It was 9am – the beginning of an inhouse company training course like hundreds that I had run before. The corporate training room was standard, the number of participants was not more than usual, and it was a pretty normal gender mix. There was nothing exceptional about the course that anyone looking in from the outside would have noticed.
There was one difference – the CEO of the company was one of the participants.
And that was making me nervous, very nervous.
Now the opening of our course normally has a great flow – I start with my story charting my progress from shy, nervous teenager to competent, confident presentation trainer (I’ve told this story so many times I could do it in my sleep). The story helps the participants to relate to me and inspires them that they can go on a similar journey. Then I segue into a 10 minute exercise that we’ve fine-tuned over many years, to get participants into just the right state of mind to start learning.
But that’s not what happened that day.
I stumbled through my opening story. I muddled up the instructions for the exercise so much, that the participants – including the CEO – looked at me blankly. Now I just wanted the training room floor to open wide and swallow me up. I’m sure I went bright red! But I managed to repeat the instructions so that they could finally understand what I wanted them to do and start the exercise.
I had 10 minutes while the participants did the exercise, to sort myself out before we got into the meat of the course.
I knew what I had to do – there were three steps that I had to go through. I’m going to lay out these steps for you and describe what I did, and then encourage you to apply the steps to a presenting situation where you feel particularly nervous.
Note: In my last post, I described how some level of background nervousness when you’re speaking in public, is absolutely normal – it shows you’re human. This post describes what to do when your thoughts makes your nervousness worse.
I’ve created a worksheet that you can use to go through the 3 steps.
Step 1: Bring your thoughts into the light
I had thoughts lurking in the dark recesses of my mind. I needed to bring these thoughts into the light and examine them.
When I took a moment to do this, I realized that this is what I was thinking:
“If I don’t perform at my absolute best today, then it will be a catastrophe!”
Here are some other examples:
“If I lose my place, then it will be a catastrophe.”
“If I don’t answer all the questions properly, then it will be a catastrophe.”
“If the audience can see that I’m nervous, then it will be a catastrophe.”
So now it’s your turn. When you present and you’re nervous or anxious – what is the thought lurking at the back of your mind?
You’ll find it easier to follow along with my steps, if you format your thought like this:
“If I [don’t xxx/do xxx], then it will be a catastrophe.”
In the worksheet I’ve listed 14 examples in the form of a checklist – so that you can simply tick those thoughts that you resonate with.
Step 2: Explore the Scenario you’re Predicting
I was predicting that if I didn’t perform at my absolute best, it would be a catastrophe. The catastrophe was a big black hole that I was afraid to explore.
But that’s what I had to do. I had to make this amorphous catastrophe tangible – to make it something I could visualize.
So I dug into my thinking to construct the chain of events that made up the catastrophe I was predicting
Here was the chain of events that I came up with:
- If I don’t perform at my absolute best, then the CEO won’t like the training course.
- As a result, we won’t get any more work with this client ever again.
- As a result, our business will suffer and eventually fail.
No wonder I was so nervous, the ultimate consequence I was predicting was the failure of our business!
Here’s another example:
- If the audience can see that I’m nervous, they’ll think that I’m incompetent.
- As a result, they’ll think that I don’t deserve my job.
- As a result they’ll tell my manager.
- As a result I’ll get fired.
As you can see, often the ultimate consequence is often quite extreme, but if that is the thought that your mind serves up, then it is best to examine it, than to try and shove it away in a dark corner.
Your turn: what is the chain of events that you are predicting? What is the ultimate consequence that you are predicting?
Notice the pattern, the first line starts with the the thing you either want to have happen, or not happen. And then each subsequent line starts with “As a result…”
There’s more detailed instructions and another worked example on the worksheet.
Step 3: Face up to the consequences
Now, it’s tempting at this stage, to say to yourself “Oh, that won’t happen” or to try Positive Thinking and say to yourself “My presentation will go perfectly.”
Neither of these approaches reliably work for most people (if you’re one of the people that it does work for, that’s great, continue doing it – I don’t want to mess with something that works for you).
The truth is sometimes such things – losing our place, making mistakes, getting judged negatively, your businesses failing, getting fired – do happen.
If you try and skip over this reality and ignore the possibility of something bad happening, a little voice will pop up in your head and say “But it might….” As Russ Harris says, that’s the role of our brain, to alert us to danger, so as to stop us from getting killed.
So to take the sting out of your thinking, the final step is to fully face up to the consequences.
In my case, the ultimate consequence that I was imagining was the failure of our business.
Now I had to look at this question: Could I handle it? Could I handle it if our business failed?
No question that it would be hard and unpleasant. But yes, I could handle it. The most important things in my life are my health, and my family and friends. The ability to earn money is obviously important to me, but I could live on a lot less. If I had to, I could find a job cleaning toilets and survive.
When I faced the fear of failure of our business head on and decided that I could handle it, my extreme nervousness, my stumbling, my convoluted sentences disappeared.
I ran a reasonable training course – maybe not one of my best, but I got good evaluations (no-one even mentioned the terrible start) and we did get more work from the client.
What about you? Could you handle the ultimate consequence that you predicted in step 2? Would you survive it?
When you look at your darkest fears head on and decide that you can handle them, they lose their power over you. And as a result your extreme nervousness fades away and you’re able to perform much better.
That’s what I wish for you.
If you’ve followed along with the steps in this post, I encourage you to post what you’ve written in the comments and let us know how the process of going through these steps has impacted on you.