I talked in a previous blog article that having courage not confidence is the most important first step. Courage is the ability to feel the fear and do it anyway. However, who wants to feel fear for all eternity? I certainly don’t. So, we need to work on self-image so we can greatly reduce this huge drag on our psyche.
However, this overly negative view of your capabilities is very natural for many. Why would that be natural? Because as far as evolution and your genes are concerned, survival is priority number one. Your happiness and self-satisfaction are not relevant.
- Both the rational and irrational sides have concerns
- Create small victories
- Handling your own inner speech critic
- Visualizing a successful presentation
Both the rational and irrational sides have concerns
If you are scared or concerned about some perceived risk then you will tend to do things that will prevent that. An imagined risk that doesn’t happen is not a problem for your genes. A real risk that you ignored and kills you is a problem.
Considering that, it would be natural to assume that there are way more people in the world that underestimate themselves and are overly cautious about things. Because this increases your rate of survival and also the likelihood that you will have offspring that will carry your genes to the next generation.
So, we have a basic problem. If you want to get better at a skill such as presenting or speaking in front of people you need to be able to counter the natural tendency of “most” people being overly negative and conservative about their abilities. To do so we need to work on self-image and mental rehearsal.
Improving your self-confidence needs to address both the rational and the irrational sides of your brain.
To placate the risk adverse rational and irrational sides you need to do the following things:
- Create small victories to build up evidence that you can do it
- Massively reduce the negative talk in your head
- Create positive visual images of your success
Create small victories
The small victories help convince your rational side. The positive words can work both ways, and the positive visuals are usually very good at convincing your irrational side. Let’s see how each of these works.
The first is building small victories. This is incredibly important to both your self-esteem and success. You may read some self-help book or listen to some guru that says that you should create some BHAG or Big Hair Audacious Goal. Something so big that you wouldn’t have the first clue about how to accomplish it.
That may work for some people like Elon Musk. That’s probably because he has a process and experience on his side. For people like him, it just a matter of how many times you get up at bat and swing. You need to just swing a home run just once. The rest of the 99 strikes outs then don`t matter. But for large a majority of people who lack his guts, tenacity, and intellect, going without some semblance of a plan is way too scary.
Don`t lose in your own court
Let’s take the typical aspiration and BHAG of many speakers: giving a real TED talk. First of all, no matter how badly you want it most of us are not going to speak in Vancouver at the TED Conference. First of all, how do you even do such a thing? Do you know anyone who has been there? Do you have any connections to the people involved? The answer to the questions is probably no and no.
Your rational side then would then remind you of your qualification, i.e. zero. Look at well-known authors who didn’t get onto the TED stage. Josh Kaufman who wrote a wonderful book called “The First 20 Hours” and “The Personal MBA” spoke at TEDxPenn. Cal Newport who wrote “So Good That They Can’t Ignore You,” “Digital Minimalism,” etc. Spoke at TEDxTysons. Even Simon Sinek’s most-watched speech was done on the TEDx stage. Getting to the real TED stage is hard.
Then would come the list of reasons why you would fail. You’re not good enough. You would choke, freeze up, or do other equally embarrassing disasters. Then your rational side would damn you for your lack of skill. Who would be interested in your speech in the first place? People would be falling asleep or quickly pulling out their smartphones.
Your rational side would work as a skilled criminal prosecutor, building up mountains of evidence of why that dream would never work. To deal with that you would have to find a good way to fight back. Otherwise, you will lose in your own court. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing?
Looking forward to not fearing the opportunity
So, if it were me, and it is, I would put the TED talk in the “nice to have someday” category. This is not something I can cause to happen in one year, three years, or even five years in the future. The fact of the matter is that I’d need to be invited. My rational side knows that and would remind me of it.
What I want to avoid is when I do get the invite (and it will happen) that my rational side will not start piling up the evidence of why I would do such a lousy job. If that were the case, I would have all that mental baggage and I would end up with an OK but not great TED talk. Talk about a waste of a great opportunity.
So, let`s suppose that you are one day destined to give a TED talk. You are going to do something that will get people to notice you and you will end up on stage. It will happen, but you don’t know when. How would you prepare for it so you will have the self-esteem you need to knock it out of the park when the opportunity arrives? This is how I would frame it.
For a vast majority of people speaking in front of an audience of 1,500 is extremely scary. It isn’t cheap and there are a lot of VIPs in attendance. That in itself could be intimidating. How would you like to appear like a fool if Simon Sinek was in the audience? Not me. Then there is the video of your presentation. That video will be on YouTube for all eternity.
