measures that work with your body to overcome those reactions. Each heading is a link. Simply click on it to review the associated article:

Breathing yourself calm

Sensations associated with presentation nerves are soothed by effective breathing. Find out how controlling your out-breathe lowers your heart rate to control sweating, blushing, trembling, blood-pressure, and nervous tension.

Calming the butterflies

Presentation nerves suppress appetite, so that when we approach a presentation we are more in need of food than we realize. As blood sugars collapse, our concentration collapses with them, and our stomachs develop those familiar butterfly wings.

Find out what to eat, what not to eat, and when to eat, in order to calm presentation butterflies

Dealing with dry mouth

Voice rapidly heading for a croak? Or afraid it might? In this post we solve the dry-mouth issue, and identify the best drinks to keep your voice flowing smoothly.

No sweat

Sweating can be an unpleasant presentation issue, and one we become acutely aware of.  Basic preventative measures help mitigate the problem.

Cold hands

Colds hands are a standard stress response. Find out why this is, and how something as simple as holding a warm cup can be an instant cure.

I think, therefore I am

How to control the messages we give ourselves before a presentation, to ensure we remain calm and in control during the presentation.

Puncturing perfectionism

Preparation is essential for presenting, but when we topple over into perfectionism, we create an impossible mountain to climb. This post discusses how to reduce those mountains back into molehills.

Taking the plunge

The first plunge can be the toughest. The more often you take it though, the easier it becomes. Repetition is the most sure-fire way to becoming a confident presenter.

Coaching yourself after a presentation

What happens after the presentation? How we coach ourselves once the event is finished will set up our confidence for next time. Find out how to be your own personal coach after every presentation.

Fear of public speaking is perfectly natural, and you are not alone in experiencing it. Indeed, some surveys have shown that for many people it isn’t just a fear, but their number one fear, and that’s why becoming a confident and competent public speaker is such a wonderful goal. If you can achieve this goal, then what other goals also become so much more achievable.

I believe public speaking is therefore a gateway activity. Once we prove to ourselves that we can successfully speak in public, we are empowered onwards to achieve so much more.

Enjoy all the articles linked from this blog, and if there are any areas of presentation nerves not dealt with here, that you might like help with, then please do post a comment.

It will be my pleasure to forward you the extra ideas that might help you forward into the highly rewarding world of presenting.

Confidence tricks: The thawed paws pause

A warming NLP recipe for presentation confidence

by Peter Watts

Hold a warm cup of tea. Or coffee. Or hot chocolate. It doesn’t matter. Hold a warm cup, and as you savor the heat radiating into your hands, a wonderful sense of calm comes with it.

Do this shortly before a presentation and you’ll get exactly the same reaction. Stress seems to mysteriously drain out of you.

There is a whole lexicon of words such as “toasty” that evoke the pleasure of warm hands and feet, and there is a physiological reason why we’ve developed them.

When we become nervous about something, presenting for example, one of the first physical symptoms is cold hands. As we enter fight or flight, our body diverts blood flow away from extremities such as the hands, and redirects it to the vital organs of the core. Because of this we develop the cold clammy hand sensation associated with presentation nerves.

This sets off a chain reaction. Our subconscious mind says to itself “Hello. I appear to have cold hands right now. I get cold hands when I’m nervous. Therefore I must be nervous, and being aware of that fact, am going to become even more nervous.”

If cold hands represent a state of nervous tension, then warm hands represent the exact opposite: relaxation. When we have warm hands, the mind associates this with a state of calm and safety, hence all the snuggle type language we have referring to the pleasantness of warm paws.

Knowing this, we can use a simple technique that I call “The Thawed Paws Pause” to trick our mental wiring into calmness pre-presentation.

Next time you are going to present, accept the offer of a hot drink. The contents of the cup are of secondary importance, but if you have a choice, then my recommendation would be something that is caffeine-free.

As you await your time to present, hold the cup and concentrate your mind on that lovely warmth entering your hands. Your mind is about to get a surprise, in that your internal dialogue is going to go something like this:

“I’m about to make a presentation. I get stressed when I make presentations, and when I get stressed I have cold hands, but hang on a moment! I have warm hands! When I get stressed I have cold hands, but right now I appear to have warm hands! Ah, I therefore can’t be stressed.”

As your subconscious plays with this concept, the body starts to stand down some of the reactions we associate with presentation nerves, and a degree of those stage-fright jitters slip away.

It’s a simple trick, and one of the earliest I was taught when I first started presenting.

