Fear of presenting is such a common topic on my presentation courses, and I am always pleased to watch them learn how to overcome that fear and deliver a first class presentation.
Many have heard of the “Fight” and “Flight” mechanism, (also called hyper arousal, or the acute stress response) which is the body’s instinctive mechanism designed to help you cope with fearful situations. It was first coined by physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon in 1932. He described this primordial protective function of the body, which was really necessary for situations where the best response was to either to run from trouble, or to stay and fight.
To run from trouble (Flight) the body provides an adrenaline that will improve the muscles capacity to get out of trouble, it does however, have the unfortunate effect of reducing the brains function down to almost animal instincts of survival, and hence reduces the brains thinking and memory, not very helpful for a presentation.
Considering we have known about this since 1932, you would think that schools would understand the concept when it is time for examines. Everything about the exam seemed designed to instil fear and hence the likelihood is that the Flight mechanism is engaged. This may have happened to you, it certainly happened to me, where I couldn’t think of an answer, yet 20 minutes after the exam, when everything had calmed down, the mind cleared and I immediately had the answer. The simple cure would have been to get everyone dancing and jumping around to some fun music, to get the wrong adrenaline out of the system, or even better, teach students, as we do with presentations, to use the nerves of the exam to engage the Fight mechanism.
The Fight mechanism is also generated by an adrenaline but this one sharpens the brain for the fight, for the exam, or for the presentation.
We harness our nerves and make them work for us to engage the Fight mechanism.
But how does it all work, and how can we determine which mechanism is engaged?
There is a scripture in the bible in the letter of Paul to the Corinthians where he says that they should “take captive every thought”. Clearly Paul knew a lot about the brain in that we do have a choice how we think and as to whether we intend to let a negative thought take hold. If we start thinking negative then as soon as the brain perceives this as any form of stress it causes sympathetic nervous signals to be sent to the adrenal medullae, they in turn release catecholamine’s into the blood stream causing a reaction typical of the of the flight mechanism.
On the other hand if we can capture the negative thought by telling ourselves how prepared we are, how people are looking forward to what we are going to tell them, how many successful presentations we have given, how it is no more than speaking to people one to one (a positive affirmation), then the same mechanism will send the right signal to the adrenal medullae, and they will have engaged the Fight mechanism.
Understanding the mechanism that causes the fear of presenting can help us overcome it by ensuring that before a presentation we are visualising and talking about the success of the presentation, and that at no point do we let the negative thoughts take any control of our thinking.