Prologue: Foreign lands

We all have different perspectives and different outlooks on life. I sometimes consider what it must be like for people from the far-­‐flung nations of the world who migrate to Australia. They arrive in a country with different clothes, different food, different geographical surroundings and a multitude of simple differences like water taps that can be so unusual and sometimes so incredibly bewildering. And we have to accept that not everything on offer here is an improvement on what has been left behind.

Moving from fifteen years devoted to the study of opera performance and concert singing in both Australia and in Europe to the corporate arena brought me similar disjunction in perspective but it allowed me to look at issues within the corporate world from a new outlook.

I didn’t enter the world of business to work in the field of presentation. I had other ideas. However, what I found intrigued me. The frustration of watching the ineffective struggle of those on a mission to present ideas, projects and motivational leadership soliloquies was a driving force in my own transition to spend many years researching a PhD on Vocal Intelligence for which I was awarded the RMIT Business School prize for Innovation.

My research on the topic and my subsequent creation of the Vocal Intelligence theory was to assist people in every-­‐day life and business to reach their full potential. It is about recognising the mind-­‐body-­‐voice connection, diagnosing your personal strategies for sound (where voice is a thermometer of personal state) and re-­‐building effective habitual patterns which are effective even under the most critical stressful situations.

In this volume I point out some of the major myths that may be leading you astray as business leaders in your pursuit towards authentic, inspiring and rewarding communication.

Setting the Scene

There are times in every person’s life, when they feel insecure and stressed in frontof groups. For some people it is an ongoing state. For others the threshold is lowand for another group it may only occur when they have to present topeers or those in positions of authority. The list goes on.

For some it is only with big audiences and for others only with smallaudiences. For others it is when a particular person is in the room and for some itis because they are on a stage. For me, recently, I foundmyself challenged because all the other presenters were half my age! What isyour hot button?

There are many and varied effects, but the research shows that mostindividuals consider public presentations ‘worse than death’ and that fear has a dramatic effect on what we do. Often our dislike of presentation is mostoften manifested in a voice that is shaky, high and fast. In fact the mind actson the body and the body moulds the voice and there ‘appears tobe little disagreement in the literature surveyed that emotional stress canaffect musculoskeletal tension to induce aberrant changes in vocal usage’ (Rollin 1987).

On the other hand, for everyone in business, and especially for thosein leadership positions, being able to inspire and motivate others is acritical, necessary part of daily life and we do that through the spoken word. This is not optional. Without these skills, opportunitiesare lost, poor perceptions are given and most importantly you will just keepfeeling dreadful about yourself.

At some stage we all hit a barrier and overcoming those barriers is thwarted bymyths and legends.

“Relax”

We have all heard it said in times of stress, “Relax”. This is the first mythI would like to address and the problems are two fold: firstly that this is just notthat easy and secondly, relaxing is really not what we are trying to achieve.

  • It’s not that easy

For many adults, we have strong messages of fear and even humiliationwhen it comes to presenting. Well into adulthood many people feel that whenthey stand up and use their voice they will be laughed at, which leads to a feelingof tension every time you get up to present. You try to relax. It doesn’t work.

Perhaps you go into some cycle of negative self-­‐talk and then decide “If only Icould relax,” but this does not seem possible. First you werestressed because of the situation, now you add doses of personal disgustbecause you can’t relax. Double trouble.The notion of ‘relaxing’ justreaffirms a lack of self-­‐belief.

What are we trying to acheive?

The other issue to consider is that when we speak with large groups, sing orinteract vocally in day-­‐to-­‐day activities, speaking is not a relaxed activity. Itrequires energy and power.

Imagine being on stage in front of a group of bored and hurried critics for whomyou are about to present. Perhaps they are disgruntled staff. Perhaps it isyour board or management team. Engaging these groups doesn’t happen through yourelaxing, but through a transfer of energy and engagement.

