What Exactly Do You Mean When You Ask Me To ‘Just Be Myself’?

 A recent event has reminded me of the importance of clearly setting up the framework within which I operate.

I was invited run a taster session by the Organisational Development department of a university, for a group of participants who were by and large postgraduate members of the lecturing staff.  Early in the session it became clear to me that I was facing a large amount of resistance, something that has never before happened to me on a Presenting with Passion workshop.  I stopped what we were doing, and invited discussion to discover what the problem was.

It turns out that this particular group had very specific expectations of what they would be getting.  They felt that they are placed in a unique situation with very particular problems – that of a lecturer faced with a large student body – and that they have special issues entirely related to their material and their audience.

“We sometimes have to lecture to up to 300 students. They walk in and out, they don’t listen, they play with their mobile phones.” 

They were disappointed that I was not going to hand them a written checklist of dos and don’ts specifically to guide them in how to manage this problem of a large disinterested student audience and technical content.

Given this background of expectation, I am not surprised that they were dissatisfied with what I offered. My entire focus is on the inner state of the presenter, the quality of the relationship between presenter, material and audience, and the emotional journey that ensues.  Experience has taught me that this is the vital area – once this is understood and improved, everything else falls into place, irrespective of the material and the audience makeup. 

This group of academics understandably had a very different perspective. They could not perceive how my approach could address their particular problems as they saw them, and unsurprisingly they were much more comfortable theorising and analysing possible techniques than getting up and trying them (“what exactly do you mean when you ask me to ‘just be myself’?”).

Since that day, I work hard at the beginning of each session to understand the expectations of the group, and then to state absolutely clearly the assumptions that underlie my presentation skills training:-

  • that we are all naturally good communicators
  • that we all already know how to package and present information
  • that in non-stress situations with friends and family we are more than capable of engaging listeners and holding their attention but that these well-developed skills are distorted and suppressed by the stress of standing in front of a group for a formal presentation
  • that this stress and anxiety is a state that is generated internally, by our reaction to the perceived “threat” of an audience. It causes us to lose our natural presence and self
  • that this response is in fact independent of the audience and the material we have to deliver. However, it is very much influenced by our perception and our framing of the audience and the material we have to deliver
  • that the best way to improve performance in presentation is to discover how those stresses manifest to block our natural style, and to find ways for releasing ourselves from those blocks
  • that it is entirely possible to transform the energy of anxiety into a more productive energy that feeds into engagement with the audience
  • that if a presenter focuses all their energy into engaging with their audience, and taking them on an emotional journey, all other aspects of the presentation (voice, eyes, posture, projection, etc.) take perfect care of themselves.

What I have discovered is that there is a major advantage of being very clear about my assumptions and my area of work. Not only does it pre-empt confusion about, and consequential resistance to, my style of intervention, but it also means that participants have now made a powerful and positive choice to work on their own fears and blocks.

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