March 24, 2007

Cool as a cucumber or sweaty like a racehorse?

In his book "The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking" Dale Carnegie (author and guru of the enormous self-improvement empire that bears his name, including the classic book "How to Win Friends and Influence People") says,

"Many professional speakers have assured me that they never completely lose all stage fright. It is almost always present just before they speak, and it may persist through the first few sentences of their talk. This is the price these men and women pay for being like race horses and not like draft horses. Speakers who say they're 'cool as a cucumber' at all times are usually as thick-skinned as a cucumber and about as inspiring as a cucumber."

Someone in a forum asked me this yesterday, "Do you ever really get over nerves if you speak regularly, or is it something many deal with on an ongoing basis?" Here is what I wrote in response (thanks to Mikki for the updated research material):

There are differing opinions regarding nervousness. I belong to the school that believes a small amount of nervousness is normal, and even beneficial to a speaker, the way athletes use adrenaline to propel them to run faster or jump higher. I think a little bit of nervousness keeps me on my toes, keeps me sharp and edgy.

I am always nervous before a presentation. It's not because I think I'm going to do a bad job, and it's not debilitating nervousness that makes me want to run and hide. It's less anxiety and more excitement, and a little "fear of the unknown," I guess. Once I start meeting people (I always greet people as they arrive; it helps me feel connected), I start to relax, and once I start speaking, I'm not nervous at all any more.

I think of it like riding a roller coaster. Logically, we know roller coasters are safe and we're not going to get hurt. But there's this fear mixed with excitement that people just love. For me, speaking is like that excitement of riding a roller coaster.

There have been various studies, by the way, about athletes and how they perceive performance anxiety. Elite athletes are more inclined to consider this anxiety facilitative, while non-elite athletes consider it debilitative. I find this fascinating because elite and non-elite athletes both go through the same rush of adrenaline and performance anxiety. But it's the elite athletes who take the anxiety and use it to improve their performance.

Individuals who see their anxiety as facilitative are also more likely to use coping strategies (like the ones I share with my clients - relaxation, visualization, etc.). I find the research on athletes and performance anxiety to be really applicable to speakers and performers.

The key here is in reducing the anxiety so it's manageable, either by performing physical exercises like progressive relaxation and deep breathing, or mental exercises like visualization, focus, and goal-setting - or both.

There are some people who will tell you that you can completely eradicate performance anxiety, and that may be true, but I don't think it's necessary, or even desirable.

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4 comments. Please add yours! :

Rick Rockhill said...

hey there...I stumbled across your blog and enjoyed reading thru...I kind of lost myself in it, which says a lot!

stop by and say hi sometime.

Anonymous said...

Super post Lisa,

The distinction between nervousness and excitement is an important one.

My own experience is that I used to get really nervous. And it showed up as actual physical discomfort. Sickness to the stomach, and at one point, losing a quarter-sized patch of hair purely out of worry.

But now I know that I feel only 100% excitement, because like an elite athlete, I feel strong before I perform. I'm actually kinda psyched.

Some of this is becuase of the mental game that I've had to work on so much due to overcoming a stutter.

This takes the form of: Belief in yourself. Belief that your audience has kind intentions. Belief that you know your subject. Belief that you can improvise if something goes wrong. A lot of belief :-)

But my excitement also comes from the solid skill-set I've developed over decades of trial and error. It gives me the confidence to know that I can clearly communicate my message, whatever that may be.

A solid public speaking skill set and a strong mental game. Both are areas that I'd recommend that folk work on in the battle to combat nerves.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for sharing, Ross. A strong mental game is another one of those athletic analogies, too! You really have to start from belief, don't you? Skills are great, but skills come with time and experience. Having that belief and confidence can go a long way when the skills are still being developed.

Anonymous said...

As a big sports fan (Anything except hockey or baseball.)and a devout soccer player, I'm always noticing those sporting analogies too.

I'm always tempted to keep them under wraps a little so not to ostracize any non-sporty folk.

But there are so many comparisons.

In 1982 Michael Jordan hit the final shot that won the NCCA championship for North Carolina.

I read an interview with him where he said that he regularly took the time to look back mentally at that shot during his pro career, to remind himself that he was capable of hitting a game winner.

In the same way, someone before a presentation can look back to their own successes to find evidence that they're capable of coming up big once again.

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