I will be releasing various chapters of ‘The Fear Doctor’ to my online community. Receiving their feedback and suggestions.
The Fear Doctor – Sample Passages
To the three special girls in my life; my wife Glaucia, my daughter Natalia and my mum, Winnie.
To all the people who have invested their time in my teachings. I wish them every continued success. To the authors of every self-development book I have read for sharing their words and wisdom. This book was inspired by Sydney Banks, Joseph V Bailey, David Bohm, Anthony de Mello, Michael Neill and Jamie Smart who all unwittingly kicked my bottom, spun me around and pointed me the right direction.
Copyright©2013 by Vincent Stevenson.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without written permission from the author, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
‘You were born with everything you need to succeed.’ – Vince Stevenson
This book is not a typical publication on the theme of public speaking. At the last count there are 35000 public speaking books listed on Amazon UK. I have bought many and they include invaluable content. This book’s primary aim is to close the gap between how life works and how we believe life works and then apply that to the field of public speaking. A tall order indeed and when we close that gap the world is a better place. There is less stress and anxiety (major issues in public speaking) and when you’re free of the ‘thinking traps’ you’ll see that speaking is a golden opportunity and not a poison chalice. If you are sceptical about my approach, feel free to check the latest neuroscience research and text books. Even better, why not see if the message resonates with your day to day experience of life. If it doesn’t ring true just fill in a comment on the box below and I’ll be happy to respond.
The focus of this book is to introduce you to the principles and discussions that I initiate in my 1-2-1 sessions and workshops. My desire is to help you relinquish negative thought patterns around public speaking and awaken you. There is autobiographical material that represents the lessons of my changing views and values, experiences and mind set shifts over many years. It discusses why I am passionate not only about public speaking but personal development in its many forms. I will allude to numerous philosophical and business texts, the synthesis of which brings me to this point in my career where I have a story to tell. If you’re feeling downbeat about reading a book like this, do not worry. You’re not alone. Every story, anecdote, metaphor, case study and quotation is designed to illustrate or demonstrate a situation with which you might recognise. Seeing matters in a different light or even ‘in light’ for the first time will hopefully guide you to the truth and beauty of your real self, because it’s essential for you to realise that you were born with everything you need to succeed.
In class some time ago, a chap was adamant that he wasn’t born with the ability to ride a bicycle nor drive a car. I had to agree with him. My message was that we all have the innate ability to learn and learn quickly when we are motivated. It’s also useful to call upon our inner strengths and resilience when the going gets tough. Some folks tell me that their inner resilience is shot; worn out fighting with their boss, girlfriend, husband and just about anybody else. Really, worn out? Dr Tim Benjamin talks about pain and learning being part and parcel of an average life experience. Avoiding pain does not suggest that we lack courage, it suggests to me that we use our intelligence to find better and more effective solutions. It’s the same principle in the animal kingdom.
A thoroughbred race horse lives the life of a king. It has five star accommodation, food, heating and medical attention. It lives to a strict regime in its yard and as its first race approaches, the pattern of its life changes. The training becomes more intensive. It is ridden by a jockey who races it against other horses from the stable. It is shown the whip as a speed ‘motivator’. As the big race approaches it experiences the transportation to the race track, unfamiliar horses in the yard, different stables and surroundings, the comings and goings of the stable lads as they arrive and prepare for the race, and then suddenly cantering down past a grandstand of noisy punters. The excitement and anxiety of waiting in the racing stalls. It’s an alien experience to this beautiful creature. It runs against other novices and it may run well and win or it may not. Whatever the result, it’s a trial of training and temperament. It’s a new experience and the horse learns much as it grows, develops and matures. So long as it remains strong and healthy it continues to improve its performance. Animals have great memories and they’re great learners. Ask any dog owner. We humans are just the same, though we often exclude ourselves from opportunities along the way.
Bulls are intelligent beasts. Do you know what happens when a bull is not killed in the ring? The rule was that the bull is returned to its breeder. The job was done and the bull returned home, ate grass and continued propagating the species. However, in the 1930s in Spain there was a shortage of fighting bulls and unscrupulous breeders and promoters put bulls forward again and again. The reason that the bull should enter the ring once was not for the protection of the bull (sadly) but for the protection of the matador and his team. Although bulls are dumb animals, they are by no means stupid. When the matador shows the red cape and the bull goes one way, and the matador the other, it quickly learns this trick. Bulls are not interested in tradition, entertaining the crowd or the ‘artistry’ of the event. Hemingway, in Death in the Afternoon once described a rogue breeder who allowed his bull into the ring over twenty times. Imagine that bull in a painful and hostile environment with picadors pushing mini javelins into its shoulders. All of its painful memories are evoked and enraged. We all have powerful memories around the subject of pain, as do bulls. It was not so much artistry for the bull, more like A&E for the matador.
On my daughter’s third birthday, I bought her first bicycle. The sun shone brightly as I lifted it of the back off the car and rested it against the garden wall. My daughter was ecstatic. We sat on the doorstep, assembled the stabilisers and pumped up the tyres while admiring its shocking pink frame. When finished, I propped it against the wall. I said, ‘Natalia, do not touch the bicycle while Daddy goes to the shed. I need to bring the spanner to tighten up the bolts. Promise me not to touch the bike in my absence.’ She nodded. Two minutes later I returned and there she lay on the ground with the bike between her legs. She screamed with pain. There is quite a slope on the hard brick forecourt and her first attempt at solo bike riding resulted with scratched and bruised arms. The screaming abated but she was in such agony, nothing helped. I took her by one hand and the bike in the other and began to lead her inside. Immediately she stopped screaming and began to wrestle the handle bars out of my hands. She was determined and animated and I had never seen her so resolute. The pain of not riding the bike was far greater than the pain of falling off. She composed herself, dusted herself off and quite literally got back on the bicycle. When purpose is so strong, it far outweighs fear.
Both the animal kingdom and man alike have intelligence, strength and depths of resilience. The moment you abandon any of these attributes the problem created becomes harder to resolve.
‘Nothing changes but everything is different.’ – Michael Neill
Let’s start with a bold statement – ‘we create our life experience moment to moment through our thinking’. Did you know that? It came as something of a shock to me too.
I was in my fifties when I found out. It was so obvious it was literally at the end of my nose. I never saw it. I was sleep walking and then somebody turned on the lights. The realisation that life had presented me with a stunning illusion for fifty plus years floored me. It’s no consolation to know that 99.9% of the world is equally oblivious to this fact. Knowing this secret has had a profound impact on my day to day life.
‘We are never feeling our circumstances, we’re always feeling our thinking moment to moment’. It’s so easy for life to fool us and throughout this book I’ll present many examples of life’s grand illusion. It looks so real and yet deceptive, and when the trick is revealed, be happy with the fact that it is only a trick. This knowledge will calm your mind and dissipate the gut-wrenching power of human emotions. Does this mean you become zombie like? Not at all, it means that you will feel calmness which allows you to focus more of your creative energy on the issues you want to explore. Life is a better experience without the weight of stress on our shoulders. On the surface observe that the world looks the same even though everything is different.
Life’s grand illusion
I recently attended (Christine) my niece’s wedding in Stockport. On the Friday before the ceremony we caught the train from Euston to Stoke-on-Trent and then hired a car. The lady at the car hire explained that her branch facility would be closed on Sunday and we must drop the car at a Renault/Ford dealership some four miles away. She gave the address and post code and reminded me that there was a £950 excess on my car insurance.
The weekend rocked, a memorable wedding and family celebration and later we dropped the car back at the dealership as planned. On Monday lunchtime I received a voicemail from the car hire telling me that the car was overdue, that I was no longer insured and that I should text them the location of the vehicle, immediately.
At that moment I was eating a ham and cheese panini. My chest tightened immediately and I started to choke. My mind drifted through disaster scenarios. The car was broken into, stolen and joy riders had run amok. My thoughts flowed freely. I felt miserable, nauseous and started sweating. I called the car hire company three times to update them but the line was engaged. I was getting increasingly tense, angry and frustrated. Eventually, they responded but I was unable to speak with the person who had left the message. Thirty minutes later I received a text telling me that the person who left the voicemail was not the lady who had made the arrangements the previous Friday. She expected the car’s return at the main car hire facility… Clearly a mis-communication their end.
So what was I feeling? The car? Clearly not, it was 120 miles away. The dealership? Ditto. The thought that I had misappropriated a £20,000 vehicle? Or just my thoughts in general? I wasn’t feeling my circumstances, I was feeling my thinking. The moment I caught up with myself, the tightness in my chest fell away, I breathed easily and relaxed. Every thought has a preloaded emotion or feeling – the whole process was thought generated and totally self-induced. The illusions that life projects are credible and impressive. They fooled me for over fifty years, and now I know that they’re not real, I’m beginning to see through the illusion.
‘It is important that you get clear for yourself that your only access to impacting life is action. The world does not care what you intend, how committed you are, how you feel or what you think, and certainly it has no interest in what you want and don’t want. Take a look at life as it is lived and see for yourself that the world only moves for you when you act.’ – Werner Erhard
Recently one of my mentors referred me to a social media guru as I had agreed that it was the right time to become more visible in business.
‘Right Vince, let’s talk about your email marketing campaign,’ she said.
‘I know all about email campaigns,’ I replied.
‘Fine, so let’s talk about community building on Facebook.’
‘I know all about community building.’
‘Ok, so let’s talk about Twitter and list building.’
‘I know all about Twitter and list building.’
‘Vince’, she said, ‘It’s great that you know about these things, so do I have your permission to ask you a rather obvious question?’
‘Fire away,’ I said confidently.
‘What are you doing about it?’
That was the knock out blow. If I knew all that why was I stalling on the action?
We carry a massive amount of knowledge around. But how do we leverage that knowledge? Are we taking responsibility for actions and outcomes or have we abdicated those issues because they’re too complex or too time intensive?
There is usually a massive gap between what we know and what we think we know and that gap says beware. Mind the gap. There are hidden traps. We’re often paralysed in our thinking and afraid of taking the next step.
The same applies to public speaking. We observe speakers and hear many speeches. We have a general concept or intellectual understanding of what is required but that isn’t the same as a practical, hands-on grasp. We’re reluctant to participate. The unknown is frightening. Who knows what traps lie in wait. What if they ask questions that you can’t answer? What if you’re not smart enough? What if they see through the new suit, the false smile and the fragile veneer of normality? Oh, the shame of it all!
The question I like to ask in class is, ‘What do you do when your car breaks down? Do we have any mechanics in the room?’ Only a few hands are raised. In my case, I lift the car bonnet and look down into the abyss of wires, connectors and sealed units. There is the engine block, the radiator and the battery but after that it becomes something of a blur. For the benefit of my wife and daughter I nod sagely and say, ‘Hmmm, best call the garage. I don’t want to risk making things worse.’ This is a coded message for I haven’t got a clue. I know that if I put a lot of time and energy into becoming a mechanic, I am confident that I would become a good one. But there’s no point me investing years of time and energy in an activity from which there is no return on investment. Taking it to the garage where I know there is a skilled mechanic is a practical form of outsourcing and a sensible use of my time.
What I propose to do is look under the bonnet of public speaking. We can all identify the words, the body language and the tone of voice of any speaker, but for me the fascination is what’s really happening underneath the bonnet? What’s occurring in your grey matter? Almost every job description these days requires ‘excellent communication skills’. You must be able to communicate effectively. You can try to outsource it, you can try to defer it, but one day you know it will return to haunt you.
Public speaking skills are a 21st century prerequisite. In a world where speeches and online presentations are commonplace, never before have we experienced this increased pressure to master it. Conveying a consistent and coherent message is the order of the day. Now is the era of the small business owner, the entrepreneur and the solopreneur. We loved Steve Jobs and his presentations and now with the explosive sales of inexpensive video cameras, every Tom, Dick and Vince has upped their game and your bandwidth is bursting with education based marketing. Never before has our inner strength and mental resilience been so challenged to deliver high value and deliver it regularly. If you don’t deliver regularly, your message will be drowned out by the rest of the noise. There will be winners and losers, tears and champagne, so make sure that you find yourself in the winners’ enclosure.
This book asks a lot of questions and points in the direction of success. It taps into the real you, your authenticity and demands that you make a bigger contribution to the people that you want to serve. In doing so you become awakened to life’s possibilities and opportunities. The phone rings inviting you to fly half way around the world to speak at prestigious events or deliver developmental projects to help struggling third world countries. Perhaps an invitation to speak to the students and faculty staff of Europe’s equivalent of Harvard. Why don’t you leave the door of opportunity open?
The secret to success is maintained between your ears. If you’re not part of the learning revolution, there’s still time to climb on board. If this book reawakens your passion for learning and your desire to succeed then it’s a worthy investment. It’s never too late to get back in to life’s golden river of learning. As my story unfolds, a key message is that it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish… and more importantly for me, it’s how you play the game, the action you take and the relationships you build along the way. No matter how far you’ve driven down the wrong road, it’s never too late to turn back!
My principal assertion is that you already have what it takes to succeed. You are more than enough to survive and thrive in public speaking. To suggest that you’re not would be to underestimate your capabilities as a human being.
Fear and Anxiety – A distinction
One of the major issues I work with is ‘How to overcome public speaking anxiety?’ This issue affects different people in different ways and I witness many manifestations of anxiety, though it is something of a slippery fish. The good news is that everybody can move forward on their anxiety by understanding what’s happening (in their head).
First of all, it’s important to recognise the distinction between fear and anxiety.
Fear is a natural evolutionary process designed to save your life. Many books have been written on the theme of fear and it’s generally accepted that fear is a good thing. So if a hungry lion stalked down the corridor of your office, a good strategy would be to run, probably to the first room where you could lock yourself in safely.
If I were to tell you that a hungry lion might be walking through your office in the next few hours (and you don’t like the thought of the confrontation), it would be your thoughts creating the anxiety. You were not born with anxiety and therefore it can be removed with the power of thought.
I recently worked with a man who was telling me that he couldn’t sleep because of his anxiety of delivering a best man speech in six months time. As the event is six months off (and clearly hasn’t yet happened), we can be certain that the situation is being created in his thoughts moment to moment.
So anxiety is just thought. Anxiety is self-induced and thought generated, it’s what we do to ourselves (and I have done this to myself many times because I believed in the illusion).
The agitation associated with anxiety is your inner wisdom telling you to back away from that thinking. If you’re on a motorway and you get too close to the edge of the road, you’ll feel and hear your tyres on the rumble strips. The rumble strips are there to indicate that you’re getting too close, so take note and get back to the centre of the lane. If you ignore the rumble strips and collide with the rails on the hard shoulder at high speed, accept that as an indicator too.
