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Creating Successful Leaders

More than a few people have told me that they marvel at my ability to speak in front of large groups of people with ease. Different versions of “how do you do it?” are the most common questions I get, as they can’t seem to wrap their heads around how a person can remain so calm and composed with all eyes on them.

The truth is, there is rarely a time when I don’t feel anxious leading up to a speaking engagement. I too get the staple sweaty palms, shortness of breath and a heart rate going a mile a minute. Getting nervous before taking the stage is an almost universal experience.

So how do I, or anyone else who does a lot of public speaking, appear composed even while anxious? As boring as it is, the answer is practice. I’ve done it over and over again, and I’ve paid attention to the mistakes I’ve made during past speaking events. Each talk becomes more manageable and less daunting, and usually once I get a couple minutes in, it’s off to the races.

But more generally, what we’re really talking about here is performance under pressure. Clearly, we all experience it and face it in our jobs and in other aspects of our lives, yet some of us seem more adept at handling and overcoming it, while others struggle with the tendency to “choke.”

To Choke Is No Joke

We’ve all seen a breakdown occur, whether it’s witnessing a public speaker fall apart once they hit the stage, sitting through a coworker stumble through a presentation, or simply watching an athlete buckle under the pressure in an overtime game on TV. Recently, the popular film director Michael Bay fell apart on stage at a Samsung press conference after an apparent teleprompter failure:

Case in point: these chokes are hard to watch. That’s because we can empathize with the dreaded feeling of drawing a blank at the exact moment we’re supposed to perform.

There Is Hope For The Choker

Buckling under pressure doesn’t mean you’re weak. It has nothing to do with your skills, talents, or your worth. What it does indicate is that you have the problem of over-thinking the situation at the moment it is happening. Chokers tend to over-worry and obsess over how they’re performing and appearing as they give a speech, a presentation or shoot a free throw. Clutch performers, on the other hand, are able to eliminate all the extra chatter in their heads and focus on the task.

Sports psychologists have found that those struggling with performing under pressure get help by focusing on other things while they perform the task in question. Golfers, for instance, might concentrate on their favorite song while they swing. This helps them find their flow, that point we hit our peak performance efficiency.

Quick takeaway:

1. Practice gives you the confidence to manage your nerves

2. Focusing on pleasant, calming thoughts can help minimize obsessive, distracting thoughts and increase “flow”

3. A little nerves serve as motivation! Take comfort in the fact that your nervousness is proof that you care


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