All posts by Russell

Performance anxiety

Scary day at work?

Two years ago I was working at Bristol Old Vic theatre school coaching drama students. They were about to graduate and so I was teaching them the skills they would need to get work as actors. My class title was”audition technique.”

I set up a series of exercises to reproduce that terrible task you have as an actor. Walk into a room with people you don’t know and do two acting speeches and sing a song. If you do it well your dreams come true and you get a job. Do it wrong and you hear something along the lines of “Don’t call us we will call you” or even worse “Next!”

Sound scary? It is. Terrifying. Myself and two other tutors did an excellent job of playing the roles of unmoved callous and rude auditioners.

After the exercise we had a post-mortem. The consensus was that half the group had done just OK and the remaining half was divided into two distinct groups. Those who were brilliant and those who bombed, forgot their speeches and generally messed it up.

After listening to each others war stories we agreed that something very unfair was happening. Success bore absolutely no relationship to the amount of effort in their  preparation. Both the group who did OK and the group who messed up all worked very hard before the exercise spending weeks learning their lines and songs.In the group that did very well they confessed that many of them had done the bare minimum preparation and a couple had just winged it. In the teeth of this highly stressful event the last group just appeared to have more “confidence” on the day and everyone else had experienced varying degrees of “performance anxiety.”Some so badly it had brilliantly sabotaged them.

Then one of my students asked me the big question.

“It seems to me that what we do in that minute before the door opens and we go in is where we win or loose. What can you do to help me in that moment?”

What indeed. I did my best to give good advice but I was aware that advice was all I was giving. Not real help.I knew from experience that I had exactly the same problem. Confidence seemed like a mysterious blessing,as capricious as English weather. Some days you just felt good and some days you didn’t and when under such pressure to perform it would mostly be the latter.If this is how trained actors feel what hope is there for people in business who regularly give presentations,sometimes with millions of pounds of business at stake?

My question was HOW did the top performers do it? Is there a skill involved and if there is can you LEARN it?

Fast forward a year and I was coach a banking executive who was about to pitch a deal to the global chief executives of his company. He told me he was terrified and that he would rather be thrown out of the window of a fifty story building than give this presentation. Could I help?

Thankfully in the time in between I had found some useful answers and some ways to help. In my next blog I will tell you the rest of the story!

The power of one simple idea in a presentation

If you want to get good at something, find someone who is already good at it and copy them. As simple as that sounds I believe it to be the most effective way for human beings to learn how to do something really well.

Here is a link to a TED talk by Adrianna Huffington. It lasts  for only six minutes. If you want to get really good at presentations, it’s worth looking at what she does and how she does it.

There is one simple idea. It begins as a joke and then something really interesting starts to happen. Her suggestion becomes more and more compelling. It challenges a set of cultural assumptions and ridicules them. Her premise is then obvious and sensible in the comparison.

Have a look and watch out for;

1. A couple of great personal anecdotes (no argument with that, it’s your experience.)

2. A great metaphor (A clear picture that supports her argument.)

3. A “phrase that stays” (I will give you a clue..You get to the top by doing it.)

4. The audience response. The comedy generated by recognition.

5. How do you feel about her insight into leadership? Convincing?

It is a good example of how a simple message can be really powerful and provoke behavioural change.

If you are asking yourself how this is working then consider this:

The real skill in communication is to make the complex simple. Brevity is the soul of wit.