Now imagine yourself sitting at your favorite coffee shop as a muscular tiger, golden eyes blazing, charges through the front door.
Two rather different situations...yes?
The amygdala, also called the lizard brain as a nod to its evolutionary history, is concerned with survival. And it can't tell the difference between surviving a dreaded presentation and surviving a charging tiger.
Back in prehistoric times, when our ancestors were threatened by that charging tiger or a stampede of elephants, the fight or flight response served them well by speeding up their heartbeat, giving them a burst of adrenaline and temporarily dulling their peripheral vision so they could concentrate on the danger in front of them. But these same responses aren't very helpful when we're standing in front of a business audience. In fact, they can be distracting and even debilitating.
PRESENTATION NERVES AND OUR LIZARD BRAIN
There are a hundred things that cause us to be nervous about giving presentations but most of them are in some way related to our feeling inadequate in front of the audience: we won't be able to answer their questions; we'll forget what we wanted to say; they won't think we're qualified to speak on the subject; our material isn't good enough; we're not well enough prepared. And so our lizard brain does the only thing it knows to do -- it works to save our life from these threats by triggering the fight or flight response: sweaty palms, shortness of breath, racing heart.
Luckily we have evolved as humans to have more than the lizard brain to rely on. Enter the pre-frontal cortex which is the part of the brain that separates us from the animal world and is responsible for reasoning and thinking, rather than just reacting. This is where we must turn to manage the learned responses and automatic reactions of our lizard brain.
UNLEARNING PRESENTATION NERVES
Since the negative reaction to the perceived danger of giving a presentation starts in the brain, it follows that the fix to presentation anxiety will be in using the power of the mind to manage this reaction. Here are some concrete techniques to wrest control away from your lizard brain:
- Engage the reasoning part of your brain to remind you that the things you fear about presentations are really stories you're making up. These things haven't actually happened but you are imagining them to be real. Don't over-generalize one previous glitch to mean that you are a terrible presenter.
- Replace these negative stories with positive ones. Reframe "I'm going to forget what I wanted to say" with "If I lose my train of thought, I'll pause, glance down at my notes and get back on track."
- When preparing for your presentation, leave time to engage in visualization. For several days or a week before the presentation, set aside 5-10 minutes twice a day, sit quietly and run the movie in your mind where you deliver a successful presentation and handle all of the things you're worried about with grace and professionalism.
- Know what to expect. Fear of the unknown can add to presentation anxiety so find out all you can about your audience and your venue: what are the audience's concerns; what experience do they have with your topic; how many people will attend; how will the room be set up; how much time will you have; will there be technical support; will there be a break during your presentation; will you be sitting or standing.
- And then practice. Few of us enjoy practicing but sufficient rehearsal -- at least 5-6 times out loud -- will free you up to be present in the moment and connect with the audience which will lessen your anxiety.
Try out these tips before your upcoming presentations and you'll soon find it much easier to differentiate between a presentation you're dreading and a charging tiger in the coffee shop.
What techniques have you used to manage your fight or flight response?
Flickr/Puna the Tiger by MacJewell C.C. 2.0