Your body has an inner wisdom – let me explain. If you’re involved in an accident and seriously cut your hands, arms, head or back, your body’s wisdom will grow back the correct type of skin. It will send white blood cells to fight off infection and your skin will grow back in time. Your body is a self-correcting system, it is drawn to a natural equilibrium. A car is not a self-correcting system. When you have a puncture, that tyre isn’t going to fix itself. It requires external action. How much time and energy do you spend either consciously or unconsciously healing your body after an accident? Not a lot! Even if you’re in a coma and you have suffered serious injuries the skin will recover in time without any external intervention. (In hospital, expect the nurses to dress and clean the wound regularly, but the healing process is internal).
Your mind too has an inner wisdom. The agitation of anxiety is telling you to drop that thought process. Back off. It is an indicator. So follow your wisdom. Thoughts come and go, they are transient. When that anxious thought pops to the forefront of your mind just accept that it is a thought, an electrical impulse, you don’t have to follow it or invest in it. Let it go. Relinquish it. Notice how much easier it is to get on with your life without the stress and strain of errant thoughts.
What happens when you imagine?
Have a pen and a piece of paper handy.
Imagine what it feels like when you think that you’re an effective speaker.
Close your eyes. See yourself on stage delivering a speech or presentation and putting in a creditable performance. See your facial expressions; you’re smiling naturally and looking confident. Your voice is clear and you speak with conviction, warmth and clarity and the audience is buying into your message.
What do those thoughts do for you? How do they make you feel? What would those thoughts give you on a day to day basis? How would you feel if you knew that there was no failure? How would you feel if you knew that you didn’t need the approval and appreciation of your audience?
Please do not continue until you’ve jotted down your answers.
There are many questions here. Please tell me that you’re curious about the answers. Tell me that you’ll give this book a 100% opportunity to impact your life, because if you don’t you’ll have wasted your time and energy. Please give this exercise your full attention.
Did you know that your subconscious mind will spend ten to fifteen minutes trying to answer these questions anyway? Isn’t that amazing? You’re looking for answers and you’re not even aware of it. And that’s what we’re going to explore in this section. That wonderful organ between your ears is your best friend, even if sometimes it seems to have a separate existence of its own.
‘The voice inside your head is not the voice of God although it sounds like it thinks it is.’ – Cheri Huber
In the summer of 2012, some terrible storms hit the UK. One weekend, a former colleague called Jeff came over from the New Forest with his wife and two children. We shared a cozy weekend despite the weather. It was a great pleasure to reconnect with an old friend, colleague and his family.
At 6pm on Sunday evening the storm was lashing the south-east of England and I asked Jeff to stay another night. The storm would calm and they’d travel home in the morning light. That wasn’t possible because of the children’s school routine. The weather was shocking and as he pulled out of the drive I felt awkward with the decision. The A3 and M3 are notoriously exposed, desolate and badly lit. The storm was strengthening. I asked him to text me on arrival. I am not a gloom and doom merchant but an hour and a half into his journey, I had this sensation of disaster. I saw Jeff’s white Range Rover turned over in a ditch on the A3. Steam spiraling from the engine, exhaust torn off and the doors flung open. So I texted him to see if they were fine. No response. I texted again every ten minutes for the next two hours. No response. Still no message by midnight. I usually retire to bed by at 10pm but it was impossible. Still having flashbacks of the white Range Rover in a ditch. It looked so real. I felt the tension in my stomach; my breathing was awkward and shallow. I felt nauseous. At 1:30am I received a text saying, ‘Lovely weekend. Made it home safely. Long journey, long delays, trees down. Jeff’.
I can’t remember the last time I smiled so broadly. I never punch the air or become animated over a text message but the imagination is so powerful. When your imagination creates thoughts, feelings and bodily responses so strong you’re actually creating a new world inside your head. Have you ever read an epic book where you create the characters and the landscape in your mind’s eye? It looks real, you can see it, you created it but it isn’t real. It’s a virtual creation. There you are reading in your living room, sitting on a sofa with a cup of tea and light streaming in through the window. Physically we reside in the world of form, the explicate order. Yet inside our heads there is another world, the implicate order; the formless world, of which our imagination and thoughts play a significant role. Your thoughts are flexible, fluid and formless.
It’s impossible for me to prove what I experienced with Jeff’s story. There’s no evidence, no audit trail, nothing. All I know is that it was real in the moment and that I can’t prove it.
‘There is only ever this moment. The present is all there is. The future and past are thought generated illusions. Illusions you only ever experience in the present.’ – Jamie Smart
I was speaking with a successful client in the Gaming industry a few years ago. He told me about his mum and dad’s financial difficulties twenty-five years ago and that the stigma of homelessness has haunted him ever since. That was his ‘reality’ and he felt that he could never get over it. It’s certainly a powerful story and if you believe that story defines you, then it defines you. That said, it’s not going to help you or your future. There’ll be no sympathy dumping past problems on others. Nobody’s interested. People have their own problems and issues to manage. Alternatively, utilise negative experiences as a springboard to a progressive future. I always look forward. I remember many gruesome points in my life where if I wanted to it was easy to throw in the towel. When you’re looking forward to a progressive future the past has no irrational pull. The past is not your reality. Your reality is happening right now in this moment. The past is a memory. If it’s a bad memory then let it go. You might never forget it, but if you assign a neutral emotion to that memory, then it’s just another thought which will come and go. Its power over you is determined by how much emotional attachment you place on it. The choice as always is yours. Detachment is the best policy. Drop it!
I had a Skype call with a client recently who told me that he’ll be making a best man speech in several months and he’s already experiencing anxiety and sleepless nights. He describes himself as sweating horribly, voice croaking and he saw himself crumbling in front of a large audience. I repeat that this speech is several months away, it hasn’t happened yet, so all of these feelings are connected to his thoughts. They’re only coming from one place and that’s inside his head. These feelings of anxiety look real (but they’re not), they are self-induced and thought generated.
Let’s do an experiment. First of all, take a deep breath. Read this passage a couple of times and then close your eyes. I want you to imagine that you’re on a beach. You’re wearing your shorts (or costume ladies). You’re covered in factor 50 suntan lotion and you’re wearing your posh sunglasses and feeling rather good. You’re resting under a palm tree. There’s a cool refreshing breeze and you’re relaxing on a sun lounger reading a glossy magazine. The sun is high and strong and you look out across the beach to the horizon where a deep blue sea meets a powder blue sky. Now breathe deeply again. Relax and enjoy the beach. As each wave crashes in take a deep breath and as that wave recedes, breathe out. Align your breathing with the rhythm of the waves. Oh, and relax.
That exercise is easy for most people.
Next exercise. I want you to imagine that you’re attending a wedding. Picture in your mind’s eye the bride and groom. The bride’s dress is sensational and her father’s face is filled with pride and excitement. Then add the bridesmaids in pink dresses and the page boy aged 4 looking cute with his overly oiled hair. After the ceremony you’re standing outside the church, the bells ringing loud, everybody’s excited and the confetti is flying. You’re surrounded by family and friends and there’s a wonderful sense of well being and togetherness. Close your eyes for a few moments and run that scene through your head a few times. Are you there? If you’ve been to a church wedding before, that’s a straightforward exercise.
Let’s glance back at the three scenarios outlined. You had a vision of a crashed Range Rover, a beach scene and a wedding. Did you notice how effortless it was for your mind to shift from one scene to the next? You created those scenes in the blink of an eye through the power of thought. You shifted between the three so easily I hope you now recognise that you are not your thoughts (your thoughts came from my suggestions), you do not own your thoughts (they are ephemeral) and that most importantly, you are the creator of your thoughts. Your thoughts are fluid, flexible and formless. Because they have no form they can take any shape. You get to choose what you think about moment to moment. You are responsible for that decision. If you’re looking for an external solution to an internal problem, you’re looking in the wrong place.
‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ – Marianne Williamson
Here is a challenging question – who are you? Are you your clothes? Your car? Your house? Your job or your career? Are you your successes and achievements? Are you your friendships, your family, your Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter accounts? Let me make it clear that I do not have any problems with the material or digital worlds. I enjoy the trappings of cars and boats, luxury apartments, foreign holidays, skiing and beach side villas (I only have a car and a flat in London by the way)… Oh, and I like money. But these things can’t give me what they can’t give me. They can’t give me happiness, peace of mind, well being or security. I’ll bet you know quite a few people who have material wealth and they are not so happy. I’ll bet you know a number of people with few material possessions, some of whom are happy and some maybe not so happy. What am I getting at here? Your happiness, your security and sense of well being come from within you 100% of the time. Not from your car or your bank balance, they come from your thoughts moment to moment, they come from within you. They come from who you really are. If I could use the example of Lady Di, there was a woman with riches, position, beauty and fame and was she happy? Look at the front page of any celebrity magazine. You’ll see people who have every material trapping so why are the same people addicted to drugs, drink and playing out painful public divorces. Earnest Hemingway’s portrayal of life in ‘To have and have not’ tells us all we need to know about people’s lives, thinking moment to moment and decisions made based on those thoughts.
There are other ways that you can define yourself. When the doors are locked and you’re home alone what do you really believe? What do you believe about yourself? Who are you? What are you capable of? What are your motivations and inspirations? Did they show up in your life day today? What would you do if you had a completely fresh start? Who and what has influenced you most in your work and life? What would you like to create? What is your biggest fear? If you spent a while thinking about the answers to these questions you start to connect with yourself at a deeper level. When you have a secure relationship with yourself, your relationships with friends, colleagues and clients will also improve.
When you feel okay with yourself and who you really are you will realise that you don’t need anything else to be happy. Material wealth or lack of it is no longer a consideration. It’s the real you that matters – who you really are. When you’re happy within yourself you can have anything you want. When you have that understanding, you become mentally ‘bulletproof’. When you stand up to speak and you know who you are, the world may look the same and yet everything is different.
What does this have to do with you and public speaking? Perhaps we should ask that question to some of the greatest characters of the 20th century. How would Martin Luther King Jnr define himself? Mother Teresa? Winston Churchill? Gandhi? For these people their sense of purpose was always bigger than themselves. Because of that they all faced their challenges and fears; they had the door slammed in their face many times. They fought against tyranny, bigotry and ignorance and they won through. They had clarity of thought and clarity of purpose. Some came from comfortable backgrounds, some clearly did not. What they were capable of was not dependent on their bank balance, it came from an inner strength, an inner wisdom and a burning desire for change and justice. It came from who they were. That property was emergent and I’m sure it came as a surprise to them as they orchestrated issues that had a profound impact on the future of their countries and the world. They were role models for the highest levels of thinking and being and their legacy continues to endure.
All of their success was due to a sense of purpose, gratitude and a deep sense of connection with those they wanted to serve. These people were powerful beyond measure because of this ability. They often found themselves in unfamiliar territory. They were not afraid of the unknown, in fact they were fearless. They often collided head on with regimes and they all adopted their own version of Churchill’s quotation ‘When the going gets tough, keep going.’
My major point here is that you and I are made from exactly the same material. We all share the same DNA. What made them legends was always within them. Their greatness was an emergent property that spilled over when the moment arose. They had no idea it was there until these momentous situations materialised. They had no idea that they would become legends, they were too busy delivering their gifts to the world. They all had a sense of legacy for their nations and they all wanted social justice and because of that, they were like magnets for like minded supporters.
‘Life is a contact sport.’ – Sydney Banks
In January 1996, I had traveled 24 hours by bus from Cuzco in Peru to La Paz in Bolivia. When I arrived, I was exhausted, hungry and grumpy. Bad timing too as I arrived on a Saturday during a workers demonstration and the police were casually firing tear gas into the crowd. I came for an adventure (and there was plenty of that), but I wasn’t happy with it. I wasn’t getting off on adventure like I imagined I would. I was not fulfilled by my travels. Two months into the trip and I had a terrible sense of homesickness. I wanted to be back in Bromley reading the newspapers and having a coffee at Henry’s Bar. But that was just my thinking. I was in a low mood and it’s best not to make decisions when you’re feeling low.
A few months later I was travelling in Venezuela. One morning it was my intention to extend my holiday by a month and rebook my flight home from Mexico. I was in a high and optimistic mood, so I went to the travel agent one morning on the tube in Caracas carrying my passport, travel tickets, cash and credit cards. Within thirty minutes I had lost all items in a brilliantly choreographed mugging. A mugging so good I never felt threatened or violated and to this day I have the highest gratitude to those professional thieves for executing their work so artistically. It was like a magic trick, one moment the items were safely in my pocket, a moment later my prized possessions had vanished. I kept spinning around looking for the pickpocket, but no sign, everybody looked so real and normal. I was surrounded by men and women in suits looking smart on their way to work. I never felt a thing. Then it hit me. No passport, no money, no tickets, no credit card. Officially, I no longer existed. And that is a really strange sensation not to exist. I was stunned. I had lost my identity.
Once the shock of the incident subsided I felt joyous. I was alive! I had lost many of the things which I mistakenly thought defined me, but behind it at a practical level I realised that I represented so much more than money and a few documents. I wasn’t a husband or a dad at that point, but the incident really made me think about who I was. What I was doing and what I was trying to achieve. What was my purpose in being there?
The answer was simple. The purpose of being there was for me to realise that all the material goals I’d been chasing over my lifetime were not going to bring me the happiness I was searching for. I realised that money, credit cards and adventure were not my true calling. I discovered that I was generally quite happy with myself and I realised that as diamonds go there were still many rough edges requiring attention. I had been looking outside of myself for the answers, but all the time the answer was within me, just poorly connected to the source. This entire identity issue triggered a significant and ongoing interest in philosophy. If you’re not asking the right questions the correct answers will always be elusive.
95% of people experience life through the storm of their thoughts.’ – Mark Twain
Have you ever had a bad day? You open your mail and your bank account is in the red, again. The relationship with your boss is a bit shaky since all the problems with your project emerged and you’ve been dropped from your local football team. Oh, and you haven’t been invited to one of your colleague’s stag weekends in Barcelona. Your brain feels like it’s under siege. You are experiencing life through the lens of your circumstances and it’s feeling heavy.
‘In life you can make your own decisions or let other people make those decisions for you. Being above the influence is about staying true to yourself and not letting people pressure you into being less than you.’ Anon
Imagine walking in the garden. It’s a fine sunny day, quite warm and there’s a lovely cooling breeze. You walk over to the shed and as you put the key in the lock you notice a caterpillar creeping along the door frame. Caterpillars are not the most attractive creatures, but it’s interesting that most people will treat a caterpillar with kindness. We know that the caterpillar is in the early stages of its development and although we don’t know what type of butterfly will emerge (unless you’re an entomologist), you somehow feel a wonderful connection with its growth. If it were a wasp or a fly, you might be tempted to give it a swipe and dismiss it from your line of vision, but somehow you know that there’s something remarkable about the evolutionary process of metamorphosis. So, you leave it and allow nature to take its course. You instinctively know that there’s no need to try to protect the caterpillar. You just look on admiringly as it continues its remarkable and dangerous journey.