Television personality Larry Emdur takes us into the stimulating world ofthe television game-­‐host, saying, ”I’ll always have an underlying fear before I march out on to any show, but that works quite well forme… it lifts me. That nervous energy makes me punchy and scared and justbefore I’m introduced, the hairs on the back of my neck are up and I’m tense allover. It’s quite a bizarre situation, but it works.” Larry is able tooverride the negative effects of stress of performance and translate that intopositive energetic stimuli. At no stage does Larry mention ‘relaxing’ and this isa common interpretation for many professional performers.

When you speak with people who do extremely well in these situations you willfind that they are not relaxed at all. Perhaps sometimes they say they are,because that is just a phrase that comes to mind to induce the effectivestate. However, actually they are highly energised.

Reinterpreting the myth

In summary, presentations, boardroom meetings, conflict, negotiations, salesand other daily face-­‐to-­‐face challenges are often highly stressful situations.

Rather than trying to relax, it is better to harness the excess energy createdin stressful situations and channel it to powerful parts of the body. Ask anyonewho works with martial arts, tai chi or virtually any sport and they will tell you thatyou need to be energised in lower parts of your body and leave the upperbody free. Arms are free. The head is loose. The upper torso is swinging. Understress this energy tends to creep high into the neck, jaw, throat and chest. We needto move that energy down into the pelvis and core. Don’t relax. Move the energy down.

“Take a deep breath to relax”

  • What people say

Having decided that trying to relax in a presentation situation is not necessarilythe right intention, worse still is to consider the frequent advise to ‘take a deep breath torelax’. It is almost ingrained in all of our sub-­‐conscious minds and we are promised falsesuccess with this technique. In one instruction I read that by taking a deep breath ‘you willbe able to quickly reduce the amount of tension you are feeling’.

The evidence of this working in practice, however, is astoundingly poor.

  • Why things are not as they seem

Proper breathing is characterized by slow, steady and deep breaths, with theexchange of gasses occurring to the fullest extent possible. Full deep breathinginvolves the diaphragm, a major muscle that sits below the lungs and above theabdomen, and occurs effortlessly in babies, animals and when we are asleep.

Full bodied breath gets sabotaged by stress. The more intensely stressful thesituation, the more we lock up. Fear and stress turn the diaphragm into atight immoveable mass, which in turn adds tension in our neck and larynx, andtogether these block the breath and our sound.

When we try to take a deep breath to relax in this situation, we not only look tense butwe become more tense -­- it is exhausting to repetitively lift the ribcage and hold theneck in this way. Additionally, lack of air flow is made most obvious by atight, high voice and the fact that the brain stops functioning and the presenter forgetswhat they are saying. In fact, the instruction to ‘take a deep breath’ has turned a badsituation into an even more frustrating and ineffective one.

Reinterpreting the myth

When you are already relaxed, or in a non-­‐threatening environment, it may be asuitable strategy to take a deep breath to relax.

However, when you are stressed, trying to take a deep typically has the outcome of making you look and feel more tense. Instead of trying to take a deep breath in beforespeaking, focus on a strong breath out, or even a cough. Aim to kick your diaphragmfree with the explosive breath which involves an inwards stomach action. Keep yourarms free off your body, and focus on unjamming the tight diaphragm which is actingas a jam to energy in the lower body.

“People who present well, enjoy it”

  • I  hate presentations

Enter ‘I hate presentations’ in Google and you will find 1,240,000 results. Conversely enter ‘love presentations’ and you will find a small fraction of that amount, most ofwhich are about ‘how to propose’.

We assume, therefore, that the answers are black and white – love and hate, goodand bad – and most of it is about ‘hate’ and ‘bad’. But it isn’t. Sure there are peoplelike the actress, Pamela Anderson who, on a trip to Australia in June 2010, gaily toldus on Dancing with the Stars that “of course, I am nervous. I love it.”’ Good for youPamela. Then there is the other extreme that I think we have all seen: The person whofreezes and would rather die than get up again.

