Thursday, October 1, 2015

One More Thing The Military Can Teach Us About Managing Nerves

I’ve spoken before about how we can learn from the military and wage war against stage-fright, but there’s one important aspect of military tactics that I didn’t mention in that post: reconnaissance.

What is “doing a recce”?
“Doing a recce” (pronounced ‘recky’!) is an important part of winning a battle and keeping everyone safe. 

This is where a small number of soldiers are deployed to go into enemy territory (or just to an area of importance) to gather useful, actionable intelligence. They move quickly and quietly, gathering data on things like the terrain, the weather, the enemy forces, their equipment, their strengths and weaknesses, possible dangers, and so on.  This information allows their leaders to make effective decisions on how best to proceed and achieve their mission.

Great! But what does it have to do with public speaking and taking control of your nerves?

Let me start my explanation by asking this question:

Which of the rooms below would make you more nervous?  

Of course, you can see ANYTHING through a negative lens if you don’t choose your thoughts carefully: e.g. even the empty room could give you a sense of foreboding and anxiety: “Will they turn up?” “What will they be like?” “Will they be able to hear me and see me?” “Will they listen!?”

But MOST people would say that the empty room is far less stressful than a room full of people. 

The benefits of doing a recce
The photos above are from a session I did a few weeks ago, with 100 MBA students. That’s a fair few people – all of whom were paying a lot of money to attend a prestigious programme, so it was important that the presentation went as well as possible.

So I made sure to arrive nice and early (that’s when I snapped the first photo). This is one of the most important tips I give to people making a speech or giving a presentation. 

Getting early access to the room has 4 very powerful benefits:
  1. You can check out the physical aspects of the room: size, layout, acoustics, etc.
  2. You can test the technology: sound systems, microphones, lighting, projectors, etc.
  3. You can settle in: After a few moments, your brain becomes more familiar and comfortable with your surroundings – it’s not an unknown threat anymore. So, the “fight or flight” response starts to ease off.
  4. You are there, calm and in control, and ready to greet the audience when they start to arrive. This means you can connect with them in small numbers, and you’ll see just how friendly and interested they (usually!) are – rather than viewing them as one large mass of scary humans.

And if you can’t get this “alone time” before the event?
Sometimes, you can’t be in the room before people arrive and you have to arrive and “perform” in front of an audience that’s already there. If this is the case, you have 3 options:
  1. See if you can suss the room out at some point in advance, e.g. that morning or the day before. This is usually easy if it’s a hotel (e.g. if it’s a wedding, there’s usually a couple of visits to meet with the wedding co-ordinator in advance).
  2. If you can’t manage this, then at least ask lots of questions beforehand – about the room AND the audience. This not only gives you the “actionable intelligence” you need, but has the added bonus of making you look like a professional who is checking on the details.
  3. See if you can be present in the room for a short while beforehand, e.g. from the previous coffee break. This helps not only to familiarise yourself with the setup, but you get to see how responsive the audience is (or not) with the speakers before you!

My 90:10 Rule
Just like the military, I don’t like surprises when I have a job to do. The unknown and the unexpected put big pressure on you to improvise – and it takes a LOT of practice to be good at improvising when it comes to public speaking.

There’s no such thing as a perfect speech, or even perfect planning, but I do have a strict rule for myself where I try to move as many things from the “unknown” list to the “known” list as possible – ideally aiming for 90% that is at least somewhat under my control.

And the remaining, unknown 10%?

Well, that actually becomes an exciting challenge, rather than a huge problem. When your brain has to work that extra little bit, it gives you more energy and alertness – and this comes through in your speech.

Use the tips above and you’ll have the confidence of the 90% to handle the 10%.  Your audience will be glad you did!

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