In time the caterpillar becomes a chrysalis and through a remarkable transformation, a butterfly. I don’t know about you, but most butterflies to me, look alike. Let’s talk about red admirals, for example. They have a similar shape, size and markings and yet they are not alike at all. Just like you and I, they are quite unique. Each is a one-off just like a flake of snow. Each has unique attributes that make it special, valuable and worthy of life’s respect. But it’s not until the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis that it reveals its true identity.
Every student I work with arrives in the chrysalis stage. What will emerge, I do not yet know. But in my experience, every butterfly that spreads its wings in my classroom has energy, insight and a sense of emergent identity. I tap in to that individual’s character, I tease out their deepest concerns and I reconnect them with their suppressed authenticity.
‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.’ – Richard Feynman
If you are not an experienced speaker, do not be too harsh on yourself. You could be a good speaker but in some professional circumstances, your colleagues are unlikely to give you the credit you deserve. Where there are people there is politics. You don’t want to encourage a talented colleague too much when there’s a round of promotions coming up. In my experience, people can be less than objective and sometimes cruel by playing on the insecurities of a younger and less experienced member of staff.
If your colleagues are unkind and if you choose to believe them, do not despair as help is at hand. However, Richard Feynman’s quotation is probably one of the most apposite for this work. Essentially, you can sell yourself anything. You will believe anything you tell yourself, even when you’re wrong. That’s dangerous, but when it’s so close to you, you just can’t see it.
‘Objectivity is purely subjective.’ – Woody Allen
It’s difficult to be objective about your own abilities as a speaker, as a musician or as an artist. The success criteria are hard to define and benchmark. You have to know what you’re looking for. To quote Clint Eastwood in the film Dirty Harry, ‘Opinions are like arse holes. Everybody’s got one.’ And a multitude of opinions usually conflict.
A prime example of this is can be observed on Strictly Come Dancing. The four judges have the best seats in the house. They’re the closest to the action, they all see the same thing and the comments usually go like this:
Bruno: Amazing, magical, inspiring. Diva diva diva!
Darcy: Real fire in your eyes Ben. I liked the flow, energy and continuity and that’s a great frock Sarah. Good work.
Len: The tango is about passion. You were holding Sarah like an empty box of cornflakes.
Craig: Sloppy, pigeon-toed and forgettable.
Now clearly I’m teasing here, but I hope you get the general picture. Four people (respected experts) and four diverse opinions all derived from the same space, time and circumstances. So who is right? Well, they all are. Assuming they’re totally unbiased, they’re all applying objective criteria from their own subjective perspective.
In May 2010 I was a judge at the English-Speaking Union’s world student final. There were four other judges and we all voted for a different winner. Again, we all saw the same event from privileged seats and we all saw it quite differently despite all applying the same judging criteria.
My friend Bert is now a senior policeman in the Metropolitan Police in London. Some twenty years ago when he was on the beat, he attended a road traffic accident in Islington. There had been a pile up at a junction on Goswell Road and there were many witnesses. Bert took twelve witness statements and they were all different. What does this tell us?
‘Reality is an illusion. Albeit a persistent one.’ – Einstein
It tells us that if there are seven billion people on the planet, there are seven billion different simultaneous realities. As we saw above, even people sharing the same time, event and circumstances have a different perspective on that reality. So who is right? We all are! We all own our own reality and your reality is just as real and as valuable as anybody else’s.
My suggestion is that if you want a professional opinion on your speaking standard, seek professional advice. If you were ill, you would go to the doctors. If there were something seriously wrong with you, you would be referred to a hospital with resident specialists. It’s good to be in the hands of a respected practitioner. However, some people self-diagnose both their health issues and speaking issues. If you take this route in either case, you are probably one of the easiest people to fool.
‘I can’t do it!’ and interior decorating
Whenever I hear the words, ‘I can’t do it!’, I want to scream. Not because I’m annoyed with the student, but largely because I am still annoyed with myself. ‘I can’t do it!’ was one of my favourite scripts. I grew up with little expectation from those around me and certainly little from myself. If I couldn’t do something, I’d just drop it and say, ‘I can’t do it!’
Now I know that the world has changed a lot in the last fifty years, but many years ago educational resources were both scarce and expensive. No internet, no web forums, no Facebook groups and no ‘How to’ videos on Youtube. I recount this to my daughter and she pulls her face as if I’m slightly bonkers. Indeed it is unimaginable for her and the generation of children who are born with a silver iPod. But this was the day of outside toilets, tin baths and Ford Anglias.
I remember finding myself stuck with algebra and geometry and I would put my pencil down and say, ‘I can’t do it!’ There was nobody else to ask at home, as my brothers couldn’t do it either. We didn’t have the money to go down the bookshop and buy some SATS packs, so in many ways I became institutionally helpless, lacked initiative, and though I was totally clueless I was insanely happy.
The library was some distance away and the prospects of going alone were zero. I was astonished by my classmates’ ability to do their homework and return next day with the correct answers and a smile, while I was dreading handing my work in. I was insanely happy because I did not feel responsible for my own learning and personal development. That was clearly something that the world would put in to me when it got round to it. When you’re stuck and you have no insights and no external resources, you’re well and truly stuck. Now, I’m painting a picture here of the sixties and seventies and I have to admit that I was clueless about many things. I spent a lot of time looking for inspiration and that too was difficult because a number of pages were missing from our home dictionary.
When I left school, it was easy to get a job. You could go to the Labour Exchange on a Friday and start a new job the following Monday. It was easy. There were more jobs than people and in those days employers were only too happy to pay for your training to make you more productive. That was great as there was no pressure for me to spend my time and money on my personal development, an inveterate seed that remained planted in my head until the late 1980s with catastrophic effect. It was then as the recession of the late eighties bit really hard that I found myself without a job for the first time, devoid of relevant business skills and holding a mortgage of £100,000 at 15% interest.
My dad told me that when you’re decorating, if you don’t prepare the surfaces and fill in the gaps in advance of the main work, it will eventually look a mess. How right he was. I had spent years papering over the cracks and now it was a mess. I looked ready for the scrap heap.
‘Wake up!’ – Anthony de Mello
A man knocks on his son’s bedroom door and shouts, ‘Wake up! You’ve got to go to school.’
His son replies, ‘I hate school. The children laugh at me and call me names. The staff are horrible and ignore me and the school dinners are disgusting.’
‘I’m going to give you three reasons why you must go to school son. Firstly, it is your duty. Secondly, you’re forty-five years old. And finally, you’re the headmaster.’
While unemployed, I finally awakened and began a personal learning renaissance. I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t read a book since I left school. I hadn’t invested a penny in my education believing that my employers would always look after me. The job for life mind set was replaced by new words like downsizing, redundancy and despair. I could only blame myself. In my mid-twenties I regret saying ad nauseum, that ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. It was one of the few things that I said with conviction. I was a lack of learning time-bomb and in the late eighties, I went off.
I went off all right. Every day I went down the library and trawled through the personal development sections looking for anything on leadership, inspiration and thought management. I fell in love with Edward de Bono (his books that is), Peter Drucker and the smiling face of Les Brown, inviting me to ‘Live your dreams’. I was astonished by how little I knew about business and the world in general. Though once I started reading, I soon began to close the gap. In the words of Anthony de Mello, ‘I had been asleep and it was time for me to become awakened…’ I was tiptoeing through life trying not to disturb anybody on the slow journey towards death.
I was impacted heavily by philosophy and the insights of poets. Every time I made a step forward, I had to sneak another peak because I would uncover a contradictory view. I was told I needed role models and mentors and that made sense and then I’d read quotes from Antonio Machado like, ‘Traveller there is no path, you lay a path by walking.’ Sure, you’ve got to find your own path to success and not follow somebody else’s, and that made sense too. Everything made sense, so why did I feel this nausea and paralysis around decision making?
‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world.’ – Wittgenstein
The Amygdala, Hippocampus, Mind and Body
The hippocampus is part of the brain’s neo-cortex and looks after the everyday logical side of processing. How much time do you spend thinking about getting dressed and particularly the order in which you get dressed? Have you ever put your shoes on before your socks? It’s highly unlikely after the age of four because you know it’s a pointless exercise unless you’re doing it for comic effect. How about driving your car in well-known locations? You know every twist and turn of the roads and there are few surprises. It’s almost as if you’re on auto-pilot which is fine when you’re getting dressed, but not so good for safety reasons when driving. It’s the hippocampus that’s pulling the strings when you’re in your comfort zone; it’s casually rolling through familiar territory.
The amygdala is part of the old reptilian brain which considers three main functions: a) Can I eat it? b) Can I have sex with it? c) Is it going to kill me?
Let’s take the example of a pigeon whose brain is the size of a pea and only has the three main drivers above to consider. The sun begins to rise and the pigeon wakes up in a tree. What is its first consideration? Well, I’m assuming that it’s hungry because overnight it was busy roosting. So it has to fly down to the ground to find some food and yet this is inherently dangerous. The moment the pigeon is on the floor it recognises danger at every turn. There are dogs, cats and foxes on the ground. There are children, adults, cars, bicycles, scooters etc. That’s why pigeons are constantly looking over their shoulders and move briskly and somewhat agitatedly (when alone). Generally, every moment the pigeon is on the ground it’s scanning the area for danger. Is ‘it’ going to kill me? Thankfully man’s brain has developed far beyond the original version.
The amygdala stores negative memories indelibly. If you’re of a certain age like me, you will have the dreadful memories of when the deaths of JF Kennedy, Elvis Presley and John Lennon were announced. You’ll remember exactly where you were, who you were with and probably what you were doing. You’ll also remember watching in horror as the Challenger Space Shuttle disintegrated a minute or so after take-off in 1986. You will also remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard of the 9/11 atrocity? It’s interesting that we don’t necessarily choose to remember these events. They are imprinted in our memory because the amygdala’s job is to remind us of our ever fragile presence on this planet. Our death could be a fraction of a moment away under certain circumstances.
The Fight or Flight Response
The fight or flight response is activated when the amygdala short-circuits the hippocampus by a fraction of a second and sends a signal to the adrenal glands on top of your kidneys to release adrenaline into your blood stream. It will continue pumping adrenaline while that real physical threat endures. The body’s natural reaction to a physical challenge is to start demonstrating the outward signs of panic; clammy hands, profuse sweating, a sense of nausea, trembling hands and knees… as most of your blood is drawn from the vital organs in the rib cage and redistributed to the arms and legs. The skin loses blood too and the face appears ashen. You’re going to have to run or fight. This reaction has been hardwired during millions of years of evolution.
This change happens instantaneously as signal receptors in your cells receive messages via neuropeptides. There are 150,000 bio-chemical reactions taking place in your brain at any moment and these create subtle changes in terms of your digestive, memory, learning and reproductive as well as other systems in your body. Have you ever noticed how the hairs on your arms and neck can rise sometimes when you walk into a cold room? It’s part of the same mechanism working moment to moment in your mind and body.
The mind and the body are totally integrated which is not surprising considering we were all initially formed from one cell. We have one brain, one central nervous system and one muscle that spans the entire body (although for identification purposes we tend give them tags like shoulder, thigh and back muscles). What affects one affects them all. Have you ever played a sport like soccer or volleyball, got injured and had to play on? Whichever muscle group is affected by the injury, the other muscle groups will try their best to compensate for it, often creating problems for the originally uninjured groups.
So what’s this got to do with public speaking? There is no physical threat with public speaking. Nobody ever died (directly) from making a speech or presentation. This indicates that the amygdala is working overtime and against your best interests. There is no physical challenge and so the amygdala is sending you the wrong signal, but let’s be kind to the amygdala, because it’s trying to communicate but it can’t find the correct message.
Think of a newly born baby for a few moments. New born babies will cry indefinitely if unattended. When the child needs any form of attention (warmth, company, milk, temperature too hot or too cold), it can only communicate via its ability to cry. For a parent it’s difficult to identify what specifically the child’s needs are because there is something of a blur around the message being received. The amygdala is like the newly born baby crying. It’s sending a blurred message. It’s sending the only message it can because that’s what it’s hardwired to do. Instead of effectively managing the fight and flight response it’s getting needlessly involved in thought-generated issues and sending the wrong signal and the body reacts accordingly to the stimuli.
When do we need the amygdala? Only when there’s a real physical threat.
When do we need a windscreen wiper? Only when it’s raining.
In this analogy and only this analogy, we have to ignore the baby’s cries. When the baby is ignored, it will stop crying because the situation is not real and there’s nothing to respond to. If you indulge the baby, it will continue to cry and the problem will inevitably persist because you’ll be investing in it emotionally. We have already talked about being hoodwinked by our feelings and thoughts and it’s okay to feel this way, it is the body’s natural reaction and it is a sensation experienced by millions of people throughout the world on any one day.
How do we overcome it? First of all, have a conversation with yourself and thank your body and mind for protecting you so well. However, tell yourself on the occasion of being invited to speak in public, that you don’t need that level of care. There is no physical threat involved in speaking. Again remind yourself that this reaction is perfectly normal and accept that there are millions of people like trainers who have overcome their fears of speaking, perform to a high level every day and actually enjoy the experience. You will not die from speaking in public, but it is essential that you know where these feelings or issues emerge.
According to medical research, the human body hasn’t significantly changed these last 100,000 years. It’s good news to know that if I met my distant relatives from a few thousand generations ago, they would look similar to me. What has changed in the last 100,000 years is the way that we live. Today is Saturday and I’m delivering a course on the fear of public speaking. My phone woke me up at 6:30am. I shaved, showered and dressed. I had coffee and a croissant for breakfast. I left my centrally heated apartment and walked down to the station, caught the train into central London and took the tube to Bloomsbury Square. Apart from the inconvenience of the rain and a minor delay on the train, life is a breeze.
At work I meet ten students who probably had a similar morning experience. So I ask them to imagine what would we have been doing 100,000 years ago? The answers are along the lines of; hunting, gathering berries and nuts, collecting wood, making a fire and cooking, building and securing the shelter from predators, making clothes and tidying the cave. These suggestions seem reasonable. I then ask them to imagine the males in the group marching through the forest wearing their loin cloths and carrying either a spear or a club. The group has been marching for ten minutes or so, checking previously set traps and hunting for deer and wild boar. No luck so far. Suddenly in the distance we hear the snarl of the sabre-tooth tiger, but it’s a long way off. The sabre-tooth tiger is also hunting and has a voracious appetite for humans. It’s strong, it’s fast and it’s agile. One swipe of its mighty claw can rip a man apart. It’s a killing machine. Just hearing that snarl chills every fibre in your body. It would seem a sensible strategy to head back to the homestead, build up the fire and sharpen the spears. The amygdala has sensed danger and your body is reacting to the challenge. A sprightly jog back home seems like the appropriate decision. But when we’re just 200 yards from the homestead we hear another sickening roar of the sabre-tooth tiger and this time it’s about twenty yards away. You see the beast close up for the first time. It’s huge and terrifying. Your body is consumed with fear – you’re intensely excited. You’re swimming in adrenaline. You need to run or fight. What is it to be?
