When we are about to walk out in front of an audience, an extra burst of adrenaline kicks in, often turning into nerves. Their physical journey travels upwards from our feet, beginning with trembling knees.
I remember some of my first concerts, when it felt like the dress was moving from side to side like a sail in the wind. The next body part for the nerves is the stomach, filling up with butterflies. If the nerves intensify, the chest will start heaving as we hyperventilate with short gasps of air and for many people, the most sensitive part of the speaking moment is the voice itself, as it starts trembling or breaks off. If the pressure continues, the nerves will block our brain with a blackout, the worst-case scenario for many people.
It’s a misconception that we should be calm before an important talk. We often say, ‘Just relax, you’re going to be fine’, but the nerves are part of the extra spark that sharpens our presence, we need them for our audience connection. The art is knowing what to do with the butterflies, we want them to fly with us and not block our sight. The best approach is to counter the upward flow of nerves by grounding yourself. What you can easily do before the talk is to take some slow-motion breaths while connecting with your stomach and the centre of your body.
During the talk itself, imagine that your breath is coming from the soles of your feet, anchoring your energy downwards. A good way to integrate this is to draw a symbol in a different colour between the key words in your presentation notes or at the bottom of your PPT slides, reminding you to stop and breathe between them. Another thing you can do is reconnect with the reason you are there, what is it that you want to tell them and why is it important? Or you can connect with the audience in front of you, what are their needs, how will your topic be useful for them?
The trick is to get out of our own self-consciousness and connect with what we want out of the situation. Another effect of that extra adrenaline kicking in when we walk on stage is our inner speed picking up, making us speak faster. On a nonverbal level any speediness is low status while high status behaviour is calm, there’s no rush for a leader. To manifest your leadership in the room, you can apply what I call the sacred pause. There are several reasons why this makes you a better speaker:
As mentioned above, the pause is your chance to calm your nerves by anchoring the energy downwards while you imagine the breath coming from the soles of your feet.
Listening to a stream of words while trying to stay attentive is hard work. If a voice goes on for a long time without any breaks, the effect can easily be hypnotizing, soothing us into a sleeplike state. By pausing you give the listener a chance to integrate what has been said and at the same time, a refresher before the next point is made. And for potential listeners who have lost their attention already, a pause gives them a chance to refocus.
When we look at a written text, the layout with titles, fonts and paragraphs helps us digest the content. In contrast, when we listen to someone, all these support functions are gone. To transfer the layout into the speaking stream, using pauses is the most effective way to mark a title, a phrase that’s bold and transitions between sections.
The pause is one of the best ways to add gravitas to your message. When something dramatic or high stake has been said. Pause. When you are moved and want your audience to connect with the feeling you are displaying. Pause. When you receive a question that is provoking or spot on or in any sense big. Pause. The pause increases your leadership and authority in the room, letting your message land inside your listeners.
During an intimate coaching group in a global trading company, one of the commercial directors brought the challenge of harsh emails going back and forth with a foreign client. Looking through the email stream from the last weeks, we discussed what could be done to improve the communication and with that, the relationship between them. Here are my guidelines for email correspondence:
1. Are you listening in your reply? During one of my sessions with Active Listening one of the participants asked if listening applies to writing as well. Indeed it does. Before you start your reply, have you read through the email you are answering? We all know how irritating it is to receive a reply showing that the person hasn’t read what we wrote. The extra attention pays off in the rapport you are creating with your receiver.
2. Check your spelling. As one of my professors in business communication said, when you are not there, your writing represents you. And you don’t want your representative to show up with flaws that wear off your message. Edit an extra time and read through before clicking send. Our flow of thoughts is faster than our fingers on the keyboard.
3. If uncomfortable, save it for a conversation. It’s so easy to let the steam out in an email reply, especially in situations of urgency. When you are triggered by an email, the best thing to do is wait. If possible until the next day or at least, take a break and come back. We often misinterpret when we are irritated and reading the email closely a second time might reveal something you hadn’t noticed. If you still feel there are issues to be addressed, the best thing to do is to grab the phone and get on a call, if you are in the same building, try walking over to the other person and talk face to face. Emails are there to deliver messages, good news and agree on next steps, not to share negative emotions. No matter how upset you might be, make sure the ending keeps the door open. It requires some discipline, but it’s so worth it.
4. Think about your legacy. I once heard a story told by a woman who survived the concentration camps during World War II. Her family had been chased to the train station in haste and being the big sister, she reprimanded her little brother for lingering to find his favourite toys. They were separated into different train wagons and she never saw him again. Living on with her words that could not be erased, her message was clear. Each time you deliver a message, make sure it would be all right if this is the last greeting you get to give.
This is an excerpt from the book The Right Kind of Loud by communication expert Kim A. Page. Her book is available on Amazon and in Magrudy’s bookstore in Jumeirah, Dubai.
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