A few years ago, I was asked to share my thoughts about the then upcoming World Cup in Football on a morning program on TV. The TV crew had chosen a nice, wooden pavilion as the setting, and for once the Finnish June morning sun was providing some warmth in the early hours of the day.
I had done my homework and even tried to scrape together some opinions of my own. The previous few appearances on TV had taught me that there was no time for lengthy rambling, so I had a few clear points ready in my head. So – all set, focused and ready to go. Or so I thought.
We were already live and I thought we had a nice flow going on in our discussion. Until I felt them. Marching up my legs was what seemed like a legion of ants. I tried to keep on my smile which got quite stiff when at the same time trying to shoo away the army of tiny, tickling, determined feet. The feeling of panic and a total loose of control was, in turn, invading my brain and body.
Thoughts were racing:
“We are on live television, at least half a million people watching, the ants are coming, why are they not going after HER, WHY ME, what the *#@* was that footballer’s name….” (I would have forgotten my own name in that situation, thankfully no one asked.)
Have you ever been in a similar situation when speaking in public or presenting? When your mind suddenly starts to wander everywhere but the place it should be, overwhelmed with emotions which definitely do not help the situation?
I guess those are the cases the polls refer to when reporting that many people fear public speaking more than death.
So how did I manage? Njaaaa… Let’s just say some footballers and coaches got new identities and tactics were written anew.
The sweet spot
If someone would pull out a list of “don’t do” when speaking in public I probably can check every box. I don’t remember how many times my mind has become completely blank when speaking (also once on live-TV, not to recommend). I have overprepared on countless occasions and focused more on the content and appearance of my slides than on what would really engage listeners. At times, my heart has been racing as fast as if thrown in front of a crowd of hungry lions. In my speaking I frequently use words like “like” which may – like – irritate some people.
And yes, I am a coach, trainer and at times a speaker. I guess this would be a time to stop and question the sanity of yours truly.
But the thing is that in spite of all that there is a knowing that somewhere there is this sweet spot where enjoyment, mission and strengths – and an optimal ration of tension and relaxation – all come together. Yes, accessing the flow state or even a glimpse of it. And that makes you forget about all the bloopers.
Probably most of us have been fortunate enough to receive some kind of presentation and speaking training either at school or in work-life. Usually you get some really helpful tips and viewpoints which help to develop as a presenter. However, often times that internal state where you can connect to that sweet spot might not be addressed.
Combining external and internal insights
Having worked with many clients who have had challenges in public speaking or have wanted to get to the next level, these days my super-competent colleague Kalle and I usually combine forces. He lets the client prepare a presentation which he records and discusses with the client and gives feedback on. It’s all about accessing the most authentic you, not focusing on the tiny flaws.
When it’s my turn, we investigate together the ingredients which are present when actually being present and focused on just the right things with just the right emotions and tension. It has proven to be an effective cocktail to address both sides – the external effect combined with the internal state.
Getting to know how it feels to be connected to your own presenting flow – and gaining access to it more often – sometimes requires facing your ants, how tiny and subtle they may be. In real life situations, maybe you are not invaded by real ants steeling your focus (at least I hope not, unless you are into some serious-level distraction training), but at times there can be internal or external “symbolic ants” present grabbing your attention.
Different kinds of ants
In the corporate world, for one team member her ants represented a certain colleague in front of whom she always felt intimidated. When presenting at team meetings she became defensive and insecure, despite of careful preparations.
Another client would become increasingly uncomfortable and losing focus when the number of people listening was above five.
Athletes who would thrive on the sports arena could get stiff and short-worded blended by camera-lights at press conferences and sponsor meetings.
A leader who was used to daily presenting realised his ants represented him dismissing most presenting moments as non-important and functioning most of the time on auto-pilot. He realized he could sky-rocket his influencing-powers to totally new levels by engaging the crowd in a dialogue and really also listening to them.
There are exercises you can do to draw in curiosity and humour to the situations triggering your ants, but just becoming aware of them AND desiring to create another state for the future is often the crucial first step.
The ingredients of your sweet spot
Here is a short exercise with questions to coach yourself towards your sweet spot:
Remember a time when you have been enjoying presenting or speaking in public and you were happy about your performance.
- Who was present? How did they look? What effect did that have on you, if any?
- How do you know it went well?
- What emotions did you feel?
- How was the tension you felt on a scale of 1-10 (1 = like over-cooked pasta, 10 = like a cat just thrown into cold water)
- With what kind of mindset did you approach the situation (e.g. curiosity, lightness, having fun, power, learning-oriented, seeking-to-engage, mission-driven…)?
- How was your body language – your posture, your gestures, your facial expressions? (Or how do you think they were from a spectator’s point of view)?
- How was the tone of your voice and the rhythm of your speech?
- Where was your focus most of the time (e.g. on yourself, on the topic, on the audience…)?
Reviewing your answers, which of these qualities of thinking, feeling, behaving and body language would you want to be present in any kind of presenting situation in the future?
If you could choose one of these as a reminder when wanting to access that “sweet spot state” again what would it be?
I know pondering over a few coaching-questions on your own is rarely enough, especially if public speaking presents a bigger challenge for you and your ants have had a cozy time building a big ant stack in your mind. However, it can be worth-wile becoming a bit more curious about the inner ingredients of your sweet spot, if you want to feel more at ease when presenting or challenging yourself to access a higher level of masterful presenting. Sometimes that is all it takes in order to break the habits of those ants, as well.
So, if speaking and presenting is an area which you want to set your growth-mindset on, how willing would you be to become a sweet-spot-seeker, tackling any kind of ants with your mind-body power? How ready are you to make some conscious, experimental shifts in mindset, body posture or focus the next time when presenting or speaking, even if they are tiny? I’m with you!
Wishing you all the best as I am getting ready to enjoy this summer’s World Cup! 🙂
PS. If anyone got a useful tip or insightful question about how to tackle real ants, please share. 🙂
Contact information in case you need further coaching or mental training assistance:
Leadership Coach (PCC), Mental Trainer
+358 50 364 8711