February 27, 2013
(This article, in its original form, was written in 2009 and posted on my website: www.riverways.com. I’ve since reworked it slightly and wanted to share it in this blog space. The three people described below are each composites of a number of clients who have come through my public speaking programs and services.)
Jane was bright, experienced, and the only female on her work team. Frustrated, she felt that nothing she said at team meetings was taken seriously and her participation was frequently discounted or ignored. When she came to me, she wanted to become more visible as a strong member of her team.
Jim formed a small startup company with 3 other classmates after graduating from college and soon became director of marketing. At first enjoying his work, the bloom faded when his sales force grew to twenty-five, all direct reports, many of them older than Jim. Naturally introverted, Jim wanted to overcome his shyness and his anxiety about age differences. They were limiting his ability to lead with confidence.
Miriam, well regarded in her highly technical field, often spoke to conference audiences of 1,000 or more. With a quick mind and enthusiasm for her subject matter, she tried to cover a wealth of material, talking quickly and packing her slides densely with information. Miriam found that her audiences often had trouble understanding and absorbing the material she presented. She wondered what she needs to do to be more effective at conveying her message.
Each of these people was an expert in their field, with a solid foundation in their subject matter. There was a gap, though, between their expertise and knowledge and their ability to communicate effectively. This gap hindered their ability to be truly effective leaders.
As each of them worked to strengthen their presence using some very simple strategies, they became more influential and respected in their respective fields.
Here are some of the simple essential strategies you too can use to develop your leadership presence:
1. Slow down. By using the breath to slow your thoughts, you will be much more available to the present moment.
This is often the most important step towards developing an effective leadership presence. In this culture of adrenalin soup everything goes fast. Day in, day out, people are besieged by urgent demands on their time – ubiquitous cell phone access, relentless emails, increased workloads, and complicated family schedules – so that they race from one activity to another, attempting to multitask as they go. This state of continuous urgency and information overload is amplified by the racing thoughts accompanying the stress and anxiety that arise when people encounter uncomfortable leadership situations.
Presence arises when you take a deep breath, slow down, and pay attention to what’s in front of you. By doing so, you establish a rhythm and pacing that helps others slow down and become present; and you spark more effective interactions.
2. Embody Presence: Bring all of yourself into a meeting or important presentation, not just your brains.
People with real presence are “comfortable in their own skin.” Presence is a holistic experience, where our entire being – mind, body and spirit – is engaged, not just our minds alone. At the same time, when a person is fully embodied, she authentically engages the human beings in her audience, not just their thoughts.
One simple but effective mechanism for developing body awareness while speaking is to focus on how you are making contact with the solid ground while presenting. When anchoring attention to your physical experience and also connecting with the audience while delivering the message, you bring more of yourself to each interaction. This has the effect of drawing your audience towards you and engaging their interest and regard. It does take practice as it requires multiple awareness’s at once.
3. The power of the relationship: Place a priority on connecting with your audience rather than your material.
This is paradoxical for most people. When asked to give a talk or speak up in a meeting, their focus is naturally drawn to the subject matter and how to convey it. But the truth is that effectiveness as speakers and leaders is less about what is said and more about who you are and how well you connect with your audience. People respond to a message because of authenticity, humanity, and ability to connect. If a speaker focuses entirely on himself and the material, he creates an experience of separation and is not available to connect with his audience.
Instead, if you give careful thought to why you are speaking, what you want the audience to leave with, and how you can be helpful to them, you will “invite” the audience to join you. Ironically, when your relationship with the audience becomes the priority rather yourself, you’ll be less anxious, your thoughts will quiet down, and your audience will trust you more.
Here are several simple ways to invite the audience in:
Maintain eye contact with a soft, receptive gaze even while thinking. Linger with each person, truly see them, say hello to them in your mind as you speak.
Think of it as a conversation rather than a presentation. Speak naturally as if you were having coffee with a friend.
Ask yourself: How can I be of service? Instead of: How can I be perfect and show my expertise?
Let yourself be human! Don’t try to be perfect. Making mistakes is OK, it’s part of human nature. The best way to do this is not to take yourself too seriously. We are the most engaging when our audience sees that we are accessible and human just like they are.
Leadership enhanced with presence.
To enhance their leadership presence, Jane, Jim and Miriam began to incorporate these strategies into their daily interactions. While doing so, each placed special emphasis on one practice.
As Jane became more fully embodied in her meetings, she noticed that while her voice wasn’t necessarily louder, there was more power behind her words and her team members began to listen more and consider her opinions.
Jim started to place a priority on connecting with the human beings on his sales team rather than focusing his shyness and the differences in age, and he found himself more able to align with them and garner their respect.
Miriam found when she slowed down and took a breath between each major point and eliminated much of the detail in her presentations, her audiences were able to absorb more of her message.
In accessing their own natural presence, these three leaders found themselves to be much more effective in communicating their message while enjoying themselves more as well.
