Stage Fright

“Whenever I have to make a presentation or speak in public I get so panicky that I even draw a blank as I start to plan it” Sound familiar? You’re in good company.

Did you know that the number one fear of the American public — researched annually for the last 40 years — has been and still is any form of public speaking!It comes up as number one year after year. Amazing.

Actually amazing to me because, since I was a small child, I was always glad to appear in public. To say my piece, play my tune, dance my dance, make my speech — all of it was not only easy and natural for me but also fun! So I have tremendous empathy for folks who find appearing in public to be terrifying and in my adult professional work I’ve not only continued to reach out, connect with and perform for the public but also to teach other people “how-to” — whether in the courtroom, the boardroom or the media.

In an effort to understand why this fear is so rampant and widespread and to help solve it, I’ve studied all aspects of this panic to find out what creates it. And you know what? I’ve found the key ingredients! Understanding and demystifying them can help launch you on the path to erasing them.

So let me share what I learned about how to help folks get over that panic, that stage fright and be able to stand up in public and give that smashing presentation, explain your ideas, and present yourself as you really are, to your best advantage.

Stage fright is really based on a myth. Here it is: somewhere in the world there’s a way to deliver your speech with a perfect 10. You become obsessed with measuring yourself against that perfect “10,” thinking how far below that you’ll fall. This gives birth to an enormous case of “What if I fumble and lose my words?” ” I hate how I look,” “What will my boss (colleagues, clients) think of this — good? Smart? Well-conceived?” You can also add “My mother (father, teacher) always said I mumbled” and “I never liked making a show of myself” and there you’ve got it — Stage Fright!

See — the energy and the focus is all about ME ME ME the speaker, not YOU YOU YOU the people being spoken to. Obsessing on you and your performance — what kind of grade you’ll get, how far off the markyou’ll be. But that’s not what presentations are about! They’re about giving your message to an audience! About explaining, persuading, supporting what information you want to get across to them. About how to make your audience listen. About helping them get your ideas and understand your points, not at all about you and how you’re doing.

So let’s go to the source of this problem. How come so many people get stuck in this trap? Where does it come from?

Well, there are three basic well-springs in our backgrounds:

Childhood — How you communicate starts out embedded in your childhood. You watch others around you in the family and unconsciously try to copy them. But your folks and teachers, in an effort to make you better at it, often criticize how you’re doing it so you start out thinking “there’s a better way and I haven’t done it.” Next comes…

Adolescence — the real killer to self-confidence. Here we introduce the full-length mirror and all the “unacceptable” messages it gives us about our potential for success against our peers. And does the media ever have a field day with telling you how far short you’re falling from the ideal! All this does such a job on how you feel about displaying yourself in public for everyone’s perusal and grading!

Adult Experience — Here’s where your professional and work experience begin to single out what’s admirable and what’s not, what works, who stands out and gets ahead and why. And you start comparing yourself — unrealistically — since you really have no idea how you come across to others. You can only use your own internal insecurities to grade yourself. And you also add some assumptions about how self-confident and competent others appear (though they may not feel that way at all, either!). This dramatically helps you slide up and down, mostly down, on that grade scale. And of course it continues your focus inward, onto you and how you’re doing, and away from outward — towards finding out whatothers care about and how to best tell them your ideas and help them understand you better.

Funny thing is, this insight, this change of focus can get truly get you over stage fright because you’ll get so busy concentrating on capturing your audience, on making them get your message and thinking about the best ways to do that that you stop obsessing about yourself and what kind of grade you’re going to get.

See — the true secret to being a great communicator is understand your audience. Know that people are motivated by self-interest and the key to reaching, persuading, capturing others is to reach out to their self-interest before you get yours met.

So all the self-focus that is the essence of stage fright dooms you to failing in this key pursuit. That’s one of the major reasons to work on this — beyond the sheer business of getting comfortable so your best natural self can come through.

