Thanks to Brene Brown's tweet, I stumbled upon this short video with a powerful message below. As it is Super Bowl week over in the United States, this is a timely message. The PSA was released by the National Congress of American Indians and produced by the agency Goodness Mfg. This two-minute video presentation uses compelling video and historic archive photography along with music and narration to deliver a message that is evocative, provocative, and strong. There are compelling juxtapositions using quick contrasts in imagery and narration right from the beginning which hits you at a visceral level and brings you in. Then the arc builds and the energy rises with mostly positive imagery and narration. The final message is both subtle and direct. It is subtle in the sense that it is never said explicitly in words what the final message is, but the final visuals make the message unabashedly clear.
Earlier this month, Hollywood director Michael Bay walked on stage at CES in Las Vegas to say a few words about his work and to praise the new 105-inch curved TV by Samsung. However, things did no go as planned, and Bay, who seemed uncomfortable right from the beginning, left the stage before his presentation ever really got started. This incident was a hot topic on social media last week and many people were quite unkind to Bay. Still, most people could empathize, or at least sympathize with the man. It does not matter if you are rich and famous or a complete unknown, everyone has their own fears to deal with. The only reason I bring up the Michael Bay presentation is because I hope the incident will remind people that (1) presentation is not easy, (2) fears or anxieties regarding public speaking are normal and affect almost everyone, and (3) it's better to prepare well and speak from the heart rather than to read a script off a teleprompter.
Let me out of here! Merriam-Webster defines a Panic Attack in part as "...an episode of intense fear or apprehension that is of sudden onset and may occur for no apparent reason or as a reaction to an identifiable triggering stimulus [such] as a stressful event." Whatever we call what Bay was feeling at the time, many of us can relate. In fact, many years ago I went through something very similar to what Michael Bay experienced. In my case, I was in Japan and half way through a presentation on stage in front of a large group when my brain just froze up while I was trying to read a short quote in Japanese. I knew the Kanji (Chinese characters) on the screen, but I obviously did not know them as well as I thought and suddenly I felt like I was having a stroke. My talk was completely derailed and I became so nervous that I seriously considered just walking off stage. My fight-or-flight response had fully kicked in. I was absolutely in a state of panic. I managed to just skip ahead in my presentation to a place where I could regain my control. I knew this looked bad but it was better than walking away, though I would never blame anyone for doing so.
In graduate school I actually did walk away in the middle of a panel discussion. The room was absolutely packed and quite hot. While another panelist was speaking—I was up next—I was suddenly overcome with irrational fear. I just quietly got up and exited the room. People probably just thought I was going to the bathroom, but in fact I was "running away" from the situation. My heart was pounding. After a few minutes in the hallway alone jumping up and down, stretching, and then deep breathing, I managed to calm down enough to walk back in and rejoin the panel. I was fine in the end, but the unexpected panic attack worried me for years until I found out through study and experience that it was normal. Although I do not suffer from panic attacks while presenting any longer, assuming I have prepared, I do—like so many other people—have to cope with claustrophobia, acrophobia, and a good deal of irrational worrying about flying.
Happens to everyone As you become accustomed to public speaking and presenting over time you will grow more comfortable and able to be more natural, letting "the real you" come out. But if you are still quite nervous about the idea of presenting in front of others, don't worry, virtually every confident and engaging presenter you see today was at some point earlier in their careers much less sure of themselves in front of a live audience. For example, this clip features Steve Jobs getting ready for a live TV appearance when he was in his early 20s in 1978. This clip is confirmation that everyone can get better and become more relaxed and comfortable with time. But it's also a reminder that it is perfectly OK and absolutely natural for you to feel nervous in front of an audience.
Can you ever be 100% comfortable? In a great little documentary called Comedian (a must for any public speaker) Jerry Seinfeld had this to say about getting more comfortable on stage: "You’re never really comfortable. Even though you may think you are... you really aren’t.” But in time, Seinfeld says, "you learn how to open, how to sustain, how to pace...” and you will get more comfortable.
In the Naked Presenter book (2011) I touched on the issue of nerves. In that chapter a nice two-page callout section was written by my buddy in Australia Les Posen. Les is a Clinical Psychologist practising in Melbourne who uses his knowledge of the cognitive sciences to help presenters deliver their best possible presentations. Below is an excerpt from his contribution to the Naked book which appears on pages 92-93.
