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Every time we go into an unfamiliar situation, anxiety levels increase. The larger the number of unknowns that are in play, the more discomfort we feel. If it's something special, out of the ordinary or there's a lot hanging on it, anxiety levels can go through the roof. The danger, of course, is that we freeze like a rabbit in the headlights, gabble incoherently, or try to 'check out' un-noticed! Sometimes, it might end up being a combination of all three...
Reduce the number of unknowns.
There are a number of really effective ways to reduce the anxiety - well in advance. Fact-finding, preparation and visualisation/mental rehearsal. The earlier you start to prepare, the calmer you will be.
Tour de France riders ride every inch of every stage well in advance of the race - usually with another rider who has ridden the route before. So before the race starts, they know the twists and turns of the route, where the potholes and dangerous bends are, where they can safely speed up and where they need to take things slowly.
What this does is free up a massive amount of brainpower. Come race day, they can focus their concentration on managing the physical effort of the race. They are not having to learn so much 'on the go'.
When we know we have a stressful event coming up, we have a choice - push it out of our minds - or take the time to start preparing and rehearsing as far in advance as possible.
Here's how I prepare for a speaking event.
As soon as the booking is made I check the physical location and travel times. It may be a few weeks or even a couple of months away but adding it to my mental map and timeline stops me panicking every time I think of it.
I send an email to the organiser - a checklist of everything I need in terms of technical requirements, parking, power sockets, cables, adaptors and whether I can use my ipad to present or need to send the presentation in advance. Get a clear answer to as many questions as possible.
I find out as much as I can about the audience - how many, where they are coming from, whether it's a specialised audience or a public talk that is open to allcomers. I can then start thinking about ways in which I might have to adapt or tweak the content.
I visit the venue or organisation website, and try to glean as much info about the environment - are there any photos of the auditorium or seminar space? I try to get a 'feel' for things.
I talk to the host - how do they mormally run things? Do they sound organised or are they a 'It'll be all right on the night' kind of person.
I always ask to be let into the room at least an hour before the event starts to allow for technical hitches and compatibility problems.
The Mental Fly-Through
Finally, once I've got all of the information I can, I do a mental fly-through. I find a quiet place, sit down, and imagine the day or evening unfolding. This is usually quite detailed, and allows me to notice any points in the itinerary, or my planned talk, where I've failed to think of something that might trip me up. Until you become practised at this, it can seem a little odd. Some of us are good at this and find it easy, others find it tricky. If you have ever played on a flight simulator computer game, you'll know exactly what I mean. You can be the pilot, or you can switch into observer mode and watch yourself flying the plane. Either mode works.
My tactic is always to get in the room as fast as possible. First, I want to troubleshoot any problems with the technology - for me, this is big source of anxiety and I need to neutralise it as fast as possible. Second, I want to experience the space from the audience's point of view. What are the sight lines like? What are the acoustics like? Will I really need a microphone?
I like to sit in a few different seats and get a sense of how I might need to move around the room in order to be seen, but also so I can make eye contact and 'connect' with everyone as quickly as possible.
Then, as the audience arrives, I try to acknowledge everyone in some small way - whatever is possible in the circumstances. This tiny bit of 'getting to know you' activity reduces the feelings of anxiety that comes with being in a room full of strangers. If it's a workshop - up to 15 people, I'll try to say hello, shake hands and smile at as many of the delegates as I can. With larger groups, connecting with just three or four can make a huge difference. If you have a few friendly faces dotted round the room, you can check in with them as you sweep your eye contact round the room. This sets up a useful non-verbal feedback loop right from the start.
Using this approach in other contexts
Mental rehearsal and visualisation are universally useful. I mentioned Tour de France riders - heart surgeons, deep sea divers, pilots - people who expose themselves to tricky situations day in day out, all use this technique - or variations thereof. If it works for them, it's highly likely to work for you too. Try it. It may seem unfamiliar and uncomfortable to start with but give it a chance. It may become an invaluable part of your working routine.
If you have found this post helpful, and would like to explore the issues raised in more depth. please don't hesitate to get in touch. I'm happy to arrange an exploratory call at your convenience. No cost, no obligation.
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