Can you see how different life is now to then? We now have villages, towns and cities and the dangerous wild animals are sadly either extinct or locked in a zoo. What I didn’t mention is that man was probably man’s top danger in those days. There was a scarcity of homesteads, food and I assume that every day was a test of survival. There were fierce local rivalries between families and settlements, regular violence and bloodletting and the stealing of land and women. Perhaps not too much has changed after all.
That said, we still need the amygdala. It plays a pivotal role in our everyday lives. Every time we cross a busy road the amygdala is on alert. Every time something unpleasant or unexpected happens the amygdala is tracking it for you. Ladies, have you ever got off the train late at night and walked home or to your car? During that walk did you ever feel that you could hear footsteps behind you? Did your heart start to race? Did you feel sick that you might be attacked? The amygdala is your personal alarm system. It’s tragic in the twenty-first century that both men and women, young and old are attacked or robbed by fellow human beings. In 1995 we arrived in Peru to much trepidation at the time. The guide books gave chapter and verse on the overwhelming dangers of visiting such a lawless country. After we crossed the border from Chile, many of us were reluctant to get off the truck in case we were mugged by the first passer-by. I stalked the pavements like the pigeon I mentioned earlier. I was led to believe that I was a prime target of crime so I began to act like a victim and in doing so, probably attracted more attention than I deserved.
Have you ever booked a holiday over the internet? It’s great because the moment you hit send and pay for the flights or the holiday, the internal debate is over. You’re going. Those weeks of where will I go? Will I bother to go at all? What will I need? B&B, half-board, 3, 4 or 5 star hotel? The questions are answered and it’s a wonderful feeling. Every moment of floating in that sensation is a heady almost intoxicating experience. Each time you consider any pleasurable aspect of the holiday you’re sending a signal to the adrenal glands to release more adrenaline into the blood stream and when it hits your brain, boy are you going to feel high.
Now, previously I was talking about bad adrenaline being pumped into the blood stream and making you feel nervous, apprehensive or anxious. Am I talking about the same substance? Am I saying that adrenaline makes you feel sublime and the same substance makes you feel down?
That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Adrenaline is a double-edged sword. There is no good adrenaline or bad adrenaline. There is just adrenaline.
So what’s the difference between the substance that makes you feel high and the substance that makes you feel low? There is a very simple answer and that is the way in which you choose to perceive it. Either way, it’s adrenaline, so you may as well make it work for you.
When I was a young man I was a totally committed footballer and I played at a semi-professional level. From being a child it ruled my life and I was dedicated to the point of obsession. I was crazy about training (not missing it), I didn’t drink or smoke, and I managed my food intake sensibly. I had early nights, slept well and spent all week visualising scoring goals or making vital interceptions which would prevent the opposition from scoring and my team would secure an appropriate winning outcome. Yes, I was a great believer in dreaming big and why not? Who on earth would go to all that effort and not care about the result. It doesn’t make sense. My talent was spotted and I was invited on many football tours in Europe and I learnt so much from the privilege of travel. It broadened my horizons and took me to the most fabulous places. The whole issue of obsessive behaviour got me ‘up’ for the match. Thinking about playing football, just like booking your holiday fills you with adrenaline. Football was a pleasure, a devotion and it meant everything to me. Perhaps when other things let me down in life, I always knew there’d be football during the nine month season. Football is a contact sport. One of its attractions is to be physical and impose yourself on the opposition. You have to be aggressive within the laws of the game. There are rules about what is fair and ethical and what is not. Every good football coach would encourage you to play up to that line and heaven forbid if you do not. Here’s the thing, if you play a contact sport and you’re not up for it, you’re likely to get injured. I have seen people pull out of tackles, get themselves into bad positions because they weren’t committed to the challenge and then I would go and visit them in hospital. If the adrenaline isn’t coursing through your body when you’re playing, something is wrong. If I ever felt flat running out on to the pitch, that would indicate that something wasn’t functioning correctly. If my mind wasn’t on the boil it would have a negative impact on the presence of my body. When you’re playing a contact sport you need to be totally present. If you’re a boxer or into the martial arts, my recommendation if you’re not on the boil is to stay at home and and save yourself the bruises. We need adrenaline. My friend Robert who is formerly a parachute instructor has the saying, ‘Adrenaline equals performance’, and I have to agree with that sentiment. You cannot get a peak performance state without it. He also quotes Anthony J D’Angelo in that ‘the mind is like a parachute, it only works when it’s open.’
In July 2012 we experienced the wonderful occasion of the London Olympics Games. Put yourself in the shoes of Jessica Ennis. Not only a wonderful athlete, role model and Olympic medal hopeful, she also became the ‘face’ of the Games. Imagine the pressure on that young woman as she came out to participate in her first event. The hope and expectation on her shoulders was enormous and yet how did she perform? Was she nervous? Yes. Was she excited by the expectation and media interest? Yes. Did her fitness levels, mental strength and inner resilience give her an edge? Yes. Was she able to harness her adrenaline and make it work for her? Well we all know that she won the gold medal in the heptathlon. Adrenaline is a wonderful tool which is fuel for the mind. Adrenaline will either work for you or against you depending on how you’re thinking. You’re only ever a thought away from being on the correct path. Getting back to parachutes, if you jump out of an aircraft without one, the only thing that can hurt you on the way down is a thought.
In 2007 I remember watching a documentary about the British troops in Iraq. These guys patrolled the streets of Basra, ‘keeping the peace’. How about that for job? Each day they faced the danger of guns, rifles and snipers, rocket-propelled grenades, road-side bombs, arson, riot and civil unrest. To me, that job looked like hell. Imagine those dangers 12 hours per day on a foot patrol. Twelve hours a day for a stint of six months. It made me shiver just watching it from a comfortable apartment several thousand miles away. I have the greatest respect and admiration for their inner strength, resilience and dedication and I would never dream of taking on a role like that. Do you think these guys had reason to be nervous, apprehensive and fearful? I do. And that was the point of the documentary. It was a study of how each individual soldier managed and mentally prepared himself throughout the day as well as his tour of duty.
The documentary crew were only allowed to film the soldiers on the base as it was too dangerous out on the street. The men were usually seen outside their dormitory relaxing in the sun, cleaning their weapons and exercising while exchanging friendly banter. Occasionally, they would go inside to shower and rest. The most telling aspect of the documentary was the build up to their deployment on the street each night. The exuberant chatter calmed, they became subdued and reflective and so began their daily ritual of making calls home to their wives, families and loved ones, potentially for the last time. Some soldiers would wave away the camera, their faces ashen and they refused to speak. Some were interviewed and in sombre mood they offered only monosyllabic answers. One guy every night was heard vomiting in the lavatory. These men all shared the same circumstances and yet they all had different coping methods. We talked about the distinction between fear and anxiety and this situation falls firmly into the former category. I cannot contemplate a more life threatening situation. Can you? For those who were happy to speak, a common theme soon emerged. Although they all experienced the apprehension, nervousness and fear to different levels, their training, preparation and mutual support gave them the necessary skills to venture outside and perform their job to the highest professional level. One of them reported something extraordinary. As he took his turn and stepped out on to the street through a six inch door, the fear slowly dissipated and with each forward step turned into courage.
Isn’t it wonderful that nobody is shooting at us as we make our speech? Isn’t it great that the vast majority of the audience want us to succeed? If these guys can face up to the torments of this hell-like experience every day, I think that we speakers can find our sense of perspective. By that I mean, making a speech to a room full of suits in a plush office somewhere in the UK, isn’t really as frightening as the story we tell ourselves.
The non-existent path to perfection
Occasionally I watch TV. My wife and daughter are fond of cooking and home improvement programs. I find the language they use nothing short of shocking… “It’s the perfect cake, with the perfect ingredients, grown in the perfect garden, made in the perfect kitchen. The perfect house in which the perfect kitchen resides is no doubt in the perfect suburb of the perfect city. The cake will be devoured by perfect friends at a perfect soiree…” Everything is just perfect…
With such indulgent and inflated language we are conditioned to believe that if you deliver anything that isn’t ‘perfect’ (whatever perfect is) you are categorised as a failure. Your friends, family and colleagues will snigger behind your back. It’s inevitable, isn’t it? No, it’s not!
This is how it works out in class.
‘Hands up if you want to be perfect in your speech delivery?’
Everybody’s hand goes up.
‘How many of you are perfectionists?’
Lots of hands go up.
I pause, take a sip of water, close my eyes and say, ‘Stop torturing yourself…’
Perfection does not exist. It is such a subjective term. What is perfection? I get the class to write down their definition and then read them out. At my last seminar, I had 50 different definitions and if I had 5000 in a seminar I’d have 5000 definitions. What does this tell us? It tells us that if your objective is to be perfect, you will fail. You are doomed to failure. If you make a little mistake, get caught up in your notes or drop your flip chart pen, clearly you are a failure. Students use this absolute language with themselves. It’s all BS.
If you’re caught in a trap, you have to recognise that you’re first in a trap before you can escape. If your language snares you, recognise it for what it is (unhelpful words) and change your language. Change the frame. So I ask the question, ‘If you had a presentation next Wednesday and you were to deliver an effective presentation, would you be happy with that?’ Most students raise their hands. ‘Does that seem like a more realistic objective? If that gave you peace of mind and a good night’s sleep, would you accept that?’ There is calm in class. (Definition of effective – we agree it in class, as I hope you will find out).
Put your ego to one side – you’re not as important as you think you are
Most people are not afraid of speaking, they’re afraid of criticism. Somebody might say something along the lines that your speech wasn’t very good. We’re taught to be bright students, pass our exams and be professional (which all seem like reasonable pursuits). Then we have to stand up and speak to our peers and suddenly we’re not who we think we are. All that study and examination certificates doesn’t seem to count for much. It looks like we’re putting our egos on the line and that we know that we are not the confident person we portray in the office. For some people the thought of getting something wrong in public would shatter their world and the way they think of themselves. What will people say when they realise that I am not ‘perfect’? The fragile veneer is about to be smashed. This is just a thought, not a truth.
Have you seen the movie Mama Mia with Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth? Can those guys sing? It’s not great, is it? Do you think they care? Do you actually care? Why would these Oscar winning, A-listers put their names and reputations on the line for your entertainment? They don’t need the money or the publicity. But had they got some lesser known actors Universal Studios would have sold about ten DVDs sets of the film.
What I love about this movie is that these famous actors put their ego to one side and got out of their own way. They’re not great singers and more importantly, that is barely relevant. When you see anybody going out of their comfort zone to deliver something special for others, most people will feel great about the experience. Have you ever been to a school nativity play performed by ten year olds? It’s wonderful. Not because it runs smoothly; it’s the missed lines, the amateur staging, the dish cloth headdresses that makes it memorable. It’s the same principle as the cast of Mama Mia, but this time it’s children giving 100%.
Is it not wonderful that we give our children such latitude not to be ‘perfect’? Is it not wonderful that our children remain amazing to us even if they fluffed a line. Why does that warmth and sense of nurturing seem to disappear somewhere between the ages of 16 and 21?
‘Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.’ – Einstein
The objective of any speaker is to deliver value. Not to deliver encyclopaedic knowledge, nor try to impress, nor to look handsome/beautiful nor to look a million dollars with your outfit nor to be the expert. The audience deserve something of value that they can adopt, adapt and utilise. They want something that will bring them one step closer to resolving their issues. They want an elevated view on their current circumstances or a new direction. They want something to make them curious about an improved future. If you don’t deliver value expect some harsh feedback.
I’m not good enough
If you believe this then you are right. You are not good enough. Take the rest of your life off and I suggest that you remain silent as much as you possibly can. Tiptoeing through life is all the rage so you best get on with it. Shhh! Do it quietly.
If you’re open to the suggestion of the possibility that you are a proud sentient being, worthy of respect, worthy of an opinion based on experience derived from a life of study, enterprise and a few struggles along the way, welcome to the real world. You have all the credentials to become an amazing speaker. Great speakers are not born. They are developed. They are coached and nurtured and each and every one of them has crashed and burned many times. They just didn’t allow it to obscure their greater purpose. The sun is always there shining brightly. Sometimes the clouds get in the way and we can’t see it. But the sun is always there, just like your personal strengths and your sense of purpose.
It doesn’t matter who you are and it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you have a story. You have a message that you can share with the world. You are a man (or woman) of value, so get out there and give it your best shot. If you don’t you’ll notice your less experienced, less knowledgeable and less talented colleagues leapfrogging you on the corporate ladder. You’ll encounter a sense of loss and emptiness knowing that you were in a race and that you didn’t even show up for. You conceded the race without contesting. If that makes you feel bad, then good. Because only you can do this. Nobody can do it for you. So please, wake up and accept that we’re all made of the same DNA. If the guy sitting next to you is a good speaker, you have everything he has. All that you need is within you. If you believe in the implicate order, and I do, then we are all already connected. It’s time to tune into the world’s wave-length and start broadcasting. Be brave. Take courage. You can do it!
I want the audience to love me
There are some tricky questions to be answered with this toxic goal. First of all, how are you going to measure it? Is it the number of pats on the back, business cards exchanged, kisses, hugs? You tell me. I can guarantee that if this is your goal you’ll come away feeling worse than when you arrived. To be brutally honest, your audience don’t care. They are there and they’re asking one question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ If you don’t answer that question be assured that they will not love you. If you have a fragile ego, find a better objective.
I want to speak like Obama
Obama is good. Some people say he’s the best. I think he’s great and I think that I too could be great if I had a communications team of sixty-five Harvard graduates behind me. Apparently, every time he delivers a prepared speech, each and every word has been checked for balance and nuance by the majority of his staff. The President likes to get it right and so should we all. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all employ such a talented team to write and prepare speeches?
For mere mortals who are time poor and lack concentration, we just have to get on with it. In my days in IT, when I became the ‘geek that could speak’, I was often thrown in at the deep end. ‘Hey Vince, we have some VIPs coming in. Could you give them an overview of your projects?’
‘Sure’, I would say, ‘When are they coming, a couple of months?’
‘No, no, no. About forty-five minutes or so.’
And that’s a pretty normal time scale in the corporate world. Planning is a secondary consideration.
Do I want to speak like Obama? No! Do you want to speak like Obama? I would suggest ‘not’. Can we learn a great deal from Obama? Yes! Observing highly effective speakers is a great strategy. Modelling effective behaviours is a useful shortcut to your own increased effectiveness. Observe Obama’s pauses. Observe his self-deprecating humour. Observe his humility. He’s the most powerful man in the world and he doesn’t ask for favours or make excuses. He just does it and does it extraordinary well.