Next time you feel stressed or nervous, check the temperature of your hands. Icy? Take a moment to hold a warm cup. Feel tension melt into your thawed paws pause.

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:

Simple preparation rituals can power presentation energy

How do you psyche yourself up to your best achievement levels?

by Peter Watts

If you’re Rafael Nadal, about to win your sixth French Open tennis tournament, then the process looks a little like this:

  1. Push hair behind left ear
  2. Push hair behind right ear
  3. Knock heel of left shoe with tennis racket
  4. Knock heel of right show with tennis racket
  5. Scuff three steps sideways to the left along the back-court line
  6. Scuff three steps sideways to the right along the back-court line
  7. SERVE!

Athletes and sports-teams all have their own unique pre-performance rituals that they repeat before that first all important move onto the field.

For some, like the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team, those rituals are dramatically overt, designed to both psyche the athlete and to intimidate the competition. For others, like Nadal, they are simply habitual actions that have become mentally linked to success.

Presenting is a performance sport. You too are on the field before an audience; You too have adrenalin flowing as if entering the Olympics; You too can benefit from pre-performance rituals.

Rituals connect you to a feeling of success. I know many presenters who have mantras that they quietly repeat to themselves, or use specific breathing techniques to get into the zone. I myself have the habit of quietly placing together my thumb, index finger, and middle finger in an accupressure position for a few quiet seconds before I present. Over years of repetition I now associate this simple hand movement with entering my calm-zone ahead of speaking. Nobody can see me do it, and the ritual’s associative power puts me exactly where I need to be before I go onstage.

Avoid rituals that rely on external objects such as the famous “lucky tie”. Think for example of the stories we hear about leading singers who couldn’t perform because there weren’t exactly five pink carnations to the left of their dressing room mirror, or someone forgot to remove the blue M&M’s from the candy bowl. These rituals fail because they rely on external objects or other people.

The guidelines for effective pre-presentation rituals are simple:

  • based on affirmations, minute gestures, breathing techniques, or visualizations that you can always summon when needed.
  • can be performed quietly and immediately without the outside world being aware of them
  • quick and simple, taking no longer than 3 – 5 seconds
  • effective in bringing you to the required performance state for the task at hand

If you don’t already have a pre-performance ritual of your own, try experimenting. The best time to adopt one is immediately after a successful presentation. In that moment when you are experiencing the endorphin rush of success, try to anchor that wonderful sensation with your own conscious ritual. Repeat the process at a later time, and you’ll feel the echo of the endorphins once again powering through your system and powering you out onto the stage.

Using song lyrics for pleasure, polish, and presentation performance

by Peter Watts

Bob Dylan will help your presentations come to life. In fact not just Dylan; whether your genre is rock, soul, country, or blues, you can have fun with a presentation by slipping in the odd line of lyrics from your favorite song.

Why would you do this? Three reasons:

Firstly, to bring personal pleasure to your presentation. If you’re enjoying the session, then your audience will enjoy it too. Embedding the occasional song lyric, an aside that is meant for you alone, will quietly spike your energy and keep you upbeat.

Secondly, it helps with nerves. The pre-planned song lyric, chosen because you like it and can fit it into your narrative, acts like a pin to pop the bubble of any internal tension that has built up while you are talking.

Finally, in terms of their prose quality, song lyrics represent a highway of diamonds we can borrow at leisure, adding dimensions of rhetoric to presentations. They are a ready-made source of inspiration.

In the classroom, I suggest to teams that they incorporate such lyrics into their presentations. Despite initially believing that the trainer has lost his mind, everyone soon discovers what an effective technique this is to bring pleasure to presenting.

The steps to follow are simple:

  • What is my key message?
  • What song title or lyric do I want to include?
  • How can I drop that lyric seamlessly into my presentation in such a way that it fits with the message without drawing attention to itself?

Surprisingly high-calibre speakers often practice this art; Supreme Court Justices for example! According to a recent article on the NPR show “All Things Considered”, Dylan lyrics have found their way into no less than 186 court rulings. Even the supremely straight-laced Antonin Scalia has been known to drop the occasional Dylanism!

You can find the full NPR article by following this link, and maybe also, somewhere in this blog, you might even find my own gem of Dylan.

Poetry as presentation preparation

by Peter Watts

There is a highly effective way in which you can easily improve your power as a presenter:

 

Learn a new poem every week!