In between all of this there is a grey area. This is the majority of managers, sales people or leaders whose job it is to present, who often do it well, but sometimes (or always) think they couldn’t possibly be any good because you don’t ‘enjoy it.’ Perhaps you have learnt certain techniques to get you by. Inside, however, you are self abusing.

  • You’re not alone

At a recent conference where I spoke, I had a conversation with a fellow-­‐presenters -­‐ the president of a major national group in Australia. Once again I found myself talking to a major public profile who was, and always had been, terrified of public speaking. Her strategy to get through was about survival. She could recall surviving through horrendously embarrassing presentation as a child, and had this as proof she could do it.

Unfortunately for her, and for many others, she had set the benchmark, based on a childhood experience, at a level of survival, which means she never enjoys herself and feels badly about her performance.

Presentation can be exciting and fun – even for an introvert. We have to educate ourselves about what impacts on our mind, body and voice under these circumstances, diagnose how we are responding and decide whether that is the best way to work or not. That is when the enjoyment starts.

Reinterpreting the myth

People who present well do not all enjoy it. This is the half-­‐way house in the grey area. So just because you may not enjoy presenting in front of others does not mean that you are not good at it. In fact, it could be quite the contrary and this is a great starting point.

The way forward is to know the rules, learn your weaknesses, and create strategies towards overcoming the physical jams.

“Watching yourself on video will help you improve”

A major component of many presentation workshops is being videoed and then watching the video. The idea is to see yourself in action from the position of the observer. From that experience it is assumed you will learn tremendous amounts about yourself and as a consequence you will implement critical change in your life that is totally beneficial.

There is no doubt that watching yourself back on video may be life-­‐changing. For some people this is a positive experience, but once again they are in a minority. Most people find it a totally horrifying.

In my fifteen years studying and singing opera with some of the greatest singers of the century almost none ever videoed themselves. As a method of self-­‐instruction it is not considered a vital ingredient. So why do we do it in business?

  • Why it is wrong

The issue is that there are two perspectives: one is the perspective of the performer, the other is the perspective of the observer.

When we perform, speak, present, we are acting out our lives from inside a body. Our eyes see out, our sensations are those of a living breathing person inside a body and we are managing that body either brilliantly or otherwise. Being inside a body is like driving a submarine. We are deep inside the machine and we have controls that work for us to manoeuvre the sub the best we can.

For someone on the outside they see things very differently. In the case of the submarine they can see the obstacles we should be avoiding, the depth we should be travelling and the direction. Becoming the observer ourselves, we get tricked into thinking this type of objectivity is beneficial. However, two things actually go wrong:

  1. Firstly, when you receive feedback from the perspective of yourself as observer, it is often the case that we focus on the irrelevancies. Watch the video on Youtube called ‘Awareness Test’. In this video they ask you to count the number of times a ball is thrown by a certain team. We are so busy concentrating that we do not notice the moonwalking gorilla across the screen. Similarly with watching yourself on video others may be wanting you to see the mannerisms you are making, but all you can see is your nose, or your fat or your hear your mother’s voice in yours and you become focused on only that.
  2. The second thing is that seeing ourselves from the outside and spotting a problem may give us absolutely no idea of how to change it. So many of the skills of presentation involve the body and voice are learnt by feeling, sensing, experiencing. You cannot, for instance teach yourself to sing by listening to yourself on tape. You need a teacher who guides you in the moment.

This is not to say that the use of video is never beneficial. It is just not a necessary major component of presentation training, and it can do more harm than good.

Reinterpreting the myth

Videoing yourself as a method of self-­‐improvement is often a form of cruelty to dumb animals. We learn from the inside out, not the outside in. Get feedback and reinterpret it from the internal perspective. Learn to feel what other people are seeing.

“You talk too fast”

Millions of quick-­‐thinking, inspired individuals stand up to present, express opinions, answer questions or any plethora of situations that put them in the line of fire of public scrutiny, only to be told that they talk too fast. They try and slow down, but the problem seems to crop up again and again. So why doesn’t this strategy work?