So why would you want to be a second rate Obama when you can be a first rate version of you? We only need one Obama and he’s already got the job. Certainly, observe others, see how they make it work and ask the question, could I make it work for me? Most importantly, always be yourself and always aim to the be the best version of you available on the night. You’ve already got the job.
It’s good to note that in the autumn of 2011, Obama in speaking terms became human. He was addressing Congress about the US debt crisis and he was umming and ahhring a lot, looking at the ceiling and lacking conviction. Generally, he made millions of normal speakers feel ok about themselves. You may also have seen the first of the 2012 Presidential debates where he was on the ropes for most of the time and looked hesitant in his answers and his body language. It was a great effort from the President to come back strong after that mauling. The message is simple, if it’s ok for the most powerful man in the world to have a bad day, cut yourself a little slack when you make the occasional mistake. You are not the centre of the universe and no matter how important you are (or you think you are), you’re still made of flesh and blood. Give yourself permission to be ok.
I want to make a fashion statement and I want people to recognise my beauty
This is a toxic goal. A few years ago I was working with an attractive lady. I knew she was attractive because every time she made a speech she made the point of saying how attractive she was. She was all dolled up in designer clothes and a classy hair style and I have to say she looked great. Through numerous and diverse speech topics delivered in class, it was clear that she only felt comfortable speaking on two themes; how attractive she was and fashion. The world at large with all its wonders and woes had barely crossed her mind for some time and the real issue she came up against was relating to people who were not as attractive and as well dressed as her.
If you have ever met me you’ll know that I am not the best dressed man in town (although much improved since I got married) and if you can bear to look at my face long enough, you’ll notice that my nose is heading in three directions and I don’t smile much because I’ve had numerous teeth knocked out playing football.
Let me tell you that I do not spend time any time worrying about my looks. I accept myself for what I am and who I am. I am ok with me. With regards to clothes, I remember my wedding day, traditionally a day of renewal. So I dutifully bought a new suit, shirt, tie, shoes and socks. Then an hour before the ceremony I put them all on for the first time and what did I get? I call it the big nothing. I didn’t feel any different in these clothes. I was ok with me, but clothes are just clothes.
People do not attend my courses for my looks, nor do they attend because they’re curious about what I’m going to wear. They attend for one reason only and that’s because they want me to help them get a result in their life. What they want is for me to deliver substance. They want something that they can adopt, adapt and utilise from 5pm onwards that will take them closer to their personal goals. Can I suggest that when you embark with a realistic objective your chances of meeting that objective are greatly improved?
I want to impress
As objectives go, this is a bad one. If trying to impress is the only thing on your mind, there’s every chance you’ll blow a gasket. What if you make a mistake, or somebody walks in while you’re in flow and you’re distracted? What if you did everything right and you still didn’t get the outcome, the sale or the buy in from the key people you were trying to influence? What will you do differently next time? I have seen really good speakers turn their speaking into a performance. They put on an act because they feel that they are not enough. Have you ever tried to impress your date by putting on a show? I think they’d prefer to go out with the real you, the authentic you and not who you’re pretending to be. It’s difficult to buy into a performer, simply because it’s not real. If it’s not genuine, then I’m not buying.
If you follow the techniques of effective speaking and you prepare well and practice thoroughly, there’s every chance that you will impress. The key distinction is that impressing is the derivative benefit and not the primary objective. Relax and be yourself. Take your time and recognise that you are more than enough for any audience.
I want to be the expert
In 1992 I gave a one hour technical presentation to some senior managers while working in the City of London. Following that event I was approached by two executives from a large software company. They said they liked my style and asked if I had I considered becoming a full time trainer. I was flattered to hear such glowing testimonials and delighted that my journey as a speaker was getting recognition for the right reasons. They gave me their business cards and suggested I give them a call if I wanted to discuss it further. Some time later I called them and a few months down the line I was working as an associate trainer in their company. As usual, I hadn’t given this too much thought. So I moved from delivering one hour presentations on intense projects to four and five day courses on wide ranging technical disciplines. Rather like fatherhood, nothing prepares you for these events. My first four day course was a baptism of fire, possibly ignited by my bold assertion at the outset of the week, that I was a technical guru. Although there was an element of tongue in cheek humour, the students really pushed me through the hoops to substantiate my claims. It was an uncomfortable ride and I realised there was a massive gap between what I knew and what I thought I knew. Back to the text books and weeks of midnight oil.
If you want to give the audience permission to dislike you, just tell them how good you are and they will tell you how good they think you are on the feedback sheets. If you set yourself up as the expert and you feel it’s your job to impress them and to prove how much you know, you will find it a challenge. If they perceive you’re doing this to bolster your flagging ego, they will tap dance all over it and find great delight in the process.
Empathy is the best policy. Walk a mile in your audience’s shoes and you’ll begin connecting with them at their level immediately. I love talking about success and I’m also happy about discussing when I’ve screwed things up. It makes you look normal, real and trustworthy. Get your skeletons out and have a good laugh at yourself. Take your work seriously, but do not take yourself too seriously. If you give the impression that you think you’re above your audience or that you’re doing them a favour in being there, do not expect a favourable reaction.
I work with some incredibly senior people in leading organisations. I recognise where they are at in their career and offer my appreciation in allowing me the opportunity to coach them. It creates an instant rapport by respecting their professionalism and success and in doing so they’re usually incredibly receptive to what I can offer.
Controlling the audience
I have been asked many times in class, how do you control the audience? To which I answer, “I don’t!”
Of course, there are lots of things I want my students to understand and practice. I believe it’s clear that they’re doing it for themselves and not for me, after all that’s why they signed up for the session and they’re sitting in my classroom. I ask them to give me 100% concentration knowing my discussions and activities will help them in the short and long term. Most importantly, I never tell my audience what to do. I always ask for their permission first. Sometimes quite explicitly at the outset of the day I make the point that I will be requesting their cooperation with a number of items. If they could help me with the logistics in the classroom and by giving me their full attention their outcomes will be enhanced. I ask them to be punctual at breaks and lunch and to bring all of their professional skills to class. By saying these things explicitly, I am creating an environment where I am respecting their time and their positive outcomes. Running courses that last one or two days may look like a long time span, but the time flies by so quickly. Managing time is a skill in its own right. There is a purpose behind what I do and how I do it – what’s clear is that I can’t do it on my own. I can only succeed with the cooperation of my students and the more they contribute the more ownership the take of the process.
If you want your audience to dislike you, start giving them orders from the outset. Tell them what to do and what to think and then tell them that you’re the expert (and that there’s not much you don’t know about your subject) and that you’ve never seen anything quite as bad as them in your life. Don’t just expect a hostile audience from then on, you should expect a non-existent audience. If you insult them, they will walk and then you’ve lost them for good, along with your reputation.
The points above are pretty obvious you might think, though sadly not obvious enough for some guys moving into the training arena. I have worked with subject matter experts whose approach sometimes is, “I’m the expert and they will listen. I demand that they listen.” If that’s how you want to approach it, I would suggest that you purchase a safety helmet on a monthly basis. Alternatively, you can initiate classroom discussions, lead the conversation and guide it to where it’s most needed and most valuable. Now is the time to recommend this, try that, could I suggest you adopt this, that or the other? Always leave adults in control. It’s important that they remain comfortable in their thoughts and that they see, hear and feel that the benefits are and that they’re within their reach. If the stretch is too much, they will never adopt the options you present to them.
In the next scenario let’s talk about an audience of say 100 people. 100 is a nice round number and it’s easy for me to work out percentages.
10-15% of your audience will fall into this category.
As your audience arrive in the room, many of them are distracted. They are distracted by text messages and emails on their mobile phone or tablet device. They’re distracted by being in a room where they don’t want to be. Some attendees at presentations, seminars and conferences dread the thought of being there. They’ve been sent by their boss or a director and have no vested interest in your speech or its messages. They are in attendance physically but not mentally. They see themselves as prisoners of misfortune, victims of opportunity cost. They’ll never get this time back and they can be slightly waspish or dismissive because they’re only there to show face. It’s unlikely that they will remember you or the nature of your work. The only consolation to you as their speaker is that their lack of interest is neither your fault nor responsibility. That said, if you somehow managed to hook them into your speech, you could easily get them on side. If you’re giving it 100% and you don’t get that outcome with them, I repeat that that’s not your fault. Nothing you do will bring them around.
10-15% of your audience will fall into this category.
These people are glad to be in the room with you. Not because they’re interested in you or your speech. They are so happy to be away from their desk for an hour. They don’t like their job or their boss and it gives them a good reason to be away from their usual routine. These people are often bright, motivated and open to learning. They don’t want to completely waste an hour, they’re just happy not to be at their desk. As the speaker, you have a great opportunity to capture them and their imagination and deliver something of great value.
About 10% of your audience will fall into this category.
There are other people in the room who are also distracted. They arrived looking forward to the speech and hoping to gain something of valuable from the experience. However, life is now getting in the way. Their young daughter is sick. They have forgotten to take their car in for its MOT and service. They forgot to submit their weekly report on time by the deadline, or something along those lines. They want to be there and they’re distracted. More good news for you. It’s not your fault that these people are distracted. You will have experienced similar circumstances yourself. You’re there in the room, but not there mentally. Distracted or not, the fact that they want to be there means that you have a greater opportunity to bring them back on board. It can be done if you’re skillful in your work.
For the terminally distracted, you must accept that there’s little you can do other than arrive prepared and give it 100% of your attention and professionalism. When you see somebody looking down into their phone or tablet do not feel downhearted that they’re not giving you their all. They might just have messaged one of your pearls of wisdom to their thousands of followers. Do not allow the distracted to throw you off course. The only time I would intervene is if the distracting behaviours were causing other members of the audience to lose out on their learning opportunity. When this happens, I just pause and wait for the distraction to end. There’s no point in getting upset or losing your rag, just wait until a semblance of order returns. Best not to make wisecracks at the expense of audience members no matter how disruptive the incident. Occasionally, the person or persons causing the distraction will stand and leave the room and that’s fine, because those that want to be with you 100% deserve that opportunity to listen. Remember that you’re there to serve all of the audience and not yourself. Take your time – do not feel rushed and the audience will perceive that you’re in control (we’ve talked about perception and reality)… We may not have much control over our circumstances though we do have control over how we choose to respond or react.
The rest of the audience want you to be fantastic
This category wants you to be fantastic. This appointment has been in their diary for a long time and they want you to deliver great content that they can adopt, adapt and utilise from that day onwards. They genuinely want to be there to see you or even meet you in the flesh. These are the guys who make speaking a joy because they’re there with their notepads and relishing every sentence and absorbing all of your key messages. This is your true audience. These are your supporters. So don’t let them down!
‘You are not who you think you are AND you are so much more.’ – Jamie Smart
I like this thought that you are not who you think you are and you are so much more. Why is that? My answer is simple – who knows what you are capable of? Who knows how you can impact the world? Perhaps you can’t be a Richard Feynman or David Bohm, but who says so? That is a decision that only you can make.
On the 27th of May 2003 my daughter Natalia was born. The midwife passed her over and there was this wonderful bundle of pride and potential. She arrived, straight from the womb untouched by the world. New born babies, no disrespect to them, don’t do too much. They’re excellent at pooing, puking and crying and possess an innate ability to awaken you moments after you succumbed to sleep. They are not born with a manual although they arrive with a clean slate. Everything is possible.
Ten years later, I look at my daughter with a different sense of pride. She reads, writes and delights at mathematics. She’s a fantastic dancer, swimmer and gymnast. She speaks English and Portuguese fluently. She plays the piano and the flute and she excels in all aspects of creativity. Who knows what she is capable of? Why not an Einstein? Why not a Beethoven? Why not another Da Vinci?
‘You are all enlightened beings. You are all Buddas pretending not to be. It is my duty to expose you.’ – Osho
When I meet with a client, I look into their eyes and I visualise them delivering a superb speech. I watch how they walk and how they approach the lectern. I watch how they stand and prepare to deliver their speech. I am sending them my energy and wishing them every success. Who knows what this stranger is capable of? They can achieve anything they want to. Everything they need is already within them. In the early days of my IT training, I made the mistake of underestimating my student’s ability to learn. The mistake was thinking that they were as slow as I was at taking on new material. They probably thought I was distant and patronising in those days. When you get it wrong, it’s best to accept the mistake, apologise sincerely and move on. I had to wake up to people’s potential and in doing so recognise that my job was to guide them, draw out their latent strengths and engage them in a discussion that made them curious about their emergent potential.
Speaking is not easy for the uninitiated. It is the anxiety of the unknown. The mind or intellect is brilliant at working with shapes and forms, but not so good with the formless. We live in the world of form, the explicate order, but it is our formless self (who we really are) that has to stand up and deliver the speech in the moment.
When I look back at my first speech some 30 years ago, I was inexperienced and totally unprepared. I offered little value as a speaker. When I look at myself now and the transformation I have achieved in my personal and professional life, I’m glad that I sought superb mentors who found a trajectory fitting with my personality and authenticity. I feel happy in my own skin. I know who I am. I am okay with me. I have bad days, good days and most days are just great. I recognise that my life, my happiness and well being are not dependent on my next speech, workshop or program. All I have to do is turn up, give it 100% in the moment and I’m confident about the outcome. My potential is infinite, my life is not on the line and my sense of humour is always a flexible cushion if I hit the rails. Who I am is unassailable, bulletproof and not subject to the world of form. If the world of form tries to intimidate me, the stronger I become.
Expanded Awareness Exercise
Case study – The masterpiece
Annie is in her early fifties and she is a director of a charity in London. Formerly she worked in the City in finance. Over the span of an impressive career she has chaired several conferences, seminars and events with diplomats, politicians and the judiciary. In recent years, her confidence has waned. She’s now working only three days a week and she feels excluded from some of the executive meetings that she once chaired and organised. She feels that her voice is ‘lacking’, that she’s not as ‘sharp’ as she was and that her colleagues don’t think she’s still up to the job.
As usual in one of my 1-2-1 sessions, I asked her to give an ice-breaker speech which she did with aplomb. Then she delivered a speech on my favourite authenticity exercise and she spoke with great enthusiasm, conviction and sincerity for eight minutes. She was one of the best speakers I have ever met. It was clear to me that she has great confidence, presence and a fantastic voice. Her thirty year’s experience of high profile projects gave her incredible insights into the thought processes of the UK’s top decision makers. I gave her my evaluation of her performance which effectively ticked every box of the objective criteria. She was exceptional in every way. She urged me to give her some ‘harsh’ feedback, but I couldn’t. I told her that she was a masterpiece. It would be unprofessional to offer inaccurate feedback. It would be like putting the Mona Lisa in a picture frame from a second hand shop. I wasn’t prepared to do it. And then she started crying.