Bottom line: Your sense of self is so often fashioned by illusions — by comparisons and wrong assumptions. And by what other people — and the media — have told you is good and admirable. You gotta drop all that and start focusing first on the job at hand when you present. Use your good head, your past experience and the knowledge you’ve gathered to attack your presentation from the audience’s point of view, not your own. What do they need from you? What have you to offer them? What do they already know and what do you need to fill in? What worries them? What’s tough in today’s world? Grab them with relevance and with energy, with the sense that they’ll miss something they can use if they don’t listen and stay tuned. And then think about what new interesting ways can you make your message clear. Attention getting. Compelling.

And y’know what? Out the window goes the panic while you stay tight on grabbing and keeping them. Making them know that they need to hear you!

In another blog I’m going to give you some great tips on what makes people listen today and some great techniques for being a charismatic presenter. But for now I hope you’ve gotten some insights into the heart of the matter and that they’ll help you start enjoying the sharing of your ideas and feelings with others.

Advertisements

Put Down That Smartphone and Look at Me!

Hearing the inventory of Steve Jobs’ ground-breaking innovations, it made me think of what effect his genius has had on how we now relate to each other. What have we gained?

We can now make magic — we can bolt right over those old time/space barriers that made connecting with each other take time and physical effort. Now we can communicate with each other instantly, effortlessly — no seeing/hearing/touching/talking necessary. Our words fly through space and land just where we want them to with just the tap of a finger. And while we’re with one person we can even answer another’s demands and reach them too — putting the live, visible person we’re with on hold.

But what have we lost?

Communication science tells us that first impressions — the input that helps us learn and discern as we judge people — are made up of 55 percent experiencing your body language, 38 percent your tone of voice and that only 7 percent is your words. Seven percent of total information about anyone is what cell phones give us as we contact each other! Even less since we use acronyms — not even whole words.

So what is our new magic making us miss ?

Each other. The delight and surprise, the troubling demands, the enigmatic and fulfilling contacts we used to make with each other. The challenge of learning how to scratch the surface we all present. To recognize the human traits we all share. To experience each other, to see and learn how others are handling life and its issues — by looking and listening to them.

From the beginning, we used to invest ourselves personally in communicating. From painting pictures in caves to drums and smoke signals to developing language so we could get more specific to creating rites and rituals, plays, dances, songs — we were driven emotionally to reach out and affect each other, to share how we felt. To confirm and find solace in the commonality of our human condition.

It worked for centuries. As we moved on, we still treasured what had been said and done before because we continually recognized that the outreach of all the arts kept answering our questions, giving us other approaches to what we all still continued to live through and care about. And we kept seeking out the personal relating and responding, savoring the talking, the sharing — the contact. In every society, at any time in history, there were always family get-togethers, community celebrations, participation in events and intimacies with fellow humans. We saw and felt each other, reassured by the recognition that we’re not alone. That we do share the space and the life we all live.

Until now.

Yes — we still gather in groups. We still have family get-togethers. We still meet and eat with friends and colleagues. But the drive for contact? Eye contact? Verbal contact? Vocal contact? Reaching out to make personal, human contact? That’s fading. We’re now satisfied to share through little hand-held mechanical devices and solo finger exercises. Human contact is becoming theoretical. If the little device shows letters on a screen that means we’ve made today’s kind of contact. And it’s enough. Much easier and faster than talking. Safer too, since we can reconsider, edit and rewrite before reaching out. But what’s getting short-circuited in the creation of this unquestionably genius device? The looking, seeing, smiling, frowning, raising a voice, laughing a laugh — all those native people-gifts that we used to use for pleasure. And to instinctively judge, react to, understand and feel the human contacts we made.

Young people’s acronym-filled messages are now simply asking, “Are you still there?” waiting for the screen to say “Contact — I’m here.” We all use the new technology to fulfill more than just work tasks. The screen also answers “Who knows me?” “Do I matter” “Am I a player in the big game?” But the basic substance of life and how we live it is still human — not mechanical — and these extraordinary inventions are also starting to dry up our original communicative talents that always made reaching out to each other — though a little more time consuming — such full, rich, meaningful experiences.