December 31, 2010
I was listening to an interview today with Daniel Goleman, who, having previously introduced the concept of Emotional Intelligence, is now talking about Social Intelligence. His current work is looking at how the brain is wired to create connection. The sentence that drew me into the interview today was, “The first ingredient of rapport is full attention.”
“Where we put our attention, that’s where energy goes.” This is a statement that comes out of the Eastern contemplative traditions. In any speaking situation there are always multiple demands on our attention. Often it’s our own fear that commands the most attention. But, if we focus on our fear, we actually amplify it because that’s where all our energy goes.
Instead, what we need to attend to is what we want to say, to the technology we are using to deliver our talk, to the questions that are being asked, to the outcomes we want. Most importantly, though, where we really need to focus our attention is on making a connection with our audience.
When I ask participants in my groups to describe the qualities of people who they’ve experienced as having a great deal of speaking presence, one of the most frequent responses is that they felt as though they were the only person in the room and the speaker was speaking directly to them. This is what happens when the speaker gives their full and primary attention on the individuals in the audience. And, this is what then conveys the experience of rapport.
But how can we create that sense of attunement when there are so many competing demands for our attention?
We allow ourselves to relax into the connection by speaking directly to one person at a time using a soft available, receptive, inviting gaze. The gaze doesn’t have to be long, but it does have to be deliberate. We have to give each person our full attention, however briefly. We have to really see the individuals we are speaking to, not the “crowd”. I often tell participants to think of having a cup of coffee with each person in the audience as they address their comments directly to one person at a time.
When we speak with this quality of full attention, we actually slow down our internal rhythms which then help us to relax. At the same time, our audience is drawn in and feels a sense of rapport, of connection, of being fully attuned with the speaker. These conditions, then, increase the probability that people will listen more fully, attend more fully, to what we are saying. And, paradoxically, this then makes it easy for us to concurrently pay attention to all the other things we must focus on as speakers.
August 16, 2010
Here are some examples of presence that I’ve experience:
- I attended a facilitated gathering of folks recently where the lead person demonstrated a remarkable ability to simply be himself whether he was talking to me one-on-one or talking to the entire group. There appeared to be no separation between his public self and his private interactions and all his interactions seemed casual, easy going, and relaxed while at the same time right-on and very direct.
- Later that week I attended a concert performed by two young singer/song-writers/musicians. The woman of the pair, especially, was mesmerizing whether she was singing, talking to the audience, or “off-line” dealing with issues of managing the sound system. As my friends and I tried to identify what it was that made her so intriguing we agreed that, once again, she was just herself, perfectly comfortable in her own skin, and not trying to put on a good “performance”. She was, though, completely engaged with her songs, her connection with the audience, and what was happening in the moment.
- Just this week I have begun an amazing two week movement immersion opportunity with a professional dance company, Pilobolus, where we are spending a lot of time focusing on this quality I call “embodied presence” when dancers are on stage. What I’ve learned so far is that everything, from the slightest movement of the eyes to the twitch of a little finger, will communicate something to the audience. Dancers on stage need to be deliberate, specific, and conscious of themselves or the quality of real presence is shattered. Even a casual, relaxed smile can be a distraction.
- In several exercises we did as part of the improvisational dance experience in this workshop, I became very aware of letting go entirely of my sense of self as the group of us dancer responded without thought and moved as a collective, a single unit, much like a flock of birds or school of fish. I became aware of a non-personal sense of presence that was held within the group as a whole rather than each of us as individuals. Yesterday, there was a moment when three of us were moving together in a frenzy in the center of the room to some rather chaotic music, when suddenly, with absolutely no forethought or signal all three of us froze in space. In that very same instant, without any warning whatsoever that I was aware of, the music changed, becoming softer. For the second time in two weeks, in two very different contexts, I heard someone use the word “us-ness” to describe this kind collective presence.
- Last night I went to a party which ended with an open mic. In a very casual way, musicians of all sorts stood up and sang and played well known songs or songs of their own composition. There were many very talented people in the crowd. One young nine year old girl stood out for me with her presence. She came to the mic with her guitar in hand preparing to sing and play her own lovely composition. Her feet were planted wide. She stood tall and confidently. Her smile was brilliant. Her energy, passion and enthusiasm was clear in every cell of her body.
So, what is authentic presence really? Each of these examples touches on some aspect. What examples of presence have you seen recently?
June 25, 2010
Has this ever happened to you? You have an important presentation and you’ve done all your preparation. You don’t want to memorize the talk, but you also want to have a clear sense of what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. The morning of the talk you practice it in the shower and you’re really pleased with how it sounds. Then you get to the presentation and your mind goes blank. You can’t remember any of the beautifully crafted words that you had prepared earlier!
Something similar happened to me recently in writing an important email. I had an elaborate and rather complicated email which I had beautifully crafted in my mind while swimming laps for exercise. But when I sat down to actually write the email several hours later, I couldn’t remember a word of what I’d crafted in my mind.