‘Thought creates the world and says “I didn’t do it!”‘ – David Bohm
For weeks she had been dreading our meeting. She had been telling herself that she was useless, that her colleagues were planning to make her redundant and that she had organised the last major event of her career. When I pressed her on those issues she told me there was no evidence as such, but these thoughts had occurred regularly over many months. Her thoughts and feelings looked so real and had created a distorted view of reality.
You’re not feeling your circumstances – you’re feeling your thinking.
The weekend that Jeff came over, we stayed up to watch the movie ‘Training Day’. I love this film, it’s one of my favourites and I have watched it several times. Jeff thought it was great, his wife said it was so good that she was ‘happy to stay up’ to watch it. My wife hadn’t seen the film and didn’t like it. She said it was too violent. So, four people all in the same room, experiencing the same event, but all experiencing it differently. We’re feeling our thinking 100% of the time and never anything else. You’re not feeling what you’re thinking about, you’re just feeling your thinking.
In the 2010 World Cup finals, Frank Lampard scored a great goal against Germany. The ball was clearly two feet over the line but the referee waved play on. Sixty million Brits shouted ‘GOAL!’ and eighty million Germans said ‘Good effort, but play to ze vistle’. We all saw the same thing but there were so many different perceptions of the same event. Our thoughts create our reality moment to moment.
‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ – William Shakespeare
Last year I opened an envelope telling me that my niece from Stockport was getting married. My wife and daughter were joyous, so so happy with the news and the prospect of a family wedding. Then came the questions; what are the arrangements? Is it a church wedding? Where will the service take place? I was not so joyous, same circumstances but I was thinking, ‘Phew… this is going to cost me.’ Hotels, dresses, shoes, travel costs, wedding presents… Only joking Christine and Andy, but had that invitation arrived in the early 90s during the recession, I can guarantee that those considerations would seriously have crossed my mind.
‘You become what you think about.’ – Earl Nightingale
When I first moved into corporate training many years ago, I realised that there were numerous ways and opportunities for me to improve myself. I spent every spare moment on self development courses, technical courses (material I was delivering), and networking with other trainers to find out as many of their success secrets as possible. In the first year my student feedback was quite patchy. Some weeks I would receive great marks and other weeks not so good marks and it took me a long time to work out why there was such an inconsistency. Some of the material I was teaching was quite new to me so I only had a theoretical grasp of it. It’s difficult to speak with conviction about heavy technical material when you only have limited classroom experience, so I adopted the classroom discussion technique to draw out the students’ knowledge. This worked well and after a few deliveries I was able to introduce their experiences as my experiences in class (as I had gone away and worked through those scenarios and knew the outcomes). Students loved talking about their work and it was a technique I used extensively in other areas even though I had my own experience of the subject matter. Students’ contributions in class became an increasingly effective method to engage them. Naturally, if they had little or no experience on a particular item, I would lead the delivery of the new material. This opportunity to engage deeply really changed my approach to training. I had been led to believe that I should be at the front of the class leading (which is normal), whereas drawing out the knowledge of the students and building upon it worked more effectively with highly motivated technicians. I was pleasantly surprised with the rate of improvement especially in my second year. Now I was much more confident, I had a bag full of successful techniques and strategies that could be deployed. I had dropped the guru tag and had become one of the boys and my consistency as a successful technical trainer was suddenly beginning to win me more influential friends in the industry. They say that you become like the people you hang out with. I only hung out with the best trainers and I began to learn the valuable skill of intense listening.
‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’ – Chinese Proverb
In my garden there’s an oak tree and it’s about twenty-five yards high. It’s tall, impressive and imposing. Have you noticed that we tend only to recognise the ‘tall and impressive’? There’s a smaller one too at the rear of the garden. Although it’s there, it’s barely noticed as it just blends in with the rest of the greenery. Within an acorn, the DNA is encoded to be tall, strong and have the presence of the tree in my garden, but not all oak trees are as tall or impressive as that. But why is that? The acorns look the same and inside they contain the same genetic material. The answer is that some acorns fall on good soil, some are well watered and some have more access to sunshine. There are probably a hundred other variables involved in the growing of an oak tree. However, tall or short, broad or narrow, all trees play an important role in making a significant contribution to the world’s oxygen.
It’s the same for human beings. You may have noticed that although as a race we share the same DNA, we are different colours, heights and shapes. We are born to different families in different parts of the world with different religions, cultures with different educational systems, teachers and political systems and problems. Who is more impressive, Mother Teresa or Barack Obama? Napolean Bonaparte or Elvis Presley? You, your mum or dad or the man who invented cat’s eyes? You may not be a big name locally and that doesn’t actually matter because every human being makes a significant and enduring contribution to the world. It may not seem like it some days, especially when we’re in a low mood. So never underestimate your role in the big scheme of life as we’re all providing support to other human beings whether we work in a hospital, a car factory or stacking shelves in a supermarket, we’re all important cogs in the wheel of life. You were born of the same material of every famous person who has walked this earth and you are just as valuable.
Shout! Shout! Let it all out – Tears for Fears
One of my favourite exercises in class is inviting the whole group to stand up and shout in animated fashion (after me), “I hate public speaking. I hate public speaking. It has driven me crazy for years. I hate it!” We do that three times because that’s all the laughter the group can take. Laughter? But this is a serious class. People are trying to overcome issues that have sometimes held them back for years. So why are they laughing?
When they actually say these words out loud, they suddenly realise how ridiculous their internal dialogue sounds. Although it resonates with themselves and their colleagues, they cannot help but laugh when they actually externalise these deep feelings. It’s a cathartic experience. They feel purged of that secret. They feel lighter and free. The monkey is off their back.
For good measure, I immediately add an associated technique which also has a high strike rate. I ask them to say to themselves, “I hate public speaking,” and as they do so, I ask them to ‘white out’ their mind as they say the words. Make your mind like a snow blizzard and ensure that you see nothing except whiteness. Try that three times and it’s as if those words do not exist.
The three laws of public speaking and I’m going to make this as simple as possible.
If you put your finger on an electric hot plate, assuming it’s switched on you’re going to get burnt. It’s going to be painful and you will be incredibly focused next time you’re in its proximity. The thing about hot plates is that they transfer heat, usually to a pan or some other cooking vessel. It doesn’t actually care whether it heats a pan or burns your fingers. The law of thermodynamics holds no respect for its user base. It just does what it does, each and every time. It’s a universal law and as such it applies whenever one surface touches another or if heat is passed through air/gas/water/solution. It always applies and it’s the same in public speaking. There are three principles that never change and an awareness, understanding and application of these principles mean that you’ll never get your fingers burnt again.
- It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it.
Mumbling, speaking into your notes and talking to the floor and/or ceiling will only annoy and frustrate your audience. Don’t do it. I have tried and failed many times. Look the members of the audience in the eye, smile (even if you’re uncomfortable) and talk to them with respect. Your role is to deliver a message, a message that has value. The role of the speaker is to deliver value.
Be alert, be alive and be real. Give it 100%. Bring your personality into the room as so many speakers leave it at the door. Give it your best shot. Even if it isn’t great most people will warm to your efforts if they perceive that you’re stretching yourself for them. Remember, they’re not looking for perfection or encyclopaedic knowledge, they just want to feel that the time invested in your speech will derive some benefits further down the track. Don’t disappoint them!
- Know your audience – What’s in it for them?
Be clear about your purpose. What are you trying to achieve in this spoken opportunity? If you do not have an objective I can guarantee that this speech will be a victory for ramblers. People are really busy these days. They are time poor. If you waste people’s time, they are incredibly unforgiving because they know (and so do you) that they can never have that time again. You’ll be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Here are seven speaking objectives that you should observe when preparing a speech:
Choose a purpose for speaking (or even better discuss with the organisers what they’d like delivered) and stay on that theme. If you try to tick all of the boxes above, you’ll be jumping off on unnecessary tangents and probably finding yourself in deep water. Even worse, you’ll confuse the audience and you’ll feel their discomfort.
- Plan, prepare and practice
In 1984 when I died on stage in front of the Board of the Co-Operative Wholesale Society in Manchester, the entire dreadful experience could be traced back to a lack of planning. Fail to plan, plan to fail – another victim of one of business’ most treasured aphorisms.
When I received the invitation to speak to the Board, I was only in position six weeks. I opened the brown A4 envelope with fifty names and departments scribbled out (the messaging system of choice in the mid-80s), and I read the content at least twenty times. The Board would like me to speak to them in three week’s time. The invitation was vague. They wanted me to talk to them. The same questions continually arose in my mind; why followed by why me? I was still establishing myself in the company. I was busy with multiple projects and I was trying to enjoy the pleasure of my new role, new colleagues and new environment. Why me? This was the poison chalice surely.
In hindsight, a good strategy was to write back immediately and specifically ask what they wanted me to deliver in that session. Even now thirty years later, I was clear that my speech needed a purpose. What I didn’t have was the courage to respond. I thought that if I asked them an obvious question like that, they might think I was being ‘funny’ (unlikely in my case), or worse, lacking confidence (which I had in abundance). So, in the end I did nothing and I thought I would charm them if the going got tough. Within moments of entering the room, I fell to pieces. It seemed that they were unimpressed with my casual familiarity, inexpensive suit and profuse sweating. My ability to articulate no more than a handful of sentences flopped. To this day I still don’t know what they wanted from me. However, I was told that the invitation was not the poison chalice I had assumed. Quite the opposite in fact. I was told that they had heard good things about me and that they wanted to get to know me. In five badly prepared minutes, I destroyed my reputation and all future prospects in that company.
So, how do you prepare? My simple answer is thoroughly. Imagine an ice-berg and draw a line where the 10% is above the water level. Assume this 10% is the delivery and the 90% below the waterline is the planning, preparation and practice. Have a purpose for making the presentation and what do you want to achieve from this spoken opportunity? It should have structure and no more than three key points. How long are you speaking for? Who will be in the audience? Where is the venue and how will that affect your delivery? What are the key points you want the audience to take away and think about?
I wish. I wish. I wish I could turn the clock back thirty years, but only in the context of knowing what I know now, when I was just twenty-five years old. Things would be very different.
Where does one find inspiration?
I find my inspiration almost anywhere. I was just watching the news and they were talking about meningitis. The discussion followed a four year old girl who had suffered from an indiscriminate attack aged two. During the illness she lost both her hands and there she was in a dance class doing the same routine as the other children with this enormous smile. After dancing it was lunchtime and we saw her helping herself to sandwiches and salad. She was seen moving her forearms in pincer movements to get the food on the plate and then carry the plate balanced on her shoulders and arms back to her chair. There was no suggestion of pain or suffering, although clearly she had suffered unimaginably, as had her family. The focus was on moving forward. There was nothing this child or anybody could do about her past, the focus was on now and planning for the future. When I see children display such courage it makes me pause and I look at my own life day to day. My biggest problem this week were tube delays and organising my daughter’s birthday party. In view of what I have just seen from this beautiful child, I need to manage my impatience and frustrations better from tomorrow onwards.
Joaquin Rodrigo is Spain’s most famous composer. The popularity of his Concierto de Aranjuez placed him among the top tier of 21st century composers. What most people do not know about Rodrigo was that from the age of three, he was almost completely blind after being struck by diphtheria. Such was his love for music he continued his passion for composing for the guitar without actually mastering the instrument himself. Remarkably, his compositions were transcribed from braiLle notation into musical notation for publication. He was a family man, happy and inspired to be able to follow his passion for music despite his difficulties. When he died in 1999, aged 97, he was one of Spain’s most loved and celebrated personalities. The state had bestowed upon him the highest individual honours available for his achievements. In 1991, he was given the hereditary title of Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez. Although born in Valencia, poetically his body was laid to rest in Aranjuez. At any time during his early life, Rodrigo could easily have said to his mum or dad, this is too difficult. I don’t want to do it. Thankfully, he did not. Who knows what the human spirit is capable of?
Speaking with gravitas
Sir Isaac Newton tells us why
An apple falls down from the sky
And from that fact it’s very plain
All other objects do the same
A brick, a bar, a bolt, a cup
Invariably fall down, not up
And if at work you drop a spanner
It falls in a downward manner
This extract of a poem is taken from a 1960’s Public Information Broadcast which accurately and elegantly explains the beauty and dangers of the universal law of gravity. Every time we sit in a chair, every time we pour milk on our cornflakes, every time we catch a ball we are inadvertently applying the laws of gravity. As children, we begin our rudimentary understanding and as we grow older we are instructed formally at school. There are laws in public speaking that fundamentally apply too. It is impossible for us not to communicate, so it’s essential that we understand the laws and ensure that we are leveraging optimally.
Here are three laws that fundamentally apply to public speaking:
1) It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it.
2) Know your audience (what’s in it for them).
3) Plan, prepare and practice
1) This is quite easy to illustrate and demonstrate in class but much harder to describe in the written form. In a nut shell, the most effective method of winning with an audience is to put your heart and your energy into it. When the audience sees a speaker giving it 100%, they appreciate it and warm to you. Give a piece of yourself, open the window slightly and invite them into your world. It’s okay to be vulnerable. Empathise with your audience and meet them where they are emotionally. Creating rapport can be instantaneous when you share a piece of yourself from the outset.
2) You have been invited to speak. Somebody somewhere believes that you have something of value to share with their audience. Find out their expectations and work towards the goal of delivering something of value. Ask yourself the question, ‘what’s in it for them?’ If you have a thirty minute speech and you only have twenty minutes top quality material, deliver twenty minutes top material. If you introduce fluff and irrelevance to pad out your speech you will commit the biggest sin in business. By that I mean wasting people’s time. The fact that they are there listening to you means that they’re not somewhere else doing something else. Opportunity cost – you don’t need to be a top economist to recognise how busy people are these days. If you can deliver top quality and let them go ten minutes early, you’ll definitely create a good positive lasting impression.
3) Speakers who don’t plan, prepare and practice have every reason to be fearful. Wasting people’s time is bad. You run the risk of people being overtly hostile which can be an unpleasant experience. In the business world, people are incredibly inventive and creative in exposing your future to the rapids. They expect you to know your material, that’s why you’re there and that’s why they are there too. The planning process must begin the moment after you accept the invitation. If you fail to gather your material immediately, some weeks might elapse, opportunities will be lost and that’s when you become anxious and stressed. The clock is ticking and you know that you’re not prepared. Then come the sleepless nights and the cold sweats. At the eleventh hour we start doing some serious research and then start looking for quick fixes or event better, praying for a miracle. At this point I usually receive an email or a phone call and that’s fine. Because now, you’re taking action. The moment you start moving towards your goal (no matter how late), you’re in with a chance.
You are not afraid of speaking in public, you are doing it all the time (informally) in our family and busy lives. But something strange happens when do it formally. We suddenly start to feel anxious, feel that we’re not good enough, not prepared enough and do not possess sufficient encyclopaedic knowledge to kill an entire conference of entomologists. We are afraid of criticism. We are afraid that somebody will say that it wasn’t that good. It invokes memories of embarrassing tests at school where we had to stand up in front of the class and recite poems and pretend to be something we were not. As a child our ego is quite fragile and the public humiliation and the mocking of our contemporaries does nothing for us as adults as we make a step forward. The amygdala is holding on to this memory for you and it’s scanning every opportunity to alert you to the dangers of public humiliation.