Five tips for dealing with presentation nerves by Les Posen "Starting about 60,000 years ago, our brains developed a marvelous system of providing us with remarkable defenses against environmental threats. Sometimes, those defenses are set-and-forget types, such as automatically blinking when a bug hits your windscreen, even though you “know” you’re protected. Other times, an evolutionary newer part of our brain where we make decisions and plans—the part that makes us most human—warns us of an upcoming threat. In the case of presenting, it might be fears of not connecting, or of our ideas not being accepted, or of going blank in front of 500 pairs of eyes. In historical terms, we still possess the fear of what it means to be stared at by so many people: Either we are the monarch, or more likely, we are the next sacrifice! Through evidence-based research and practice, clinical and performance psychologists have developed ways to help suppress these learned and ingrained fears, especially when we know we can perform well if only we give ourselves the chance. There are five interventions I teach and want to share with you:
1. Chunking and exposure. Identify and break down your presenting challenges into small manageable chunks, and deliberately expose yourself to each of them step by step. 2. Rehearsal. Beyond just practicing your slide timings, actually visualize and hear yourself say the words with your slides. You see yourself in front of the crowd and rehearse your presentation to a variety of audience reactions, both positive and negative. 3. Self-talk. Anxiety grabs onto self-critical talk such as “I’ll do a terrible job. What happens if the slide show fails. What happens if they don’t laugh at my jokes.” Your task is not to feed your anxiety with this type of talk, but to change it into “I can do this. I will follow my rehearsed plans. This is manageable.” 4. Arousal control via diaphragmatic breathing. Calm your brain’s fear center with slow, deliberate breaths with slightly longer exhales. Slower rhythm (rather than deep breathing) is helpful for fear management. 5. Deliberate practice. Practice your beginning, identify challenging concepts, and practice, practice, practice—out loud. These techniques work, and I use them myself as well as with clients. They are powerful and will prove useful in scenarios other than presenting."
The tips from Les Posen above are not the last word on dealing with presentation anxiety, but these bits of advice can certainly help. One of the biggest tips to remember as well is to be well prepared. A big source of difficulty comes when speakers simply have not prepared. The only thing scarier than presenting in front of a crowd is doing so while being ill-prepared and unsure of yourself and your content.
A side note: Michael Bay did say the next day in this interview that he would have been incapable of "winging" it since the plan was for him to read text that Samsung had prepared for him, not his own words. Moreover, the script, he said, was being changed at the last minute. This obviously was a very bad idea. Even if things had gone perfectly as planned, it would have been a dry, unnatural and underwelming speech to say the least. The only thing worse than listening to someone read a prepared speech is listening to someone read a speech that someone else prepared.
Last August I took the family back to the USA and Canada to see family and friends for the first time since our mom died in 2010. Our first stop was to see our dear friend Nancy Duarte in Silicon Valley. While visiting the cool new offices of Duarte, Inc., Nancy and I put on this little event and also recorded a short conversation. Below is a 12-minute segment from that chat. Nancy highlights the contents on her website, but I am including the video here as well. One of the things we touch upon is children. I'm much less productive professionally than I was before my daughter was born over three years ago, but I think I have a greater sense of purpose and a clearer idea about what's important and what is not. Since having a son almost two years ago things have become even more hectic, but also more rewarding. I think that having children has somehow changed my brain. This study suggests that perhaps my brain has indeed changed as a result of fatherhood: "A father sprouts supplemental neurons in his brain and experiences hormonal changes after the birth of a child." While my passion for work and keen interest in self-development and teaching and helping others has not declined in the least, I find that more and more things — everything, really — has taken a back seat to the simple idea of just being with my family here in Japan.
This moment will never happen again I still get frustrated sometimes because I want to produce more professionally and to do much better work — to make a significant contribution — but I also do not want to be away from my children. One important thing my children have taught me is to appreciate each moment more, even the seemingly inconsequential ones. Ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会) is a concept connected to the way of tea—it's an idea I have mentioned several times here over the years. Roughly translated the phrase means "one time, one meeting" or "one encounter; one opportunity" or "every encounter is a treasure." It's an idea that reminds us of something all too obvious but often not recognized. That is, that no moment ever happens again, every moment is unique, and we should recognize and be only in this moment. It's an expression that reminds me to slowdown and appreciate each "meeting," especially with my children.
