Let’s try a thought experiment. Whether it’s delivering a presentation, giving a speech, or making a sales pitch, call to your mind whatever makes you want to be anywhere else except where you are.
Recall how the moment of dread makes you feel. Your breathing becomes shallow, tension begins to build in your chest, your throat and shoulders begin to tighten.
Your body braces itself for a fight-or-flight response.
As the stress hormone cortisol floods your system, a million thoughts flood your mind telling you how badly that big presentation is going to go – they all tell you that you’re no good, that you’re going to fail in front of so many people. Every part of your being wants you to run.
As someone who used to have a fear of public speaking, a career in media was perhaps not the wisest choice for a devout introvert.
Any time I would speak in front of a group of people, the anxiety would swell up inside me. Why?
Because I was afraid of failing, of coming across as a bumbling fool and being stuck with mental repeats of a horrible experience for the foreseeable future.
In an effort to counter this, I would prepare like crazy for whatever I was to deliver, right up until moments to go before it was time to perform.
Although I would manage to get through most presentations, talks or interviews without incident, the anxiety refused to disappear, even if it did behave for the duration.
Having a strong interest in how the mind behaves, I was fascinated by the question of why the anxiety existed in the first place.
Even when I got through difficult situations and had stacks of evidence that the world wouldn’t collapse if I made mistakes, I would still get nervous. But why?
The problem might not be with the event itself but rather how we prepare for that big presentation, sales pitch, or whatever has us on edge.
We’ve all had intense anxious moments just before taking on a challenge and, while there’s no escaping the job to be done, there’s no reason why we should accept the anxiety.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: is my preparation helping me perform at my best, or is it the cause of my anxiety?
If you’re anything like how I used to be, you might feel that it’s best to overdo the preparation rather than leave yourself short.
However, when we prepare too much, there’s every chance that we’re inducing the anxiety we feel.
To add to the problem, we don’t recognise that we’re the catalyst for those intense feelings.
Therefore, we mentally associate the anxiety with the perceived difficulty of the challenge, which only makes things worse.
The remedy will feel counter-intuitive at first, but it is effective.
For those familiar with The Mozart Effect, past research suggested that listening to Mozart’s music promoted short-term improvement in the performance of mental tasks.
But subsequent studies discovered that there is nothing particularly special about listening to classical music.
Those who performed best in the original experiments happened to like Mozart’s music the most, and the later research found that simply engaging in any activity we enjoy can help to boost our mental capacities and sense of well-being.
It even worked on participants who enjoyed audio recordings of horror novels.
So, instead of going over those slides for the 50th time a few hours before the big presentation, create for yourself a mental routine that takes your focus away from downward-spiral thinking and directs it towards boosting your sense of confidence and well-being.
Let’s have a look at some of the things you can do to help you ace the performance when the time comes to shine:
1) Listen to your favourite music
Whether it’s Mozart or Justin Bieber, take some time to listen to a few songs that make you feel good inside.
Let the music lift you up into a state of happiness and positivity. Don’t try to get into this state – just sit back, relax and enjoy the experience as it comes.
2) Remember your own greatest hits
Bring to mind some previous moments where you truly smashed your performance out of the park in times when you really delivered.
Relive how you felt during those moments: confident, self-assured, in control – you’ve been a big hit before, and this is just another success you’ll soon be chalking up.
3) Remind yourself why you’re doing this
If you’re pitching a new product or service to a client, then it’s all about their needs and how they can benefit.
When you take time to remind yourself of the ‘why’ behind what you’re doing, you take the focus away from any thoughts that you’re the one being evaluated.
Ultimately, it isn’t about you – it’s about what you’re giving to others.
By focusing on other people, you shift your attention away from yourself.
4) Ask yourself, “Where’s the tiger?”
When the body is in fight-or-flight mode, the mind can’t tell the difference between an upcoming presentation and being chased by a tiger; it simply knows there’s something to get away from and fast.
Often, the best defence against
feeling nervous is to acknowledge in your mind what you’re feeling and gently confront it.
“OK, I’m feeling anxious right now, but that’s alright. It’s normal, there’s a lot of people here. But I’m safe, nothing is actually going to harm me – where’s the tiger?
“This is just a feeling, nothing more. Besides, I’ve done this before, there’s nothing to worry about.”
5) Just before going on, take deep breaths
Take a deep breath in, hold it for a slow count of four, and then release the out-breath slowly.
Repeat this three or four times. It will help to calm any remaining nerves and take the edge off just before you go on to nail your next success.
Sandy Clarke is a freelance writer from the UK with 10 years’ experience in journalism and PR. As a keen meditator and mindfulness practitioner, he is a big advocate of positive mental preparation. To connect with Sandy, follow him on Twitter @RealSClarke.