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Are you dress rehearsing tragedy?

Tragedy
Photo by Artem Kniaz – Unsplash

By Daniel Kingsley

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve; the fear of failure.

Paulo Coelho

Don’t let the fear of failure stop you; the world needs your greatness.

Emmanuel Appetsi

Don’t worry – Be happy!

Bobby McFerrin

~

When we have a talk, pitch or presentation coming up, it’s completely normal to spend some time thinking about how it will go.  But here’s the thing, most people will spend ages worrying about it and fearing the worst.

This is partly because for various evolutionary and social reasons, we are the most fearful creatures on the planet.

It’s also because there were evolutionary advantages to assuming the worst in a situation of potential threat and incomplete information.

Imagine that you are someone who lived thousands of years ago in a jungle.  You hear a sound in the distance.  It could be a tiger…but it might be nothing.  Our ancestors who chose to presume that it was probably a tiger, ran like hell and lived to fight another day.  (Though they were sometimes wasting their energy).  Those who assumed that it was nothing to worry about got eaten.  We are not descended from them, for obvious reasons.  Natural selection!

But here’s the thing, whilst this was a life-saving strategy in response to existential threats, our brains now use the same wiring for situations where don’t face actual injury or death…such as presentations or public speaking.  And in those scenarios, that strategy can get us into trouble and have us wasting a lot of our energy.

When we are faced with a situation where we are facing an unknown audience, or an unknown response from our audience, our threat-based brains assume the worst.  We imagine worst case scenarios and try to prepare for them in our minds.  This makes us even more scared, anxious and nervous, and can make the run-up to our talk a living hell.

It also means that going into the presentation, we may not be exactly in the best mindset!  This is obviously going to impact our performance.   Our minds then say “I told you it would go badly!”  (This is a perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy).

So that’s the bad news – we often tend to dress rehearse tragedy in our heads and sometimes enact it as a result.

The good news is there are two powerful and helpful things we can do about it.

 

Listen to the part of you that is anxious…then validate and reassure it.

The first thing we can do about our tendency to run doomsday scenarios in our heads, is to do what a good parent would do if their child were worried or anxious.

We can listen to the anxious part of us, empathise with it, validate it for its fears and then give it realistic reassurance.  This breaks the cycle of worrying and stops it escalating.

I call this strategy the LEVER principle.  (Listen, Empathise, Validate and then Reassure). I wrote about it in detail earlier this year in this blog piece.

But in brief summary, it might sound something like:  “I can hear that you’re worrying about the presentation you’re going to give next week and you’re really worried it will go badly.  ([Listening and Empathising]…And that really makes sense to me why you’re worrying about that, because our last presentation in front of this audience didn’t go so well [Validation]…But there are lots of reasons to think that it’s going to go much better this time.  You are much better prepared, you’ve done much more rehearsal and you’ve had some excellent public speaking training recently.  You’ve got this!  I think we’re going to be fine.  Heck, we might even enjoy it!” [Reassurance].

This is an enormously powerful strategy – to treat the part of you that’s worrying the way you’d relate with your own child or your best friend if they were worrying.  We could easily do it for someone else, and with practice you can learn to do it for yourself.

Alongside this great technique, there’s a second strategy we can use in this situation, and it’s just as powerful, and in some ways even simpler.

 

Dress rehearse Success

If there’s going to be a movie playing in your head of the future, make it a good one!

If you are going to be spending the time ahead of a talk or presentation running it through in your head, why not actively choose to run through the best case scenario – how you’d really like it to go.  You’re not telling yourself it will go this way, simply that it might!

I learned a version of this technique a number of years ago from a colleague called Nick Lazaris, and it’s really simple.  (What follows is a combination of his version, with some of my tweaks to the method).

Sportspeople use a technique of visualisation to imagine hitting the perfect shot in tennis or golf and their experience suggests that this significantly improves performance.  We can do the same with our public speaking or presentations.

Here’s how:

Step 1
Ask yourself what outcome you would like to achieve from your presentation. Getting the job?  Convincing your audience to something differently?  Getting a message across in way that’s powerful and enjoyable for everyone?

Step 2
Take a slow deep breath into your belly, and let it out even more slowly.  It doesn’t need to be a lot of breath, just deep enough to make your belly expand.  It’s good to breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 8.  (If you’re interested, you can read more detail about this technique in my previous article here.)  This will dampen down your fight/flight reflex and make your brain more receptive to the next stage.

Step 3
Imagine what it would look and feel like if everything went as well as it could possibly go, in terms of fulfilling your intention.  How would you like to feel in the lead-up to the presentation, on the morning, 10 minutes before, during the presentation and afterwards.  Actively make a mental movie of each of these sections, seeing what you’d like to see and feeling what you’d love to feel.  Picture each section in your mind as clearly as you can.

You might imagine feeling slightly nervous, yet excited and confident in the week leading up the presentation…Waking up on the morning of the presentation with (good) butterflies in your stomach and feeling really up for it…Driving to the presentation feeling really cheerful and optimistic, whilst looking at the scenery as it goes past listening to your favourite music…Getting up onto stage to a round of applause from the audience, seeing their expectant faces and starting your talk just as you wish to start it – perhaps telling a joke and hearing all the audience laughing…Coming off stage to a huge round of applause, knowing that you’ve done a great job.

Continue this way all the way to the end of presentation and include how you want to feel afterwards, visualising the best case scenario.  Use as many different imagined senses as you can – feeling, sight, sound, even touch, taste or smell if they are appropriate.  The richer you make the imagined image the more powerful it will be.

Step 4
Deal with any objections from your mind.  Scared parts of your mind might try to interrupt your best case version with versions that don’t go so well.  That’s absolutely fine.  It’s their job to do that, but we don’t need to go along with it.  We can use the LEVER technique outlined above to manage those parts:  “Yes, I can hear that you’re worried it might go like that, and that makes sense to me – it could possibly go that badly (though I don’t think it will), but what we’re doing now is visualising the best case scenario, because that will make it more likely to happen.”  Note – you’re not telling yourself that the best case scenario will happen (you wouldn’t believe that if you said it to yourself) – simply that it could!

Keep going until you can get all the way through your rehearsal from the start to the end, and it goes as well as you can possibly imagine it going.  Don’t settle for a merely OK scenario – “that would do, I suppose”.  Give yourself the luxury of imagining shooting for the stars and succeeding.  I’m not suggesting you imagine the impossible…just the very best possible version that you can think of.

Step 5
Enjoy it and repeat it!  Let yourself have some fun concocting wonderful best case scenarios.  Allow yourself to imagine feeling the excitement, joy, pleasure, satisfaction coursing through your veins.  Be creative!

Then keep rehearsing these feelings and images at least once a day for 5 minutes until your talk, interview or presentation.

If you ever notice your mind going back to rehearsing the worst case scenario, just kindly say to that part of your mind – “Yes, that could happen, but it probably won’t.  And here’s why…[fill in your reasons here why you are likely to succeed – be realistic yet relentlessly positive].  Then if you have time, you can do a quick mental rehearsal of the best case scenario.

 

Let me know how you get on!

I love these two techniques and I use them myself regularly, both with my coaching clients and for my own presentations.  The effects are always powerful and helpful.

I’d love to know how you find using them.  Leave me a note in the comments below, or drop me an email.

And of course, if you’d like one to one coaching on any of the methods in this article or on any aspect of public speaking, presentations or leadership, feel free to get in touch.

Daniel Kingsley
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