I used this slide above in a talk almost two years ago, when my daughter was 23-months old. In the photo, I was having my breakfast while trying to get through some email at home while my daughter, who I already fed, bathed and dressed, was playing nearby. While I was trying to get some work in and enjoy a cup of coffee, my daughter suddenly climbs up into my lap and takes my toast. Do'h! I could look at it as a kind of workus interruptus, but I learned to just go with the flow and enjoy these moments. Of course, this explains why my email-answering skills have suffered. And yet, that's life.
13-year old Logan Laplante shares how hacking his education is helping him achieve his goals. This video was posted almost a year ago and went viral soon after, but just in case you have not see it yet I'm posting it here. (Thanks to Jay Pitman for the tip.) Back in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson asked us to ponder a fundamental question in this TED Talk: "What's education for?" The implication being that surely one's education is about much more than just preparing to compete for the "best job" possible several years in the future. "Most education is orientated, for better or worse, towards making a living rather than making a life," Laplante says.
The Pursuit of Happiness Laplante says at the start of his talk that if you ask a young child what they want to be when they grow up, they often reply innocently with "I want to be happy." This really resonated with me, and I'll tell you why. When I was a 4th grader at Central School in Seaside, Oregon I remember the day our teacher Mr. Doyle asked us to think about what we wanted to be when we grow up and to write our answer down on a piece of paper (you know, the kind of lined paper with chucks of wood still in it). My answer was "I want to be happy." At that time in my life I was often yelled at by my troubled father at home. Many nights I was not happy at all, even if I did not know what happiness really was. On some nights I was down right miserable. Anyway, Mr. Doyle collected the papers and then began to read some of the short, poorly spelled answers to the class. Johnny wants to be a fireman. Susan wants to be a teacher. Steve wants to be a professional football player. And Garr wants to be happy. "Be happy!?" The whole class erupts in laughter. Ha! Ha! Ha! I felt like Charlie Brown at the beginning of every Peanuts TV show ever. I am sure if my own dog was in the classroom, he too would have mocked me. It was humiliating. I guess I did not understand that game. For the next few years, then, I would learn to feel guilty about just wanting to be happy, until around the age of 16 when I finally came out of my shell at school and had a very happy home life. It was my beautiful mother and a couple of caring, wonderful high school teachers who helped me learn to be resilient and that happiness was indeed a worthy lifelong pursuit.
The Power of Vulnerability (full RSA Talk) Interesting ideas regarding blame in this talk. Brown suggests that blame is a way of discharging anger. When we are listening to someone's story and attempting to make connections to find out who's to blame then we are not truly listening with empathy. But empathy, says Brown, is not scripted, it's not something you can write a formula for and then say OK go out and be empathetic by following some sort of decision tree. Empathy is about being present and wholly engaged without your protective armour. There are not hard and fast rules for empathy, but Brown says that there is at least one thing for sure: No empathetic response begins with "at least" (Something she explains in the short video above as well as in the longer video below).
Since we're on the subject, what about empathy and storytelling? Stephen Apkon suggests in his book The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens that good storytellers are, among other things, empathetic. "All good storytellers, in whatever media, are first keen observers of the world around them," he says. "They see nuance and story in the small details of life, and they possess the skills to convey these observations in compelling ways." All good storytellers, then, do not see the world in a kind of solipsistic way but rather have the ability to slow down and see things from other points of view, and more importantly, from another person's particular point of view. In fact, Apkon argues that learning the language and the tools of filmmakers and other visual communicators can teach young people empathy. "[T]here are three primal components to the experience of media—what we see, what we hear, and what we feel....All three together help develop empathy toward and a connection with the character of a story, which informs children's social and emotional development." I do not know if empathy is wholly innate or if it is learned through education; I suspect it's a little of both. Certainly much has been written about empathy and its correlation with high emotional intelligence (See Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ). No matter how empathetic we may think we are today, certainly we can all benefit from becoming more empathetic listeners, communicators and people in general. I'm very grateful for the work that Dr. Brown has done in this field. I'm not quite the communicator—or the person—that I want to be, but the work of Brené Brown and others is helping me on the journey.