“What if I freeze up and forget what to say? What if they ask me questions that I can’t answer? What if I make a fool of myself, and my boss fires me? What if I suck so bad that a hole is ripped in the space-time continuum, and I destroy the universe?” Ok, so maybe that last one is a little extreme, but these are the types of thoughts that a lot of people stress over when they are asked to give a presentation or speak in front of a group. This is because most people suffer from some degree of glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. Since I am a professional speaker and have spoken to thousands of people, you may think that I am immune to these feelings of anxiety and apprehension, but that is not the case. These thoughts and feelings of self-doubt still creep into my mind before I get in front of an audience. Having given numerous talks, I have discovered that you cannot prevent these feelings from arising entirely, as they are a natural, instinctive human response. By learning to manage and cope with these feelings however, you can harness their power and use their energy in a positive way on stage and in life.
My worst case of pre-presentation anxiety was about a year ago when I was defending my Master’s thesis. This was the culmination of 4 years of graduate school and countless hours of research, that had been condensed into a single 30 page document entitled, “Using Higher-Order Derivatives to Estimate Damped Linear Oscillator Models with an Overarching Temporal Trend.” I know, it’s a pretty catchy title. The actual defense was a 20 minute presentation to a panel of 3 professors, after which they would pelt me with questions about my findings and research methods. They would then kick me out of the room and decide whether I passed or not. When you think about the fact that the last 1,500 days, thousands of hours sitting in front of a computer screen pouring over data, and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans were all coming down to this one 20 minute talk, you can see why I had a few jitters.
I was surprised that I had slept well the night before my defense. I expected my mind to be racing, as I went over my presentation again and again throughout the night, but surprisingly I slept like a baby. I was even calm and collected while I ate breakfast and drove to campus, and I remember thinking to myself, “I must be ready for this, because I feel so calm and confident.” I arrived at the small, conference room I had reserved for my presentation about 20 minutes early, and as I sat there waiting for my defense committee, I started to feel the anxiety set in. First, I felt a swirling, chaotic sensation in my belly that is commonly referred to as “butterflies in your stomach.” Next, I got really hot and began to sweat like a sinner on judgment day. Lastly, my breathing got very shallow and rapid, to the point that my nurse actually asked me if I was ok. I tried to take deep breaths and calm myself down, but as my committee arrived and it was almost time to start, these feelings intensified even more. As I started my presentation, I could barely breathe deeply enough to speak clearly and not pass out. I was starting to worry that it was going to be too much for me physically, when I made eye contact with one of my committee members, and they smiled at me and winked. This singular moment of human connection had the amazing effect of increasing my confidence and alleviating my anxiety. At this point, I hit my stride, easily finished my presentation, and passed my defense.
Shortly after my defense I started developing Roll Models. As I was writing my talks and trying to develop my skills as a speaker, I couldn’t help but think about how scary those
feelings of anxiety and apprehension were that day, and how they almost sabotaged my entire defense. I knew that I would have to learn to deal with and control these negative emotions when they occurred if I was going to be successful as a speaker. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on about public speaking, comedy, and acting, to learn how to manage these feelings. Twenty or so books later, I had accumulated an arsenal of techniques for coping with pre-talk anxiety. I was surprised to learn though, that these strategies were not designed to eliminate the feelings, but to turn them into something you could use. One author explained it as, “You don’t want to catch the butterflies, you want to make them fly in formation.” Another used the phrase, “Take comfort in the chaos.” Either way, what they are saying is to appreciate the excitement that is in you as a sign that you realize how much this performance means to you, and use that energy on stage. By applying the breathing and mental visualization techniques that I have learned, I no longer fear losing my breath before I go on stage, and I view my pre-talk jitters as a tool to be used to deliver the best Roll Models talk to my audience.
In addition to helping me on stage with Roll Models, these anxiety reduction techniques have also been extremely useful in my daily life. When I see a pretty girl standing in line next to me, and my stomach starts churning as I start psyching myself out of talking to her, I can apply one of the strategies I have learned and say hello. When I know I am going to have a new nurse, and I start stressing about how bad it could go, I just start waving my mental orange batons on the runway of my mind and get my butterflies back in formation. When everything seems to be going wrong in my world no matter what I do, I can just take a moment, breathe, and take comfort in the chaos of my life. These techniques give me the ability to turn my lemons into lemonade, and then sell that lemonade for a monstrous profit in the form of happiness and success.
Learning to harness the power contained within the feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and apprehension that pry their way into your life, has been one of the most important skills that I have gained as a result of Roll Models. These techniques allow you to take something that was negative, scary, and nearly debilitating, and turn it into something positive that can greatly improve your life. How do you deal with the feelings of anxiety and panic that erupt from time to time? Do your butterflies get in formation? Keep in mind that these feelings are normal, and that they go to show you that you recognize the importance of doing your best. Take a deep breath and just enjoy the confusion, as you try to harness the excitement in these feelings and use that energy as you move forward on stage and in life.