Fear and Demons

Presenting with Passion  – Telford and Wrekin District Council

The first part of a Presenting With Passion day usually consists of a series of games and exercises around fluidity and ease of speech.   I do this for fun and energy, and also to give people the confidence that they actually can speak without preparation and notes.  One or two of the games I play in this section require people to respond very quickly.  The game will go faster and faster until people cannot keep up, which enables them to “fail” at a simple task, and to realise that “failure” can be fun, and doesn’t actually matter.  This is tremendously liberating, and leads to enhanced bravery later in the day.

Occasionally, it goes differently.  Some people become very anxious by the “failure”, and put further pressure on themselves to “succeed”.  This in turn increases their anxiety, until their mind goes blank and they “fail” repeatedly.  This leads to some very useful and revealing discussion around the assumptions we make about what is expected of us, the kinds of pressure we put on ourselves to “be perfect”, and the paradoxical negative results of that self-imposed pressure.  I then give players explicit permission to “fail” as spectacularly as they can, at which point the standard of play invariably improves.

During a training day at Telford and Wrekin council, one participant became increasingly upset during this game, and despite encouragement to relax, to not care about the result, to just go with the flow, she became more and more blocked, and finally announced she couldn’t participate any more and left the room pretty much in tears.  I am pleased to say that she made the brave choice soon after to return and continue, and actually excelled and made great strides in the later parts of the day.

However, what surprised me was what she wrote on her First Level evaluation form at the end of the day.  Alongside the more positive comments, she wrote that she could have done with “less pushing and a bit more care during the first hour”.  Which means my gentle suggestions of, “don’t worry about the outcome”, “allow yourself to get it wrong”, “we don’t care what comes out of your mouth” etc.,  all intended to reduce the anxiety and pressure so that she could participate more easily, had somehow been interpreted as “pushing and lack of care”. 

This is a really useful reminder to me how much we externalise the internal demons that block us.  Speaking in public is a stressful and fear-producing activity.  But like all stress and fear, it is caused not by external events, but by our beliefs about those events.  A tiger does not make us afraid.  Our fear depends on whether we believe it is safely contained behind bars, or is free to represent a direct threat to us. And yet we prefer to simply say “the tiger made me scared”, and deny any responsibility.  In a similar fashion, people often project their fears about making presentations on their audience, their material, their situation, their status.  It is much easier than acknowledging that our anxiety is self-created and can therefore, with the right tools, be self-defeated.

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