  • There is more than meets they ear

Research on voice highlights how subjective an experience it is. Voice is a complex holistic phenomenon, where the product -­‐ sound -­‐ is invisible and made from a place of the body we can not see or sometimes feel. It is linked to both emotional and physical responses, with an output we hear differently to those around us, and relatable to at least thirty-­‐six fields of study, for which no generalised, multi-­‐layered model or theory exists. Basically, the answers around voice are never that easy or straight forward.

Slowing down is not always the right option when we receive feedback that we are speaking too fast. When it comes to speed of speech, the perceived competence by the listener of the speaker is said to increase as speaking rate increases (Sherer, London & Wolf 1973), although there is a point at which speaking rate becomes so fast as to have a negative effect on competence. There is, however, ‘no current consensus on what that rate is’ (Siegman 1987) and it is probably further along the scale of speed than you think.

The dissonance that audiences are picking up when they complain that you are speaking too fast is more often a response to high, shallow breaths – not speed.

Reinterpreting the myth

Instead of continually trying to slow down your speaking, consider that speaking too fast is not about speaking too fast at all. It is about breathing too high. If you get feedback that you are speaking too fast, before you try to alter your speed, work to unjam your diaphragm and get the breath lower in your body. The air must flow and the air must flow in and out, feeling the effect deep in your body, and this will give the impression of slower speech.

“It’ll be alright as long as I know my material”

If I had a dollar for everyone who says to me ‘it will be alright as long as I know my material’ I would be the richest person alive. In our culture, we focus on words and their importance at the expense of a message and performance.

When you are preparing a presentation do you have the urge to ‘know everything’ in the world before you get up? This urge for psychological protection is totally valid, and it is a useful driver, but the problem arises in that we interpret that ‘everything’ as being only in content alone.

I once worked with an engineer who was a world leader in his field and incredibly erudite about his material. After dazzling the audience, who were usually architects, with the technical qualities of the materials, the audience would invariably sit there in total silence. At the end of his presentation, they would ask questions about the colours. He could not understand where he was going wrong. His expertise was the technical aspects. Their interest was the visual. Clash.

Knowing all the material in the word may help you feel confident, however, it does not necessarily get your message across to the audience effectively or lead to a great presentation. A small percentage of what people take away from a presentation is words and content alone. Words matter, the right words matter and how you deliver them count even more.

Reinterpreting the myth

Rather than expecting expert material knowledge to save you, reconsider the presentation as more about what the audience needs and what they would like, or need, to know. It may be a tiny fraction of your total genius, but it might actually be more worthwhile.

The delivery counts, including how you organise your content for maximum retention and understanding by your participants; maximising your voice; using gestures and movements that are congruent with your message and that enhance participant understanding; meeting different learning styles in the audience.

Summary

It is my belief that we are terribly naive about presenting ourselves. The naivety leads to beliefs about black and white options such as being simply good or bad at how you present. Further this leads to believing myths that are simply unhelpful, if not harmful and together each individual myths adds with another to build a full legend of the presenter as victim.

The most damaging myths are, in order to present, one should relax and to achieve this relaxed state, one should take a deep breath.

Having said that, this victim is somehow deprived of air and put on fast forward. Then, to understand this situation, it is believed that you need to see yourself from the perspective of others. For some reason you then wonder why you are the only one who does not seem to enjoy this experience. You retreat to focus on your content and distance yourself from the audience by undermining them as third party observers.

To rewrite the myths one by one and create a new legend there must be a different approach. In what I call Vocal Intelligence I propose an education about the mind’s effect on the body, whose tensions are, in turn, reflected in the voice.

Finding the Enjoyment

Enjoying presentation is about recognising that the game of presentation is not one of relaxation. It is about discarding poor advice and discovering:

  • Where you manifest tension
  • What actions are needed to override that stress
  • How to find fun playing with new techniques

It is like playing a game of cards with the emotional mind. Mostly we are playing poker without knowing what a winning hand looks like and then feeling terrible when we lose. There is a life in presentation beyond ‘survival’, but most people don’t seek it out.

Learn the rules.

 


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