 

Taking the time to memorize a poem a week has major pay-offs for presenters:

 

  • Vocabulary development
  • Improvements in speech patterns, rhythm, and diction
  • Improvements in memory function and the ability to concentrate

 

Contained within these three improvements are the critical ingredients of great speaking. When we think of a Martin Luther King, a John F. Kennedy, or a Winston Churchill, it isn’t the grainy, black and white TV pictures of them that we think of first; It is their words, and the power of those words. It is their ability to pack an almighty punch into a small verbal space. It is their poetry.

 

Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University, and author of “The Dumbest Generation makes the point that while the internet offers us the greatest information resource mankind has ever known, we are also in danger of forgetting how to think critically as we are swamped by a deluge of information. Within his classes, students are required to regularly learn lengthy sections of poetry by heart which they recite back to the class. Why? Because not only does the exercise deliver the benefits mentioned above, it also teaches critical judgement, and the ability to think in depth rather than simply at surface level, both of which are valuable skills for presenters.

 

It’s also worth remembering that poetry is pleasurable. Dipping into a book, selecting a poem that appeals, and then learning it can be a source of relaxation. Recite that poem back to yourself immediately before your presentation, and immediately you will feel yourself transported back to that calmer, more relaxed frame of mind.

 

Taking time out to learn poetry as a preparation for presenting can sound like a self-indulgent activity, especially if poetry, or even reading, aren’t standard parts of your life. It might even sound like a waste of time, but as Marianne Moore tells us in her poem “Poetry”:

 

“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond

all this fiddle.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one

discovers in

it after all, a place for the genuine.”

 

Presenting convincingly is about being genuine, and absorbing poetry can help us with the mental discipline to formulate and express messages that are clear, distinct, and memorable.

 

Try visitingwww.poets.org and find out for yourself how poetry can be a valuable addition to presenting.


Presentation structure: Handling the questions at the end

by Peter Watts

The most valuable thing that you can know when asked a question is frequently not so much the answer, but why the person is asking the question in the first place:

 

Interest

Your presentation has provided just enough information to hook the audience’s attention and now they want to know more!

 

Gratitude

The audience enjoyed your presentation, and liked the way you put forward your ideas. They are now showing polite appreciation by putting a couple of final questions to you.

 

Security

The audience has been tempted by your message, and is looking for further reassurance before they move to the next stage with you.

 

Misunderstanding

Something you said in your presentation didn’t quite make sense or has been misunderstood. The audience is therefore giving you the opportunity to clarify.

 

Vested interest

Someone in the audience has a vested interest in discrediting your message. Their hostile questioning is their attempt to do so, while at the same time betraying their hostility both to you and to their colleagues.

 

When taking questions at the end of a presentation, it’s important to keep in mind two things:

 

There are several reasons why someone might be asking you a question. It’s important to understand that reason and then handle the question accordingly.

 

There is no rule that says you are the oracle-of-all-wisdom. It is 100% acceptable to say to someone, “That is a great question and I’ll need to check with a colleague to make sure I bring you the correct answer.”

 

Here is the basic process for handling questions:

 

Maintain open body language

It is easy for us to slip into a defensive body posture when being questioned. This sets the questioner up for confrontation even when the question itself is completely innocent. Make sure you do not fold your arms or place your hands on your hips while taking a question.

 

Listen carefully

While someone is putting a question to you, concentrate on listening to their every word. Remember that there may be any one of several motivations behind the question and unless you listen carefully, it will be difficult to identify exactly what information your interrogator is seeking.

 

Check your understanding

Repeat the question back, gently re-phrasing it a little, and ask the questioner to confirm that you have correctly understood them. If you yourself did not understand any part of the question then ask them to tell you a little more before you answer. You would be surprised at how often this exercise prevents some major misunderstandings.

 

Answer honestly

If you can answer the question, then go right ahead! If however you are unsure, then be upfront about this and say that you will need to check with a colleague.

Not only does this boost the audience’s perception of your integrity as a speaker, it also creates a valuable follow-up opportunity for after your presentation!


Presentation body language: Hands and open posture

by Peter Watts

There are three things your hands should avoid touching during a presentation; your chest, your hips, and each other!

When we feel insecure, we use defensive body postures. Our hands might clutch before us, interlocked fingers flexing in angst, or alternately they might find a convenient object and start to fidget compulsively with it. All such gestures are unconscious and it’s only when we see ourselves on video that we discover what distracting gestures our hands get up to while we are speaking!

