Sitting in the chair facing me, delivering her assigned presentation, my coaching client was relaxed and confident. Then I asked her to stand up and deliver her presentation from the little wooden stage in the corner of my office, lit by a bank of floodlights. “OH my GOD!” she breathed, “I am suddenly so nervous!”Standing in front of me, presentation in her hand, she fidgeted and stammered, her body stiff and awkward. The more I watched her in silence, the more she squirmed. “Why,” she squealed, “is it so much harder when I have to present standing up than when I’m sitting down? What’s the deal?”
The deal, I explained, is that when you stand up, you feel more exposed and thus more vulnerable. It’s harder to hide when you are standing upright with nothing in the way. of your audience and their potential judgement. The fear and anxiety ithat this kind of exposure provokes is understandable: Deep in our collective DNA lives the memory of our ancestral, tribal existence where there was safety in numbers. The chances of survival lessened drastically if we were tossed from the tribe, left vulnerably alone to fight off beasts and enemies. When we stand by ourselves in front of a group, those ancient fears are triggered, and we launch into a fight-or-flight response.
Additionally, I explained, my client had mastered speaking from a seated position. The next level of mastery for her—standing up to present– invited greater exposure and larger number of butterflies to beat their wings in her stomach. And she hadn’t yet worked out how to stay centered within the overwhelming anxiety presented by the new parameters of this upright speaking experience.
The act of delivering a presentation comes in so many forms: Sitting down at a conference table; standing in a lecture hall; standing behind a lectern, on an elevated stage, blinded by lights; stepping to the pulpit in church to deliver a eulogy; being interviewed
by your local news station, a camera in your face. And each opportunity brings with it a different, often higher, degree of exposure and vulnerability, which can pull us off center. Once we master one gut-clenching level (e.g. giving a talk to twenty people at a breakout session for a local association) there is always another level of exposure to master (e.g. giving the same talk to 2000 people from the main stage at the association’s annual conference).
You can choose to avoid the speaking opportunities that make you feel most exposed, pull you off-center, and cause the butterflies in your stomach flock and fly. Or you can choose to step with curiosity and enthusiasm into those opportunities, knowing that the more you are willing to dance with your butterflies in speaking situations that make you feel exposed, the more the butterflies will settle and calm.
The secret to finding safety in the speaking scenarios that make you feel most anxious, scared or vulnerable, is to define what center is to you and carry that center with you wherever you go, from mastery level to mastery level. To find and know what center is to you, ask yourself “How does my body feel when I am experiencing a sense of safety? What’s my breathing like when I feel rooted and solid? How do I stand and hold my body when I feel supported by Mother Earth?” If you know what center is to you, you can help yourself return to it, again and again, focusing on managing your breath, connecting with the earth, and physically relaxing your body until your heart begins to beat normally and the butterflies come to rest.
In speaking, and in life, when you feel exposed, actively find your center. The more you practice doing this, the less feeling exposed will spook and throw you, and the more opportunities you can have to share your unique, valuable message with the world.
What sorts of public speaking scenarios are most comfortable for you? Why?
What sorts of public speaking scenarios ratchet up your fear and anxiety, and make you feel most exposed? Why?
What represents center for you? How do you stand, breathe and feel when you are centered? What sorts of activities could you do, ritualistially, prior to presenting or even while you are presenting that can nudge you back to center?