So is my TEDx talk (it’s in Japanese), by the way. There are parts that I wish were not there, but I cannot change them. Anyway, it will be natural to have a feeling that you do not want to mess it up or just at least do ok. So, you need to build those small victories.
Where Do We Start Building Small Victories?
So, where do we start? If you have zero experience, how about delivering a speech by yourself? All you need is a smartphone. Think about what you want to talk about, maybe even write a short outline.
For God`s sake do NOT write a line-by-line draft of your speech. Most people are not good at reading speeches out loud. It will sound flat and canned. Just do NOT do that.
Even for some people, this can be hard, but please work on building your courage. You can use the techniques in the previous blog article.
Why not record yourself?
For me, I wish I had a video or even a picture of my first speech. At least it would be proof to me and to others of how far I have gone. I believe this will an important record for you. It will get you through those tough times when there are big important presentations on the line. I have seen how this works for others time and time again.
So, if you have not recorded yourself, the best time was at the beginning. The second best time is right now. So, why not whip that iPhone out right now and speak for 1 minute? This blog is not going anywhere.
BTW, my first YouTube video is here: “Why The Three-Point Framework Fails.” It has plenty of room to improve. But, sadly to say it was put out in April of 2019.
Once you have gotten that out of the way, notice that lightning did not strike nor that you had a heart attack (though it may have felt like it). You can now watch the video. Be warned you will not believe what you see. You will not even believe what you hear. And there is nothing wrong with the camera or the microphone. You do look and sound that way.
The next thing to do is have a live audience. If you are starting off, find one friend or a supportive spouse or relative. Anyone who is generally supportive and positive will do. Then give the speech. You will probably survive that one as well.
Five to ten to one hundred
Then you start building to three, then five, ten, etc. By doing that you will create the small successes you need to show yourself that you can give a decent speech. I would at that point starting joining Toastmasters or some other forum where you can regularly practice, reflect on your speech and get feedback from others.
You may find other books like those by Brian Tracey, Dan Lok, etc. recommend joining Toastmasters to get the practice to get better at public speaking. I feel it is a good place to get used to decent sized crowds and pressure.
A typical club will have 20 people. If you join speech contests you can get in front of crowds of 60 to 100 for the lower level contests. With the top-level contests having more than 500 people. Of course, the ultimate one is the international contest with way more people than that.
From a hundred to tens of thousands
But even if you can’t win a contest there are often opportunities for being a speaker at training sessions where the attendance can easily go over 100 people. For people who are not used to pressure, try speaking at a training session at first may be better to get used to larger crowds. But again, it is up to you and your risk tolerance.
The only problem with Toastmasters is that a particular style of speaking tends to be well received. If you want to build small successes with different styles, like a presentation that would work for pitching in front of VCs or selling from an online stage, you are going to need a different place to practice. One way could be putting your practice videos on YouTube or doing a Facebook Live. Another way would be joining an online community for that purpose. I run an online practice group for that very purpose. It`s mainly for Japanese.
Before going after a big goal, work on small victories. If you have a big presentation. Start with presenting in front 1 then 5, then more. Slowly work up to larger audiences so can build your courage, confidence, and competence.
Handling your own inner speech critic
In addition to building the small success, it will be helpful to deal with your inner critic and the images of doom that repeat in your head. Creating the small success can give you the ammo you need to argue back at your inner critic. But it won`t stop until you take action into your own hands.
First off, simply writing out the words in your head is a good way to objectively look at how positive or negative your self-talk is on any given day. For example, imagine that you are going to practice giving a speech. It could be a presentation for your co-workers or a pitch in front of venture capitalists. Whatever the situation is, just imagine that you are going to give to one. Make it as real as you possibly can in your mind’s eye. Then record all the negative talk that is buzzing around in your brain.
The next step would be to imagine that a co-worker that you like or a friend is giving a presentation. Imagine that they make the same mistake that you fear making. How would you feel if you were a member of the audience? What would you say to that person? Write that down as well on a different sheet of paper. Compare both sides. How are they different?
I can imagine that the difference is stark. The things that you say to yourself could make a sailor blush. You might not even say these things to your worse enemy. But you are saying them to yourself every time you plan to give a speech. It is no wonder that you are afraid.
It can be changed.
Your brain is not there to make you happy
As Tony Robin`s once said “Your brain is not there to make you happy. You are.” The human brain, unfortunately, is wired to pay more attention to negative words because it a survival machine. It is, I repeat, not an organ to make you happy. See the excellent Psychology Today article for a more detailed scientific reason, if you don’t like Tony.
Thus, negative words have at least twice the impact of positive words. So you are going to need to say positive things about yourself and your speaking ability at least twice the number of times than the number of negative words that float in your head.
