Public Speaking: How to Tame Your Nerves in the Spotlight

Discussions involving one’s substance versus their looks have been controversial in multiple aspects of human life. In corporations, this discussion may appear when the term executive presence is thrown in the air. For many, and for a long time, executive presence seemed like a vague definition to determine who looked like a leader. That notion, based on old models of white males in high positions, created room for bias and a sense of unfairness. 

More objective studies, like one conducted by The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), pointed out that executive presence accounts for 26% of what it takes to be promoted. 

So, what exactly is executive presence, and is it truly possible to develop? 

Executive presence is a combination of appearance, gravitas and communication skills. 

The easiest to accommodate seems to be appearance. The research defines it as “looking polished and pulled together”. The challenge here is becoming familiar with the culture of the company you intend to work for, so you can find out if what they consider “polished and pulled together” matches what you believe they are. Some of us will be willing to adjust our personal style for the job of our dreams. Others will live in conflict if they try. 

Gravitas is the ability to project confidence, poise under pressure, and decisiveness. According to the CTI study, it was considered the core characteristic of executive presence according to 67% of the senior executives surveyed. And finally, communication, the fabulous skill that telegraphs you are leadership material. 

All these precious assets can be learned through focus and practice. Here, we will discuss public speaking, a skill that encompasses appearance, gravitas and communications, quickly conveying how much executive presence you currently have.

With so much involved, no wonder public speaking is where even professionals who check many boxes in the executive presence checklist, confess they still feel somehow uncomfortable. And even some who are very familiar with the stage, say they experience anxiety when interviewed on TV. 

What is going on in our brains when we face such situations?

I studied the psychology of this “spotlight effect” (literally with lights on one’s face as they performed) and it turns out that the experience subconsciously reminds us of live theater, where whoever is on the spotlight is the showman. If it’s a play, they cannot forget their lines; if they’re dancing, they cannot miss a step. If they are singing, their voice cannot falter. In essence, they cannot make mistakes. In some situations, our minds even potentialize our fears with delusions about being publicly humiliated if our delivery is not up to par, and we are back to ancient Greece, where poor performers would be booed and run out of the stage under a shower of rotten fruit. 

When we transfer the performer’s spotlight experience to corporation, stage fright may be aggravated by the fact that your reputation often is at stake if you cannot express your ideas with clarity and confidence.

Over twenty years ago, when I started my career in corporate, I worked for the most important telecommunication company in Brazil. At some point, one of my job’s attributions was to take up to 150 visitors to our auditorium every week and deliver a speech about whatever relevant activities were going on in our company at the moment. The audience ranged from college students to military officers and high executives, from different countries. Routinely, I had to deliver such speeches in English, Portuguese and Spanish. 

Having to deliver speeches in foreign languages quickly taught me that not only my script, but also, my body language had to be excellent, so the audience could “forgive” my eventual pronunciation flaws or translation delays. If such problems happened and I did not manage to compensate with something they could see—a smile, an expansive gesture, a firm look to show that I was in control—the faith they had deposited in me as an expert would be lost. 

Having executive presence does not mean that we cannot make mistakes. Part of the whole gravitas concept implies that you are able to remain cool and in control when mistakes happen. Especially in front of large, important audiences that will make up their minds about you or the ideas you are trying to convey, based on your performance.

The more I practiced, the more I mastered body language and confidence, and yet, there was still a pending issue. I noticed that no matter how large or important the audience, if it was just me and them, I was more relaxed than when the events were filmed. That begged another study and I interviewed several colleagues who were also delivering public presentations or preparing to being interviewed for our ISO 9000 certification. Everyone agreed that lights and cameras, rather than the audience itself, made them more nervous. That led me to my first experiment using lights and cameras as a way to work on the psychological issues involving public speaking.

For an entire month, I asked our technicians to film every performance that I and some of my colleagues did. Interestingly, other than the subconscious pressure I mentioned, spotlights also cause your conscious mind to register that what you are saying is being recorded; and it seems to increase the expectation to deliver perfection. If when it’s just you and the audience you may embarrass yourself once, when something is filmed, eventual embarrassments can be broadcasted or shared online millions of times to millions of people. 

That’s why it makes perfect sense that even experienced executives who marvelously represent themselves on stage may still feel uneasy on TV. But being captured on video does not represent the full essence of the discomfort. The presence of spotlights themselves (specially those too close to one’s face, like on TV) seem to literally trigger the “spotlight effect” and make people immediately uncomfortable.

Several of my colleagues participated in my experiment videotaping our performances. Group A would always speak on stage on cameras and multiple spotlights, while Group B would just be filmed without any lights on. After several presentations, both groups were filmed on the spotlight. The greatest discovery was when we compared the presentations from Group B with and without the spotlights. All except one participant said they felt uncomfortable and their heart rates increased with the lights on.

This was a game-changer for my self-improvement and later served as base to create the “studio box” technique I now teach. Exactly as you could use a flight simulator to lose your fear of flying, the studio box technique will place you in a “fake high tension performance scenario” for you to experience and later analyze. 

The experience part consists of delivering a speech of your choice under the aim of several cameras and spotlights. The purpose is to feel your anxiety and discomfort and gradually, through a repetition of this process, control your nerves and master your body language, just like professionals of television do. You will make all your mistakes in a safe place where no one other than possibly your mentor will be watching.

With practice, you start getting so used to having those lights on your face that your mind somehow “forgets” they mean you are on tape. The first sign of improvement my clients relate is the brightness bothering their eyes more than when we started our training. It happens because when overwhelmed by an adrenaline rush, they had more important things to worry about. The fact that they are now noticing details means that their discomfort issues have shifted and the body is more uncomfortable than the mind. That’s great progress and soon, their eyes will adjust as well and they will no longer remember either the camera or the lights. This phenomenon is experienced by TV anchors and more recently, by successful YouTubers. The crucial difference is that like TV anchors, executives cannot poorly appear on several videos until they get a hold of their performance skills. Since day one, their presentations have to command authority and confidence, and the best way to achieve it is creating these high tension studio simulations that look (and feel) like TV studios. 

The icing on the cake to master confidence and body language on stage is combining the Studio Box technique with Body Mapping, another technique used in my workshop “How to Become Photogenic”. In the latter, my clients are photographed before their actual photoshoots, in order to sit with me and identify what they like and dislike about themselves. Then, I help them highlight their best assets and disguise their worst.

By creating these videos to improve presentation skills, individuals have two benefits. The first is the psychological experience, the “nerve taming” we have discussed. The second is the video itself, which just like the photos, provide us with a set of images to analyze. The analysis of one’s videos proved to offer enormous advantages. For example: by identifying if your presentation problem is timid body language, up-talking or using fillers like “uhs” and “like”, you will know what to do to solve the problem. That alone brings you the comfort that you are in control of your own progress. But a deeper result that I find enormously beneficial in using Body Mapping is this: our fears and anxiety normally cause us to fantasize that we look or perform worse than we actually do. Both my clients analyzing their photos or their videos often realize that they are not as bad as they had imagined. That realization is a boost of confidence and tends to ignite enough motivation for them to walk through the process of self-improvement and obtain extraordinary results. 

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