Beyond Normal Fear… header image

Beyond Normal Fear…

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A few days ago I spoke at a conference for business communicators from the IABC and PRSA Northwest Chapters. It was a fun opportunity that took place in one of those old downtown buildings that look like they are straight out of the board game Clue.  In my case, I was presenting in a mahogany-wrapped “Library” to a group of about 100 individuals looking for some insight into being a better communicator. All-in-all, it was a fun group with much laughter intermixed with some poignant information on the art of presenting.

After the session (which culminated with one of my volunteers beating an awl to death – you had to be there) there were a number of people who wanted to chat.  One was an attractive, professionally dressed and well-groomed woman who had a particular challenge she wanted to discuss after the room begin to clear.


“I’m a senior manager in a PR firm and have to do team and client briefings several times a week. For some reason, I become absolutely terrified! I turn bright red in front of the group and my hands start to flail nervously. What’s happening to me?

It felt like I had one of the clue cards (Ms. Green), but the other pieces were a mystery to solve. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to unpack such deep issues in just a few minutes.  And I try to avoid being prescriptive in those settings much like a doctor will avoid grocery store diagnosis.  But I did reinforce one specific principle with her from our group session and in retrospect, can offer another for you…

1. The fear of presenting.

We coach hundreds of business professionals every year and as we spend time with them during the day, we find that some individual’s unreasonable fear goes back decades to a bad presentation experience, a grade school class that laughed at them or even significant feelings of inadequacy traceable to bad childhoods.

Fully cognoscente that I am not a psychologist, I can’t help unpack those issues, but I can change the context of their fear.  My advice?  Turn every presentation (large or small) into a series of one-on-one conversations. No more standing and scanning the group aimlessly.  Rather, intentional eye-to-eye contact with one person at a time and for 4-5 solid seconds. Most people would feel very comfortable sitting in their offices talking to a single friend. We need to capture that feeling and bring it to our next presentation.

“Never let them catch you acting.”
(Keifer Sutherland on the best advice ever given to him)

My advice to you? Never let them catch you presenting.

Personal coaching approach – If I were working with this individual, I would have put them into a board room with one audience member to pass on some important information.  (Notice I did not say to present)  After 5-minutes of comfortable delivery, I would have added a second person for the next 5-minutes.  And every 5- minutes for the next hour adding another until the room was full. If this sounds a lot like the old science experiment of putting a frog in boiling water (they jump out) vs. putting them in cold water and raising the temperature, you’d be right. Slow and incremental increases in stimulus over time help us reinforce the right feelings and retard our instincts to panic and go into presentation mode.

  2. Deliver your presentation before you deliver your presentation.

Think back to the recent winter Olympic games in Vancouver, BC Canada.  Do you remember watching the half-pipe snowboard competition?  Now try to remember what the competitors were doing in the moments before they pushed into the pipe.  Their closed-eyed, body twists and gyrations were not the result of the pounding rock music they were listening to. (Ok, maybe a little)

But they were visualizing the experience their bodies were about to have… so they could greatly enhance their preparation.  They would actually be making their first run for the second time in their minds.

Personal coaching approach – Fear is almost always a left-brain function so we need to crowd those fight or flight instincts out with hyper-preparation. Know your material. Own it.  When our brains are not working so hard to think about what we are going to say, we can focus on the more relational aspects of talking with some friends.

Go into the room when no one is there and deliver the presentation several times.  Maybe even tape some faces on those boardroom chairs and make a point of “telling your story” to individuals, not presenting to a group.

Bottom line, we need to remember our audiences want us to succeed.  They want us to be relaxed and comfortable. I can’t help a particular presenter much with non-specific unreasonable fear and anxiety but I can help them change the nature of how they view the entire process.

One-on-one conversations.

Preparation and practice.

And never let your meeting be the first time you’ve “experienced” the presentation.

So for now, I’m ok with not being able to solve every mystery related to presenter fear. (I’ll leave that up to my friend, Scott Lee, PhD.)  I much prefer to change the nature of the game we’re playing altogether and for most presenters, that is infinitely easier.