That’s what it looks like and that’s what it feels like and it makes sense not to want to go beyond our limits of competence or experience. Now we’re stuck in a catch-22 situation. Not wanting to step forward because of lack of experience and yet how do you deliver stage time without making speeches regularly?
The first thing to recognise is that your ego is only on the line if you put it there. That’s a choice that you have made. Could I suggest that you see making a speech as a learning opportunity? Gather your material, structure it logically and practice the delivery. If it doesn’t feel good as you practice, be prepared to experiment. Sometimes just moving a section up or down the priority list can have a significant impact. Ask for feedback from the organiser or ask a friend to come along and evaluate you. No matter how good you are, it can always be better. But that does not mean your ego is on the line. It means that you’re involved in a continuing development process that will last for years. There will be high points and there will be days when you crash and burn. The most important thing is to take some valuable learning points away from each speech.
My wife is a wonderful cook and she becomes quite anxious about preparing new dishes. So she plans the recipe, ensures that she has all the ingredients and cooking vessels and she gives it her full attention. Occasionally, she strikes a hole in one though more often than not, the dish needs something extra or a little less of something else. Either way it’s a meal and a learning opportunity and we both know it will taste even better next time.
I made my debut for the school football team aged nine years old as goalkeeper. This role was bestowed upon me for the simple reason that I was quite tall for my age, remarkably agile and brave to and beyond the limits of stupidity. I dreamed of winning, becoming a hero and holding court on my achievements. But the best placed plans of mice and men rarely work out. In the warm up five minutes or so before the game began I managed to dislocate two fingers in my right hand. Throughout the game I was in intense pain and dreading the ball coming near me. We subsequently lost 2-0. I cried all the way to the casualty department, partly because of the pain and partly because of the defeat. The kids would take the mickey about my conceding two goals. My dreams were crushed and I could forget about bragging rights and holding court.
The following day I arrived at the school playground early and there were children asking me about my bandaged fingers, and if I was in pain then nobody seemed particularly bothered about the result. Indeed I noticed that the children who were not in the team held me in high esteem because I was actually involved in the action and not watching from the side lines. This was a new experience and a new insight. People like people who do things. Anyone can be a pundit or an armchair critic. What the world needs is people who go out there, put there neck on the line and make things happen. Only people who make things happen get talked about. Only people who take risks get results. We won our next game 3-0. No breakages or bandages and little holding court. There were lots of pats on the back and ‘well dones’ but nothing significant in view of a 3-0 victory. Win or lose, the world continued spinning on its axis. The sun went down and the following day it came up despite the results of a game of football, an exam result or a trip to Blackpool. Perhaps I was not as important as I had believed. Perhaps I was not at the centre of the universe as I imagined. Perhaps I was more important than that.
As a footballer, some weeks my team would win and some weeks we’d lose. Winning 10-0 didn’t make you a hero and losing 10-0 didn’t make you useless. What is most important in both the results is your personal contribution; your preparation, your desire to succeed, your technical prowess and your ability to adapt and master different and difficult conditions. You might also want to consider your ability to bring out the best in your team mates and create an environment of trust and support. In football, goals are conceded, and golden opportunities to score are squandered. The blame game does nothing for team morale and nothing for personal growth. All that a manager can ask of any player is that he gives it 100% each and every week. Your ego is only on the line if you put it there. Why would you put it on the line?
If you look at top footballers and ask them what’s happening in their minds when they’re playing, they will honestly answer, ‘not a lot’. This is a great answer because it allows them to play their game (and it’s the strength of their game that has made them successful in the first place). Ask a player who is under scrutiny from the press or from his manager about his performance and you’ll receive a completely different response. When you go out to play and feel that every move, gesture and contribution is under the microscope, that’s going to weigh on the mind. You need freedom to be yourself, do your own thing and express yourself. If you go out there with a mental checklist and the objective of trying to please everybody – you will fail and that will create even more mental baggage next time you go out to play. There is no script with football and the experience of playing is 100% dynamic. Everything that happens is based on fitness levels, instinct and the ability to read the game. Footballers must be allowed to play to their strengths during that ninety minutes otherwise they inevitably under perform.
In the business world, trainers are sometimes told to create a ‘persona’ and become one of the mouthpieces of the organisation and that they should think, feel and see the ‘organisation’ through business tinted glasses. They have performance reviews with their managers who have rarely been in class with them and often would not have the experience or technical savoir-faire to evaluate them effectively. This creates obstacles and contradictions in the mind of the trainer which are unwittingly revealed in class. On the surface, your role as a speaker/trainer is to go out there and deliver education/training. If there’s something else on your agenda like scoring higher marks with your students or trying to impress the boss for your next quarterly review, that could easily get in the way and thus create an inner turmoil.
It’s difficult to play your authentic game when you’re trying to tick other people’s boxes and win their approval. The compromise is that you might have to give away a large part of yourself, your personality or your creativity to achieve these goals. This can leave you feeling empty or torn. Already, you’re not looking forward to next week’s class because you’re unsure which part of you will be allowed to turn up and deliver.
Andy Murray – Wimbledon Champion
Was it not a wonderful experience to see Any Murray win Wimbledon 2013. As a 54 year old, I had never experienced a British player come close. Roger Taylor and Tim Henman always looked like they had the strokes and yet never made that final step. That said, Andy Murray’s rise to fame had tortuous moments where we thought this star would never rise. Forever the bridesmaid, it seemed (which is an unfortunate metaphor but I hope he’ll forgive me). What we have learned from Andy Murray is tenacity, dedication and purpose. During his early career he was dogged by injury and bad press reviews. The press did not like him but really he was just a child out there swimming with sharks. Imagine travelling the world alone as a teenager. Imagine the responsibility and expectation on his shoulders. Most teenagers struggle to get out of bed and go to school. Once he became part of an established outfit and he was taken seriously as a professional tennis player, he did what needed to be done. He worked at his game both on and off the tennis court. He suddenly developed a game plan for interviews which works well with the press, win or lose. All the injuries, put downs, lost matches and tournaments led him to a US Grand Slam victory, an Olympic Gold Medal and a Wimbledon singles trophy. It took several years of fighting it out on court before he found that winning formula. Did he have doubts and concerns about whether he would successfully take that final step into the record books and our sporting hearts? Of course he did. How many times have we seen him defeated, crushed and emotional? His progress is followed by millions of people and they (we) want him to be a winner. But we don’t think any less of him when we see him lose because here’s a man who is giving 100%. You can feel how much energy he’s giving, win or lose and people respect that. We want him to be a success, we want to believe that as a nation we can create a generation of top tennis players who can dominate the sport.
What has this got to do with public speaking? Well, in tennis, football, rugby and all competitive sports there are usually opponents trying to stop you doing what you must do to win. They can upset you, foul you, intimidate you, knock you out of your stride, knock you off the ball. Even chess players of years gone by have hired private detectives to dig the dirt on their opponent’s mother in order to create headlines and land a psychological blow on the mind of their opponent. In the 2012 Olympic Games the French cycling team were complaining that the British team had some type of technological advantage. The British team responded by joking that their wheels were even more round than their competitors. The French seized on this (despite the British teams’ bicycles being manufactured by a French company). Mind games are for losers. When we’re losing, it’s easy to complain about the opposition and what they’re doing. Analysing what makes others successful is a good strategy. What can we learn from them and how can we adopt and adapt their practices into what we’re doing well? When you’re focusing on the wrong issues it’s hard to get the results and outcomes you’re looking for. As a speaker, we need to focus on our own planning, preparation and practice. Find your message, work it well and deliver it with confidence. Stay away from the mind games and psychological banter of competitors who will try to fill your mind with diversions and doubts. Just stand up there, be proud of who you are and what you are. The only thing that can obstruct you are your thoughts. You’re more than enough for anyone and any audience. Even if it doesn’t go as well as you hoped, remember that you don’t have to discuss your performance live on TV with Sue Barker two minutes later when you’re feeling tired and emotional.
The wheel of fortune
Imagine you’re having a nightmare and the story goes like this: you find yourself in a London casino and you have arrived with a large suitcase full of £20 notes. You’ve sold your house, your car and you’ve cashed in your substantial investment portfolio. Your wife and children are still concerned about your wild mood swings and why you’ve sent them away for two weeks. The next stage of the plan is to play roulette and place all of your chips on a number that you haven’t yet decided upon. I am becoming tense just writing this because as high risk plans go, it’s one of the worst I can imagine.
I tell you this because one of my students, Peter, told me his story. Thankfully, he didn’t sell his house or car or send his family away. But he told me that his next speech to his directors and colleagues was of this magnitude. I didn’t know the chap so well but I imagined that he had a really high-powered job, and when I asked him about his work it didn’t sound particularly exciting or high-powered. I was curious and asked him about the stakes in this game and what would happen if he succeeded this speech? So the odds are 35-1 against and his answer was, ‘Nothing’. Nothing would change if it all went well. And if the speech didn’t go so well, he said he would lose everything. The word everything could suggest that he lost all his worldly possessions including the clothes he stands up in, the love and respect of his entire family, and his company car and executive expense account. But ‘everything’ meant none of that. It turns out he might miss out on a promotion sometime next year maybe, when if [conditions at work change] possibly, in the deep mid-winter could occur, and that Hayley’s comet collides with mars and aliens are found on the moon…
This to me is one of the most awful, disappointing and excruciating stories I have ever heard. It is mental torture from start to finish. None of it stacks up. It sounds completely made up. And yet if you’re telling yourself this story day in day out for months, could you imagine how real it becomes? We create our lives (our reality) through our thoughts moment to moment and if this story is running on a loop for any period of time it starts to look real. This whole story is thought induced. I was so glad that we could identify the falsehood and then create a strategy based on real life facts and events. What I found disturbing was his premise that his whole sense of normality and personal security was wrapped up in some mid-management job role and that without that job or what it brought him, he could not function as a human being. That premise had to be challenged.
I have been in personal relationships which ‘I believed’ were wonderful and yet ended abruptly, painfully and disappointingly. I have had relationships which I ended prematurely for fear of increasing pain further down the line. Every bad experience, although not welcomed at the time has proven to be an opportunity. Other things and better things came along and disappointments although painful have provided the platform for new and exciting life experiences. Had I not had all these experiences both good and bad, when my wife to be came along, perhaps I would not have been ready or available to welcome her into my life. And where would my life be now?
In my professional life I was once fired from a good job and I was also made redundant from a good job which really hurt. I have had jobs that I loved where the contract sadly ended and jobs that I disliked where I was so relieved for it to be ended. If you ever lost a job on the basis of one speech, I would suggest that it was the wrong job for you. As human beings we all need support and direction. If you’re job doesn’t offer that support, there are millions of great jobs and great companies out there that do. Nothing can crush your spirit. It is unassailable. Your life is not dependent on your next speech whatever you tell yourself. That’s just a story.
Titanium – David Guetta
You shout it loud
But I don’t hear a word you say
You’re talking loud, not saying much
I’m criticized, but all your bullets ricochet
You shoot me down, but I get up
Nothing to lose.
Fire away. Fire away.
Ricochet – you take your aim
Fire away. Fire away.
You shoot me down
But I won’t fall
I am titanium
You shoot me down
But I won’t fall
I am titanium
You shoot me down
But I won’t fall
I am titanium
As a child I was obsessed with football. Watching football, playing football and dreaming about football filled every waking moment of my day during the football season. Football was a big issue for me. Apart from school and football there was little else in my life about which to be excited. Although I didn’t go on to raise the FA Cup, I dreamed the dream often enough with my brothers and with sporting friends. I was invited by so many others to celebrate that moment of sporting victory and raise the trophy/any trophy. I also had this dream of scoring goals with diving headers, being picked up from the muddy earth and having my back patted relentlessly by teammates.
In the summer I was keen on cricket. I would walk down the corridor at school with an apple in my hand and then pretend to bowl an off-break. Although I didn’t own a cricket bat until I was 14 years old, I would also spend time blocking famous fast bowlers’ efforts while demonstrating exquisite technique, supreme control and then look back at the bowler with my eyes asking him the question, ‘Is that the best you can do?’ Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lilley were tired of me when I was a teenager. At that time, I had no idea that my actions would one day be codified as visualisation. My somewhat childish day dreaming all seemed so natural, sensible and joyous and after the actual game where I had performed an action that I had so often mentally rehearsed, my mind could not separate the real action from the mental rehearsal.
Visualisation is a technique that has been used by top performers, athletes and artists for centuries, long before the science caught up with its simple and effective usage. Quite simply, you close your eyes and observe yourself doing whatever it is you want to achieve. If you want to see yourself delivering a speech to your department of 100 people, visualise the room, the audience, yourself (and what you’re wearing) and see, hear and most importantly feel the speech. How did it go? It sounds so silly and ridiculous that you wouldn’t dream of wasting your time on this, would you? Well, I know that it works for me and it has worked for millions of others too. Now that you know about visualisation, try to resist it. It’s not easy, is it?
Many years ago I delivered an IT training session for the British army in the Midlands. I was expecting it to be in an office somewhere with clients dressed informally. It turned out to be in a cold aeroplane hangar with men in battledress calling me Sir. That took me by surprise and after the initial shock of being called Sir after all these years I calmly set about my work. A few months later when I was invited back, it all seemed quite normal. I could visualise the scene and I was mentally prepared. No shock to the system this time. My mind had accepted that that was the norm and off we went.
I mentioned earlier about the science – here’s how it works in a nutshell. The subconscious mind can’t tell the difference between reality and what you put in there. As you’re visualising the scene your subconscious mind thinks it’s real. So, my suggestion is that you see yourself delivering a sublime performance. You’re totally calm, in control and you’re having a conversation with your audience that they find incredibly valuable. It works every time for public speakers so long as you do the planning, preparation and practice. You still need to do your work. The visualisation process helps you see yourself delivering the fruits of your labours.
In 2012, my dream of beating Usain Bolt in the Olympic 100 metres finals was scuppered by the following factors:
I hadn’t attended a track session for 30 years
I have an arthritic hip and I am 10 kilos overweight.
At my physical peak 30 years ago my best time for the 100 metres was 12.45.
I didn’t send the selection forms off to the British team.
Joking apart, my suggestion around visualisation and what is physically possible is important. If I couldn’t run sub-10 seconds 30 years ago, no amount of visualisation is going to help. Don’t blame visualisation if you’re not getting the results you want if it involves physical activity. Although I often run the mental video of my 100 metres victory in London I struggle to get over the look of shock on Usain Bolt’s face. He’s still angry and wearing a scowl at the medal ceremony. “It’s just a race Ussain,” I tell him from the top of the podium. At this point I have crossed the line from visualisation to abject fantasy which is something of a trivial pursuit although mildly entertaining for the elderly.