So — what have we gained? Speed and ease and freedom in completing the circuits; in making technology do our bidding, short-cutting all the tiresome, time-consuming ways we used to use to accomplish our tasks. That’s good.

But what are we losing?

Those native human gifts we all own. Finding the individuality, the one-of-a-kindness that we can only discover by looking and listening, by interacting and processing live, at once, while we’re in real, personal contact with each other.

So — what am I asking for? Especially from the younger ones among us who grew up addicted to those devices. Put down those cell phones and go for being present. When you’re together with others, park the phone. Look. Listen. Perceive. Tune in. Treasure and use those inherent human instincts we used to be so good at when we needed to sense friend or foe, danger or joy, surprise or discovery. Notice. Touch. Breathe in. Feel what happens between people. Find out what we share before we lose those skills altogether. Discover what else you can learn about yourself and living – -not just the fact that we can now also make contact by tapping away.

The Challenge of Growing Up

So you think teenagers are so different now from when you and I were there? Sure, the tech revolution has added some bizarre twists but I recently had occasion to revisit the teenage revolt with a friend who’s having the usual heartburn trying to set the usual rules and explain the usual issues to her daughter.

As I watched I thought about the intrinsic rebellion built into that adolescent period from time immemorial Why was it ever thus? Well, here’s what I think.

Adolescents have this monumental task of needing to flex and test their own muscles to see if they’ll be strong enough to take the next step—to  move into the tough and complex world they see— to take their own place in it, handle the blows and challenges, become self- determining and emerge as adults. Needs lotsa muscle and  confidence- building to confront that. Where’s the best and safest gym to try out those counter-punches? With the folks that until yesterday seemed like their bulwark and safety net. But to start this workout, teens must first reject what they’ve always relied on. So that’s the beginning of the battle from the teen’s side.

But what about the poor beleaguered parents? They’re being tested too. Their power is also being challenged. Instead of making fists, as the kids need to do, parents’ challenge is to open that tight hand on the reins and begin to let go. How terrifying! This change of roles can also say  “am I losing my power over my kid? Maybe even in my world?”.So here’s the standoff and the source of the battle.

The teens need to reject, rebel, dare to be rude and obnoxious, break the rules and make their own decisions — all in an effort to test if they can be strong enough to do that and survive.

And the parents? They’re hanging on for dear life not just to the past and the roles of wise advisor, teacher and rule-maker, but they’re also being pushed into taking the next step in their own development. They need to let go and find their strength and reassurance in other ways, and a new role in relation to their kids.

But there’s one more thing. Teens recognize that the unmitigated love and care they got at home will not continue in that big world they’re entering. So they need to break that dependence on the parents, to snap that comfortable bond, in order to find out if they can live without that too. Thus they need to make themselves so obnoxious that their parents will reject them at the same time that they’re doing the rejection. To make the next step of “Go- get out of here already!” come from the parents, making it easier for teenagers to leave.

What do you think?

Changing Your Life’s Work

In today’s continuously transforming world, where you see yesterday’s plans and assumptions suddenly upended, people’s jobs and life’s work suddenly whisked away, we can all be challenged to question our assumptions and re-think our plans, our choices and our careers. Sometimes that confrontation is thrust at you and sometimes it simply grows out of that age-old question—“Is that all there is?”

I’ve asked myself that question and made a major change in my own life now. And I’m writing this blog to explore why and to hope that in this exploration I can help those who also question what’s next or who are compelled to answer that question.

I’ve asked myself “is that all there is?” nine times before this and each time I changed the course of my career and developed a new one. The standards were always about values—about what needed to be done in the world next, about what kind of social change should we be effecting. And after I determined that no one else was doing it, I’d turn my efforts into making that happen., I had great good luck in actually following my passions and doing it—nine times!  Going from musician to dancer to college prof at Radcliffe to television’s PBS teaching the arts to cultural reporting on Boston TV’s nightly news to my own TV talk show to creating the field of jury consulting and communicating at Harvard’s Law school, lecturing and authoring books, consulting on major cases, reaching millions as a contributor on national TV to business communication guru, author, lecturer, coach again —– until now.

