Mind games: speaking to large groups

This week I’ve been working with a great group of people and a recurring theme has come up, something I come across often: fear and anxiety speaking in front of a large group of people.

Many people were confident speaking in front of a group early in their careers or as young adults, yet as their careers have progressed, despite their increasing capabilities in their roles, they find now themselves becoming increasingly anxious at the thought of having to deliver a presentation or speak to a large group.

There are many avenues to address this issue…  you are probably familiar with the old school  ‘imagine the audience in their pj’s or naked’ trick  to help settle nerves, or the ‘learn your speech off by heart so that you are less likely to stumble over words’  strategies.

In fact there are many specific skills you can develop to ensure your effectiveness: e.g. how you hold yourself, what you do with your voice, your posture, hand gestures etc; and you can receive coaching in both content and presentation. 

However, an often-overlooked aspect of talking to a group confidently, is the mind game.  There are both conscious and unconscious aspects that are super powerful in how they shape your emotional and physiological state and hence your experience of that event, so it’s useful to use them to your advantage.

Here are a few short actions you can take that will absolutely help you become that confident presenter you may aspire to be…

  1. Visualization

Find a time without distractions where you can close your eyes and ‘picture’ yourself presenting, as you would like to present. See yourself standing confidently, responding to questions easily and giving a seamless presentation. Hear your steady definitive voice, and feel your calm demeanor.

This creates neural pathways or ‘muscle memory’ as it’s sometimes called, so that your body and mind start to associate that scenario with particular way of being.

  1. Imagine it’s over

Once again this is to be done at a quiet time with no distractions, e.g.  just before going to sleep.  Close your eyes and imagine you have already spoken to the group and feel what you would feel if it went amazingly well: you may be super proud, relieved, excited etc. 

Visualise people coming up to you and hear them congratulating you on a great presentation or whatever you would ‘see’ and ‘hear’ if it was a stunning success.

Place yourself in that moment and make it as real as possible in that you are ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’ and ‘feeling’ everything that you actually would if it was already over and you did a wonderful job. 

Then, go to sleep. And try not to think about it again that night. The unconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined and you have just told yourself that you did an amazing job.  Now leave it to your unconscious to make it happen.

  1. Control self-talk

When people come to me for coaching in this area, they often start off by saying, “I am rubbish at speaking in front of large groups”.   By unconsciously labelling themselves they are setting themselves for failure.  Be aware of your self-talk. Instead you could describe yourself as someone who is “Getting better at speaking to large groups

  1. Create a mantra

Describe how you would like to be in 3 words and say it to yourself over and over in front of a mirror, ideally several times a day for several days before the event.  For example, you may wish to come across as confident, competent and in control.  So you say to yourself “I am confident, competent and in control”.

You don’t have to believe it, just say it, and make sure it’s phrased in the positive.  Say what you’d like to be, rather than what you don’t want to be;  e.g. rather than saying “I’m not nervous”, say “I am calm”.

  1. ‘Be’ someone else.

There is likely to be someone whom you really admire in terms of how they speak to a group, ie the way they talk, conduct themselves, respond to questions in front of a large group.  

You can change the old patterns of being nervous/ stuck/ frozen or whatever it happens to be, by ‘being’ someone else who is hugely confident and successful at speaking in front of that large group.  Just pretend to be in role as someone else, in your own mind, and you will free yourself of the limitations that were consciously/ unconsciously holding you in that fearful/ anxious state.

  1. Power poses

In her TED talk, ‘Your body language may shape who you are’, Amy Cuddy gives compelling reasons to find the time/ space to get yourself into some power poses before delivering big presentations. 

  1. Design your presentation

This is more of a practical thing you can do: it allows you to set yourself up for success. It is included here as I believe smart people plan for success – that is part of their ‘mind game’.

Many people get nervous just at the start of a presentation, where they hear their voices quiver or feel themselves shake, but once they get going, they are fine.  You can manage this by directing the audience’s attention to a Powerpoint slide, or to a handout, giving yourself ‘breathing’ space so that you can get your nerves under control and move into ‘confidence’ mode. 

Similarly, if you tend to be super nervous or have a tendency to ‘freeze’ throughout the whole presentation, design regular times in your talk where you focus the audience’s attention to something/ someone other than yourself and give yourself ‘recovery’ time, to get yourself back under control and to give you ‘space’ to recover your composure.

These are just a few, of many many things that you can do on your way to becoming an awesome group speaker.  For those of you out there who used to struggle with speaking in front of groups….. Good Luck and Go for it!

Cathy Taylor

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