The optimal posture for presenters is to keep the upper body “open”; free from defensive body postures. This leaves the question of what to do with those flapping, fidgeting hands, and is why many presenters use props to anchor their hands, the two most popular being pens and notes:

Pens

Hold a pen with it’s right end in your right hand, and it’s left end in your left. Your hands are now occupied, while being physically prevented from meeting by the pen between them. If you need to gesture to something on the slide, the pen becomes a convenient pointer.

Make sure the pen you use isn’t the type with a clicker to extend and retract the nib, or you might subconsciously click your way through the presentation instead!

Notes

As with the pen, notes can also be an anchor. Hold them by their two bottom corners and, once again, you are securely in the open body position. If you want to gesture or point then you can do so, before returning your hand to it’s note-holding position.

Carry a minimum of ten sheets even if your notes only cover the top page. Ten pages have a rigidity that a single page does not. If you have the slightest hand-tremble, a single page will amplify it, whereas ten pages will absorb and mask it.

Over time you will become used to working in the open posture and can free your hands  to use as tools for adding emphasis and style. Initially though, it can feel more comfortable, as many presenters do, to use well chosen props to keep that posture open.

Presentation body language; Movement

by Peter Watts

The Chinese have a marvelous piece of wisdom for presenters:

“When standing, stand

When sitting, sit

Do not wobble”

This proverb reminds us that when presenting, body movements appear amplified; especially movements that take place in the feet, legs or hips because the resulting posture shift ripples upward to tremble the entire body.

A presentation is basically a conversation, and in a conversation we create emphasis with hand gestures, head movements, and occasionally leaning in towards the person we are speaking to. Similar movement in a presentation is a good thing. Notice though, that these conversational movements all come from the upper half of the body. Movement in the lower half of the body such as shuffling feet and shifting the weight from hip-to-hip tend to indicate restlessness and boredom. The phrase “rooted in conversation” may originate in the way that when we are fully focussed on something, our feet and legs remain still.

For basic standing posture during a presentation, be face-on to the audience, with your legs still, and your feet slightly apart for stability. If your legs tremble a little in this position, soften your stance and allow yourself the smallest of bends at the knee. This releases tension and allows you to comfortably maintain a steady posture for surprisingly long periods.

If you have the space available to you, introduce some deliberate movement across the presentation space so that you use both sides of the stage. Making the audience change their visual focus to a physically different spot can re-engage attention and underline transitions in your subject, as well as giving yourself the chance to change posture.

  • When you are ready to move, make it a deliberate progress from one standing position to another.
  • When you get where you’re going, stop, and re-anchor your feet and legs. Avoid movement becoming peripatetic.
  • Ensure you come to a resting position that is still face-on to the audience.

Making good use of the physical space around you during a presentation shows confidence and control, so long as you don’t overdo it.

With whole-body movement, less is more.

Presentation body language: Eye contact

by Peter Watts

Staring at the ceiling, the back wall, or our notes while presenting can sometimes feel more comfortable than looking at the audience. By concentrating on something other than the people in front of us, we effectively find a handy blindfold. Like poor unfortunates before a firing squad, we spare ourselves the view of the guns!

This is why it can be so hard to maintain eye contact while presenting. We avoid looking at our audience because we are afraid of what we might see; the blank expressions staring back at us. We are afraid we are going to see bored people, and to believe it is we who have bored them. Rather than risk such negative feedback, it’s easier not to look!

People listen in different ways depending on their learning style. For many, the more they focus on your message, the more their facial expression can become the blank mask misinterpreted as boredom. Frequently, the blanker someone may look during a presentation, the more focussed they are on what you’re saying!

The rewards of maintaining eye contact with an audience are great:

  • Stronger connection to those in the room
  • Greater concentration from those listening to you
  • Visual feedback on how well the audience is reacting to your message
  • A tremendous statement of your own confidence and control

The structure of your presentation, and how you use notes can help you in maintaining eye contact. Keep your presentation and any slides you are using as simple as possible. The more complicated your slides, the more you are forced to look at the screen behind you, and turning your back on the audience while speaking is one of the cardinal sins of presenting.

For presentation notes, use bullet points to help you remember the flow of your presentation. Avoid long-hand scripts; they compel you to look at the script and not at the audience. Effective bullet-point notes allow you to pause, glance at the notes, and then bring your eyes back to the audience before continuing.

Audience eye contact becomes easier as you overcome your initial discomfort. Discover how it increases your power as a presenter. You will soon find that you would no more give a presentation without eye-contact than you would drive a car wearing a blindfold.

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