Although I still do the consulting, lecturing and coaching, I’ve added number 10. This one’s not about changing the world anymore. It’s back to my roots as a performer and artist. Narrowing the focus. Going inside and in a very close, personal way, reaching out to a few people at a time as an actor, saying and showing what I think and feel through the words of others.  What a new voyage of discovery!! Not only of myself but of others who wanted to touch the world, to learn what they had to say and how they chose to say it. And you know what? I’m really doing it! I’m actually starring in a new play in New York in June, doing a performed reading of another and I’ve just done a short film up at Yale!

Why do this? Why the great effort to forge yourself into yet another framework? To learn and become something you haven’t been before? And at this time of my life when it might be time to consider a little coasting?

Because I’m here ! And alive! Looking to taste what I haven’t yet tried—to find out how this person-with what’s she’s learned and lived through — will process yet another aspect of our universe. And as for the courage to change? To try something new? The passion carries me right through the doubts and fears. “Let’s find out! Try it! If it doesn’t work, nothing terrible has happened. And if it does, what new seas shall you now sail on? What other Sonya Hamlin will you find there?”

So look to your passions. To what you always wanted to do or what you’ve discovered that you might like to try. Dare. Turn a deaf ear to the judgmental “What?”s you will hear. Find out who else is inside. Whom have you been carrying around all these years?  Grow forward. Don’t retreat or fold. Squeeze new adventures out of your time here…

The Secret of Getting People to Listen

Everything about communicating with each other has changed since technology has taken over what used to be a live person-to-person activity. Now that we “talk” electronically, the skills of personal communication – of talking face-to-face and making other people listen – is quietly dying. So what’s wrong with that?  We’re all quite pleased with the new ability to get our messages across fast and easy, with us in total control and no waiting.

But here’s the problem and the fact.  In order to finally make any sale, get any job, convince any boss about your new idea or make your mark and create your own brand — you must still, finally, do that in person. And that means not just being eloquent and interesting but making others listen…

Uh oh. Who’s willing to sit still and listen while you just talk, these days? That’s seen as a retro, boring, time-wasting format. We’re the Google generation- we get information instantly, on our own. No waiting! Plus–since the number oone motivation for anything we do is self-interest–how will you handle the inevitable roadblock anyone puts up when you ask for attention–“Why should I listen to this? What’s in it for me?

Major challenges. So what’s the secret to getting and keeping any listener-audience of one or many today. Know your audience! Start with that “Me First” factor. Otherwise you’ll never be able to get past that inevitable roadblock they put up – their  “Why should I listen to this? What’s in it for me?” attitude,  and you’ll lose them at the start.

Here’s how you do this:  The number one human motivation for doing anything has always been, and still is, self-interest. That means we all have a “Me First” factor. To satisfy that, you must focus on your audience’s main concerns – what are their needs, fears, goals—before you satisfy your own.

Great. How do you get this info about an audience you haven’t seen or don’t know? By asking about them or by simply putting yourself in their shoes as you focus on the following:

Who’s your audience (of one or many)? What do he/she/ they care most about right now? How much do they already know about your subject? How and why can your pitch or presentation actually help, interest or intrigue them? How can you best show and tell that?  Plus one more: What do they expect you to say – something you want to avoid at all costs or you’ll lose them.

Just think about today’s issues. You know them. And focus on our common fears. Those answers will come clear to you pretty quickly. Then get more specific for each group as you think about their special issues and problems.

Answering those questions — hitting your audience’s buttons and connecting what you want with what they care about– becomes the basis for how you organize your presentation. Their concerns become your opening- the lasso you throw out to catch them and hang on to them as you develop your theme and explain what you want to tell them.

So, the secret to making anyone listen is – reach out to them with what they care about, first. Then include yourself and what you want.