If you are not sure what to say, I would suggest going back to imagining the words of encouragement that you would give to a friend or a good co-worker. Again if you have not already written that down, I would suggest doing it now. Please take your time and write as long as you would like.
After you have finished, the important part here is to read the sentences out loud and address them to yourself. Do that at least 2 to 3 times. I recommend finding a quiet place to practice is so you don’t look or feel foolish. I also suggest recording using your smartphone. You can then play it back to yourself whenever you want.
Affirmations: Feels weird but works
Another thing that can be helpful is affirmations. There are plenty of books, blogs, and other resources about affirmations. If you want to learn more just Google it. If you want to avoid woo-woo writers, Scott Adams seems to have done a good job in his book, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” Look at Chapter 24.
But the basic idea is to keep it positive and in the present. A simple example is that “I am great at presentation. I speak with confidence and poise.” Avoid using words like not, won’t, etc. like “I will not fail. ” Your brain will not process that correctly and the fail part is just more memorable.
I find there is no one correct way to do affirmation. But you can repeat them out loud to yourself about 15 times or so every day until it gets ingrained into your subconsciousness. Again if you find saying it out loud a little inconvenient at times, you can just record it using your voice and listen to the recording whenever you want.
In any case, I would regularly take the time to record your stream of consciousness on paper. This will give you an objective idea of how much negative talk is floating in your head. Once you know that you and then gauge how many times you need to do the affirmations or positive talk to yourself. Just make sure it is at least twice the amount that you have recorded.
Your brain is not made to make you happy. It is there for your survival. Write out your concerns on paper and confront them. Write out affirmations and say them out loud. If you do this on a regular basis you can quiet the critic.
Visualizing a successful presentation
The next part is dealing with the pictures of doom. There are a certain number of us who are more visual than verbal. But for many, we still get pictures of freezing up, choking, or even the occasional scene of everyone booing. But in reality, even if you do a bad job, audiences tend to be rather forgiving.
If you have experience watching someone bomb, I think you know how most people in the audience feel and react. You do not have to be overly charitable in your imagination.
For example, there was one time where an elderly gentleman was giving a speech but mid-way he completely blanked. He wasn’t some inexperienced speaker. We are talking about someone who has had at least 15 years of experience, has won speech contests before, and is a well-known communication expert to the audience.
If anything, you would expect this audience to be shocked and perhaps unforgiving. But at that time I could almost feel the energy of people cheering him on. After he finished he got a warm applause from the audience.
This is just an example of how a disaster can often not end up being as bad as some people would like to imagine it to be. I would not recommend using this story as an ideal mental rehearsal, but it should give you some encouragement. Instead, I would mentally rehearse your presentation to the end. Imagine your success multiple times.
Make more comedies and fewer horror shows
As mentioned previously our brains are programmed to remember negative things more than positive ones. That is why we should try to imagine success twice as much as our mind reminds us of disaster. This way we will not unconsciously sabotage ourselves and we are more likely to have success in reality.
However, working on ensuring that you have more positive words and imagines in your head doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore all the negative words and imagery. Some of that does have value. After all, cars have breaks for a reason. If all you had was an accelerator you would be continually crashing into things. So, the negative thoughts can be used as a “brake” when appropriate.
The negative energy can be used to motivate you to practice more, or to consider certain precautions. If you were overconfident, you might not practice at all. Then your performance might not be good enough to capture the heart of a VC, customer, or senior executive. Overconfidence can also lead to not preparing in case the projector doesn’t work or the printer goes down at an inopportune time.
Instead of imagining the the end of a successful speech, rehearse in your mind it going well from start to finish. If you still have pictures of failure, imagine how you would handle it.
However, in most cases for most people, the enemy is overly negative self-talk. It is the self-talk that mentions disasters that are unlikely to happen or the self-talk that greatly underestimates your skill. We need to work on building a personality that can correctly evaluate our skills.
In most cases that mean intentionally overcompensating for the natural tendency towards the negative. However, it doesn’t mean ignore that negativity completely.
Once you are working on your self-image, you will see that you will need to muster courage less often.
This is because you have built a record and self-confidence that your subconsciousness can rely on. If you avoid working on this area you are going to continue to need to build up courage, feel the fear, and do it anyway. This is unpleasant and not a good long-term strategy. So, please continue to keep a log of small successes, keep up the affirmations and the positive mental reversals,.
If any of these suggestions helped or you still need help with your presentation, I can help. I help people effectively use logic, psychology, and rhetoric to build powerful presentations. A good presentation can make or break a business. So, please leave a comment or question here.