When you think about it, life is a series of presentations, just as a book wrote by executive coach Tony Jeary stated in the early 2000's. Consider a week in your own life: how many “small” presentation do you make? Whether you are talking to your boss, a potential client, your significant other, your kid, the way you present your thoughts and ideas to people have a profound effect on how they respond to you. You do this dozens, if not hundreds of times a week.
The bottom line is that our professional and personal lives can hang in the balance between a good presentation and a bad one.
The first step we must take to become successful when presenting is to develop what I call “the presenter’s mindset”. By understanding a little of the neuroscience behind how our brains manage the stress of presenting and the psychology of positioning our message, we are better able to come across as credible and win over our audience.
Even the most seasoned presenters, and actors, and public figures experience some degree of nerves or stage fright before having to be in the spotlight. This is completely natural. We can, however, calm some of this uneasiness by understanding what is happening in our brains before we open our mouths.
When we’re presenting to people in positions of perceived power, the first thing to kick in is reptile brain. The reptilian brain controls the body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. If you’ve felt heart beating in your throat because of your fear of being in front of the room, or your armpits starting to soak through your shirt when you realize you’ve forgotten to cover a couple major talking points in your presentation to the board of commissioners, that’s your reptilian brain doing the whole “fight or flight thing”.
When we experience presentation stress, the reptilian brain sends signals to your limbic system, which is the seat of your emotions. The limbic system is made of the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The emotions that you feel as a result of a stressor are related to past memories that your limbic system have recorded about experiences related to the stressor. If you begin to panic while presenting, it may bring back unsolicited memories that take you out of the moment. Now not only are you starting sweat through your blouse, but in your mind, a negative chorus of voices starts telling her how much of a fool you appear to be to your audience.
Fortunately, we have evolved from being purely instinctual and emotional beings to individuals who can think and process because of the neocortex. The two large hemispheres of our brain that are the neocortex are responsible for language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. It also allows us to analyze and use logic. When it comes to dealing with the stress of presenting, we rely on the neocortex for analysis and logic, to regulate the primal urges of the reptile brain and the emotions triggered by the limbic system. So when we’re in a panic situation, we can take a step back and assess – do I really look like a fool because my laptop died? OK, I have no slides, now what? What am I going to do so I can keep moving forward?
Looking beyond the science of our brains, we also have to consider the psychological aspect of presenting to an executive audience associated with being a presenter.
In general, we live in our own heads, but this is especially true when presenting to those in positions of authority. We want to look good. We want to demonstrate how knowledgeable we are, how hard working we are, and how dedicated and how impressive we are as speakers. These psychological concerns can trigger the reptilian brain because of the pressure we put on ourselves to be amazing in front of this audience. However, we may inadvertently create a dinosaur of anxiety that triggers the fight or flight response.
Instead we need to be thinking about what our executives are thinking about. Like you, they too want to look good as individuals. They also want to look good as a management team. They want the organization to look good. The difference, however, is that while you are presenting to them, they are thinking well beyond looking good. They might be considering how to we grow market share, or how to leverage the organization's competitive advantage, or how the organization can be more cost-effective.
Our primary responsibility is to take a step back, get out of our heads, and go into the attic of our senior leaders, so that we can think like they think and deliver a presentation that resonates and accomplishes our goals.