Camel Traders – Anthony de Mello
Along the way a camel trader buys a young, strong and expensive camel and suddenly realises he will have to make a new tether to secure the beast in the desert overnight. He is particularly delighted about this rare breed camel. He is impressed by its noble features, its physical presence and its unique colour. He thinks it will make a great present for one of the wives of a business partner. However he becomes distracted by more passing trade and the thrill of counting his gold coins. He then has to erect his tent for the evening as well as secure the tethers for his existing stock of twenty camels. When all his daily duties are completed he realises that he did not make the tether for his new purchase. By now, all of his tools are locked away and stored and rather than open them up and commence his important project, he pours himself a tea, rolls out his rug and prays. ‘Oh Lord, you know I am a good man, a diligent man and a fair and loving man. Today I bought a beautiful camel and tonight through no fault of my own, I have no means of securing it. If I lose it in the desert I will be upset and disappointed. I have long desired to own such a camel and now you have granted my wish I fear that I may lose it. Oh Lord, can I leave the safety and security of this prized beast in your loving and generous care for this one night?’
The camel trader had barely finished his question when a bolt of lightning strikes the tent and from behind a puff of smoke his God appeared to him and says, ‘Do not ask God to do for you what you would not do for yourself!’
I have a friend, Ted, who for many years has not looked after himself. He is considerably overweight. He’s had several doctors’ appointments, referrals to weight specialists and he’s not making any progress. He is now trying to visualise himself thin and yet refuses to change his lifestyle, maintain a balanced diet and exercise more. What is the problem here? Visualisation or behaviour? If you’re looking for an excuse then we would have to blame visualisation. But in the real world you have to make a concerted effort around the physical aspects of life to derive the results. It’s hard work, determination and a passion for your field of endeavour that takes you all the way to the top. Visualisation is an incredibly effective tool for getting you there and keeping you there, but you still have to do the leg work.
But I know losers who visualise – that depends on your definition of a loser
In the Olympic 100 metres final there were eight competitors all regularly using visualisation techniques. There would be only one winner on the day. I think that if you’re an Olympic athlete you’re a winner whatever happens. If you’re an Olympic finalist, potentially you’ve beaten 7 billion other people to earn your place in sporting history. Win or lose, you’re an extraordinary human being and your use of visualisation will have supported you all the way to the final. On the day, who performs best will win the medals. If you reach an Olympic final and don’t win a medal and you tell yourself that you’re a failure, then you’re a failure and that is a distinction you have created for yourself. An average human being will be in awe of you and if I ever had the pleasure of shaking an Olympic finalist’s hand I would never forget it.
In 1967, the year after England’s football World Cup victory we had a school visit by one of winning team. The player was called Nobby Stiles and he played for Manchester United. I recollect being in the playground on a hot sunny day having my picture taken with a national hero and actually having the privilege of holding a World Cup winner’s medal. You can imagine the impact that had on a football crazy nine year old. I remember how motivational I found that experience. I went home telling my family that I had met Nobby Stiles and my brothers were so jealous that they hadn’t met him. I felt rather special and my next football training session was all the more exciting for it. Mr Smythe our football teacher alluded to the visit for the entire last year in primary school. When I went to secondary school I was still buzzing with the story and probably bored the pants off everybody with it.
As a five year old I can remember being on the bus with my mum, sitting on the top deck on the front seat and pretending to drive the bus. Not so much drive, but steer at least. My mum was advising me not to drive too fast in case the bus toppled over and to slow down every time we heard the ‘ding’ sound because somebody wanted to get off at the next stop. Although I was told about the clutch, breaks and accelerator, as a five year old, it didn’t seem quite so important because that was not the sexy aspect of driving a bus. So I just held the imaginary steering wheel and continued the job of helping passengers to their destination safely. Apparently, to put the breaks on I would pull back and up on the steering wheel. Considering I had never spent too much time watching bus drivers at work, I thought I was showing promise.
As a young man, my family didn’t have a car and I remember sitting in the back yard (we didn’t have a garden either) visualising changing gear for my driving lessons. Foot down on the clutch and into first gear. Foot off the clutch slowly and down on the accelerator. Drive ten yards. Repeat this sequence three times until you come to a junction. Stop and then start it all again. Visualisation and repetition. Two of the greatest techniques in mastering any skill. See yourself doing what needs to be done. Then ask the question of each action – why am I doing this? How does it integrate with everything else? When you understand each movement and how it fits in with the overall activity you will have a working mental model of what needs to be done. What starts off as clunky disparate techniques quickly become successful integrated behaviours that propel you forward. Isn’t that what you want?
The major point I want to make about visualisation is that we seem to do it quite easily, naturally and without too much coaching. That said there are many excellent books on visualisation that have helped me and millions of others. Just remember that the subconscious mind is susceptible to visual stimuli (in fact it’s the most effective way to communicate with it) and it cannot tell the difference between reality and what you visualise. My suggestion always to my students is that they visualise themselves saying the right thing at the right time, most of the time and they are going to receive outstanding feedback.
Stories, anecdotes, case studies and metaphors are all visual in nature and that’s why they work so well in helping students see their issues from a different perspective. It’s also why they should be used extensively in speeches and presentations as you want the audience to see what you say. In doing so you will become more persuasive because the audience will see your evidence and if they agree with it and your speaking will be more fun and easier to remember. You will have greater impact by deploying these techniques.
In class I tell the story of the north-American indigenous people who believe that the brain is broken into two halves, each half owed by a good wolf and a bad wolf. The story begs the question, which wolf wins? The answer to which is simple, the wolf that you feed the most.
Ellie, one of my students who had complained of incessant negative self-talk seized upon this story on the first day of a two day training. On day two when we were discussing mental-shifts and personal breakthroughs she alluded to the wolf story. She said that the bad wolf in her brain totally dominated the good wolf, so over night when the bad wolf was sleeping, she taped up the bad wolf’s jaw and took a mental picture of it. As yet the bad wolf continues sleeping. Today she can only hear the good wolf and it was so refreshing for her.
Effectively, when that negative mental chatter ends, there is room for new and different ideas to step forward and be expressed. When the negativity ends there is a new dawn, bird song and bright sunshine in the distance. There is potential for new thoughts and a new beginning. When you have experienced the power of the light and the creativity that arises from it, there is no desire to return to the darkness.
Imagine an overgrown flower bed clogged with weeds, bracken and nettles. You could plant roses and tulips there but it’s unlikely your work will deliver the benefits you had wished for, especially if you know that the flowers will be stifled and consumed in that toxic environment. You have to do the preparatory work to clear the flower bed of its enemies. You have to make space for the new life and growth to come. By nurturing your roses and tulips they will have ample opportunity to grow tall and strong. It is not surprising that professional gardeners love their work so much. There is a seasonal cycle where planning, good management and timely implementation of their projects makes for a most compelling and rewarding life. Is there anything we can learn from people who create beauty and wonder into the lives of others?
We are only ever one thought away from the resolution to any problem.
I was recently co-hosting the International Festival of Public Speaking, Transylvania and I delivered a session on relaxation, meditation and visualisation. The venue was a hotel within a large pine forest on the outskirts of Sibiu. The weather was hot but down on the forest floor it was cool because of the extensive shade. It seemed appropriate that we should utilise the outdoor facilities for this session because of the proximity to nature. The following evening we all had speeches to deliver at a formal group session in the city centre. I asked the group to focus on their theme for the speech and then specifically on their speech opening. How were they going to open with impact? How were they going to grab the audience’s attention and maintain it? So, we all made notes and mentally rehearsed the opening of our speeches. The feedback from a number of nervous and novice speakers was that because they had now planned how to open with impact they were feeling more relaxed. We followed this with a short practical session to deliver objective, supportive and constructive feedback on their opening statements. Having a plan, executing it and enjoying it makes a significant difference in speaking. If you can exude confidence and deliver value when you speak to an audience, you will be recognised as an outstanding communicator.
Have you ever weighed up the responsibilities of driving on the roads in England? Have you seen the statistics for deaths and injuries? If you did, you might consider taking the bus. It’s much safer after all.
I want you to imagine being a player in a computer game. You’re told to drive a one ton guided missile. You’re given a steering wheel, a gear box and a few pedals. Your guided missile is loaded with several gallons of combustible fuel and you’re allowed to invite your friends, family and colleagues to be passengers. The game is to avoid killing or injuring other road users. Avoiding collisions with other vehicles wins points too. There are many rules like driving on the left, stopping at STOP signs and giving way to traffic coming from the right. You have to recognise speed limits for when you’re driving in town, in the country or on the motorway. Depending on where you’re driving in the world, the rules can change. You have to drive on the right and most of the traffic signs are in a foreign language. If you’re driving in a new country that you have never visited before there a million or so new variables. Every road, every twist and turn is either a new adventure or a torturous experience, depending on how you see it.
To be honest, if I had to read the rules of that game I would get so bored, so quickly, I would not bother playing.
Have you ever read the instructions to a board game like Monopoly? I hope not. It’s so much easier to play by watching and doing. Take a few rounds where you test out the rules over the board, and then reaching the point where you want to play for real. It’s so much easier to learn something experientially than by merely reading the rules.
How many of you feel comfortable behind the wheel of a car? Most of you? Those that don’t, I’m assuming that you haven’t passed your test yet. But pass your test you will. And I say that in all confidence that everybody who is intent on passing their driving test, will in fact pass it, eventually.
You will persevere. You will study. You will practice in your driving lessons and you will do whatever it takes, because I don’t have to sell you on the freedom that passing your driving test brings. You know that when you have your own car, you can drive anywhere you want, when you want. You can taste the freedom. Look at your friends, family and colleagues who drive. They’re so cool and confident when they say, I’ll pick you up at 7.30pm.
Everybody gets that fact that you have to study and practice with driving. Few people get it immediately that learning to speak has the same principle. You’re not going to understand the complexity at a moment’s notice, though it is important to understand the basics. With driving you utilise hand-eye and leg coordination. Your brain is processing vision, sound and distance moment to moment and in busy traffic with multiple lanes there’s a lot happening. At first it’s quite intimidating. Those lorries and vans seem to come closer and closer, they seem hostile and yet they’re not. Theoretically, the Highway Code is a great companion, but it’s not a friend you can turn to when you’re in the wrong lane in a busy one way system and nobody is letting you out. It’s a learning experience. Go around the loop and this time ensure you emerge in the correct lane. Painful I know, and once it’s done it’s done. You’ll remember next time too. We make mistakes and we learn and we learn and we continue to learn. Remember you’re driving a ton of iron with several gallons of fuel. That’s a massive responsibility we undertake every day and we undertake it willingly and we put our children in the back seat, sing to the sounds of the radio, light a cigarette, send text messages and argue with our partners about what we’re having for dinner. (Leave the cigarettes and mobile phone in the glove compartment). After a while being in the wrong lane doesn’t seem quite so intimidating. Let people honk their horns and make obscene gestures. They’ll get over it and so will you. And no matter how good a driver you become, you will still make mistakes. The sun will set and the next morning it will rise again, as will you. Life and the world will continue whatever happens. You’re not as important or as fragile as you may think you are.
I’ve never really been one for affirmations. I like inspirational quotations and there is no shortage of them. Quotations make you ponder, think and reflect. Affirmations are used for creating a positive line of communication between you and what you want to achieve. ‘I can do it’ is a good affirmation.
Many years ago I read a book called I’m ok – You’re ok by Thomas A Harris MD. I don’t remember that much about the detail but I do remember the one major point that resonated with me and that was that I have always felt that as a person, as a human being, I’m okay.
By that I mean I’m not useless (although I could always be better) and there is certainly nothing outstanding about me (although that’s not true either, I am exceptional at some things). On a day to day basis I feel okay. Some days I do the most wonderful things; deliver great classes, win bids and contracts and take my daughter to new activities and adventures. I love days like that and when it happens and when it’s happening I’m okay. Some days it doesn’t go so well, I have Internet access problems, telephonic problems (bad reception or noise pollution) or a disagreement with my wife or daughter and I think that’s just part of every day life. Things will self correct and return to normal and I’m okay with that too.
I set high expectations for myself these days. If I’m not in class or working with a client I’m reading a self development book or listening to an audio or writing a book or preparing a lesson. When I’m involved in productive activities I’m okay. If I’m hanging on the line speaking to a call centre who are seemingly reluctant to help me, I’m not okay and I think about the wasted time and what it’s cost me. After a short while of reflective thinking my mind self corrects and I’m okay again.
When I’m okay, things happen, things shift and mountains move. When I’m okay I make good decisions, my mind and my thinking are balanced. That’s the time to make decisions when the mind is in good shape. If you’re in a low mood or not feeling okay, could I suggest that you don’t make big decisions? Hold off until your mind has self corrected. Don’t make big decisions under the influence of alcohol or anything else that makes you high because you’re not seeing it straight. If you’re on holiday and overly relaxed on alcohol a street rep might try and push you into a taxi to take you down to the local time share development. If you’ve already had a few drinks, turn down the offer of further champagne.
Only make big decisions when you’re okay, balanced and seeing things clearly. The highs and lows of mood are bad for you in the decision making process.
As an affirmation, I’m okay is a good one. It keeps you grounded and on an even keel. You don’t suffer the highs and lows. People tell me they love the highs (it makes them feel alive) and I understand that, and the same people tell me that the lows can take weeks to overcome. They don’t like the lows, although it’s a really good moment to remind yourself that you’re okay still.
Could I suggest that you avoid negative affirmations? My former friend Ian bashed his sub-conscious with the affirmation, ‘I am not depressed’. He had the habit of discussing his affirmation with lots of positive people and he couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to discuss it with him. It’s always best to frame things positively like, ‘I’m happy, I’m capable, I’m alive’.
Imagine for a moment that you’re in a meeting at work and you’re surrounded by colleagues and clients. Each person in the room has to stand up and deliver a short briefing on individual, team or project progress. As the action comes closer and closer you start to feel that the butterflies in your tummy tunnelling their way out. We call this creeping death syndrome. As the conversation creeps around the table you become more and more nervy.
Here’s what to do. Take a deep breath in and as you do so, in your head count to three. Then hold your breath for three seconds. Hear yourself count ‘One – Two – Three’. Then exhale for three seconds. Listen for the counting and finally pause for three seconds. It’s called square breathing. I have been using it for years and students find it incredibly effective. Firstly it takes you into a clearly defined breathing pattern. You have to concentrate deeply to make it work. As you concentrate and breathe, your mind swings away from your speech and helps calm the nerves.
This simple technique derives one of the biggest payoffs in overcoming the fear of public speaking. Utilise it when you’re not planning to speak and notice how effective it is when you need to speak. The calmness you’re looking for is just a few breaths away.