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The most important advice of my career

It’s almost impossible to rise into the senior executive ranks of a major company without the ability, or at least the willingness, to speak in front of a large audience. Junior managers should take every chance offered to them to practice with any group, and actively create such opportunities. Confidence in front of a crowd can make or break a career.

How does this reconcile with the oft-stated statistic that fear of public speaking is usually at the top of surveys of greatest fears, even higher than the fear of death? It’s claimed that as many as 75% of people have glossophobia, a fear of public speaking.

So for a moment, let’s ignore investing and talk about breathing.

This brief note is not comprehensive advice on how to improve at public speaking, but simply to give you one A4 piece of paper that I received about 30 years ago which significantly improved my management of stage fright. I have revisited this document many times over the years and given it to people I have employed or mentored.

The document, ‘The 10-Second “Mini-Tranquilizer” Exercise’, is linked here.

It is a quick breathing skill from a ‘biofeedback’ expert, Dale M. Patterson. Print it out and keep it.

I will let the advice speak for itself, except to explain where I found its application useful.

What insight did this simple breathing exercise give me?

Like most people, in the early part of my career, I felt nervous before a presentation to an audience. Even when I gave monthly updates on the structure of the bank’s balance sheet and risk to the board, talking about the same subject to the same group for several years, the nerves would usually kick in. It was uncomfortable rather than debilitating, inducing pacing the corridor to ease the tension, although if I were not as well prepared as I liked, it was worse. The first few minutes of the talk were crucial. Once the presentation was in full swing and the questions came, confidence and momentum increased and the focus on the subject took care of the rest.

Good public speaking involves developing a range of skills, and there’s no substitute for quality material, practice and preparation.

But here I want to focus on this simple breathing exercise I discovered at a management training course with an emphasis on public speaking.

Without attempting to cover the subject comprehensively, here’s the key insight: normally, we think of the brain controlling the body. For example, the brain tells the arm to lift, and it lifts. But here, the flow is the other way, the body sends a message to the brain. It’s a small part of what is known as ‘biofeedback’, which Wikipedia defines as:

a process that enables an individual to learn how to change physiological activity for the purposes of improving health and performance.”       

By breathing deeply as described in the exercise, the body sends a signal to the brain that there is no threat and to stay calm. The brain does not switch off, it simply becomes aware that the ‘flight or fight’ feeling does not need to kick in so strongly. In a way, the body starts to control the brain.

Combined with a range of other techniques, I hope this simple exercise does for you what it did for me. It’s important to feel some level of adrenaline rush before a speech because it heightens your awareness and shows you care. Just keep it under control.

And maybe pass this on to your family, friends or colleagues. It might be the best help you can give them, even if it's only for the wedding day speech.

 

Graham Hand is Editor of Cuffelinks and his career has spanned almost 40 years up to Managing Director level. As a disclaimer, he admits he knows little about the subject of biofeedback, but he is far more comfortable speaking in public than he used to be.

5 Comments

Jason

February 11, 2016

Yep, it absolutely works.

I'm an ambulance paramedic (and follow sites like this out of general interest, maybe I need to get out more :-) ) and regularly use techniques like this with patients who are having an anxiety attack. There's a lot of physical things going on in the body when you're anxious as a result of the adrenaline that is released as part of the fight-or-flight response, and an exercise like this had other physical effects that slows that down and activate the part of the nervous system that does the reverse, hence calming us down.

Like Dr John above sometimes people think it's too simple to work, but just because something isn't complex doesn't mean it's not effective! Well worth a try next time you're about to give a speech or any other time you get anxious or jittery.

Jody Barlow

February 10, 2016

Interesting exercise, Graham.

Alison Whittaker

February 08, 2016

Interesting - its what my yoga teacher encourages me to do - before attempting postures which I find challenging

(Dr) John Buchanan

February 07, 2016

What you have described is standard Behaviour Therapy / relaxation exercise / autogenic training ; whatever it is called- all the same. The thing is many people with anxiety will not do it because they think it is too simple. It needs practice to establish the conditioned response.
I myself taught it to people with anxiety for years to good effect (retired psychiatrist)

Alex

February 04, 2016

I tried it a few times – obviously takes practice to get any effect! Personally I tend to walk and/or stretch muscles, but I guess everyone is different.


 

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