I struggled for a while trying to recapture it, and then had to let it go and start from scratch by deciding to be real, direct and simple in my communication. In the long run, what I actually wrote was far better than what I had planned to write.
A couple of things stand out for me in this experience. The first is that when we get very attached to saying things a certain way, we actually create the conditions for forgetting what we have to say. Several years ago I wrote an article that expands on this idea which you can read by going to www.riverways.com/articles/tao-9.htm.
The other thing that I learned most specifically from this writing experience is that the best message when we allow ourselves to be real, simple and direct. So often, in coaching clients, I have to help them simplify their message. People tend to want to share everything they know and they cram way too much information into the short time they have to speak. They also think they need to be perfect and professional in their delivery, and so put on a persona and are not themselves.
My question to them always is, What’s the key message you want your audience to leave with? And, very simply, what are the key points that will help them understand that message? My coaching with them is then focused on how to convey that message in the simplest and most direct way possible. And, to just be themselves when they do the presentation.
The beauty of this approach is that whenever you find that you’ve forgotten what you were going to say, you can bring yourself back very quickly to the purpose of the talk by reminding yourself (and maybe your audience) of your primary message and remembering the simple key points that you wanted to be sure cover.
Are you wondering how you can design talks that are simple, direct and effective? If so, check out my programs and services at www.riverways.com/programs.htm. Most specifically you might want to consider some private coaching to help you craft a message and delivery plan that will be easy to remember and effectively convey your message.
February 17, 2010
Somehow, as much as I’m trying to slow down and simplify my life, I always seem to be in a hurry.
Every time I do my laundry I’m reminded that hurrying through my tasks isn’t the most efficient way to get things done. I always seem to want to quickly empty the lint filter in my dryer before starting a new load of wet clothes. But this filter needs a gentle touch and doesn’t move easily when I try to pull it out in a hurry. Almost every time, after my first aborted attempt, I have to take a breath, get loose, slow down and softly lift the filter out of its frame. I can’t force it out or do it fast.
I have a stainless steel water bottle that I take to yoga class with me. I love the color and shape, but the top is a problem. I can unscrew it easily, but it requires a lot of focused attention when I try to screw the top back on. It goes off track very easily and this is a problem for me when I’m trying not to take too much time out of my yoga practice. I’ve found that I have to consider the act of taking a drink of water another posture, if you will, and to have the same quality of soft attention as I do every other posture in the class.
I’ve learned something similar from my electric toothbrush, which from old patterns with manual tooth brushes, I automatically apply pressure and move the brush up and down in rapid motions as soon as I turn it on. The speed and pressure of this gesture is really counter-productive when the toothbrush is already doing it for me. Invariably, I have to remind myself to relax my grip and slow my brushing motion down so that the electric brush can do the work.
The ability to slow down and be gentle with ourselves is key when we feel especially anxious prior to or during a presentation. This anxiety is especially apparent when the speaker is working too hard, pushing out his/her content, and talking very fast.
Instead of reacting to the urgent anxiety that causes people to speed up, my clients learn to slow down, take a breath, soften their internal environment and relax into their connection with the audience and their content. This most often requires that they take a figurative step back and loosen their grip on themselves and their material.
I often suggest to clients that they use the mantras “Soften into the talk” or “Rest in the relationship” as a way to release the anxiety and find the conversational tone that can be so effective. As I write this, I’m reminded of a Haiku poem that I wrote years ago to help people discover this softened state:
Gaze resting gently
Listening to the river
Essence to essence
If we allow our gaze to rest gently on our audience, our content and ourselves, we establish a way of being that is much less about pushing and much more about relaxing and receiving.
“Essence to essence” speaks to the ability to speak humbly from the simplicity of who we are as human beings to the essential human beings in our audience.
This Haiku can provide a steady reminder to help us slow down, to stop pushing, to stop trying so hard to make something happen, and to simply allow. And, from that place, we can be so much more effective as speakers.
December 16, 2009
“The first few moments of a presentation always terrify me.”
“I know my subject really well and know what I want to say, I just don’t know how to get started.”
“If the first few minutes go well, then I relax for the rest of the talk.”
Statements like these are almost universal. It seems that for almost everyone, how they open a talk causes a great deal of anxiety.
And, when you think of it, these first few moments are daunting. As presenters, we have to accomplish several important tasks very quickly. We have to relax, establish our credibility, engage our audience, and introduce our topic. We have to overcome whatever inertia the audience is feeling having come from some other activity and mental focus. And, we have to do all this despite whatever level of anxiety we have been experiencing building up to the presentation.
In general, jumping right into your talk is preferable to starting with what I call “fluff”; eg., “My name is…” or “Thank you for inviting me to speak…” or “I’m delighted to be here today…” None of these opening gambits will grab your audience nor will they help you relax as a speaker.
For some people a good opening might be to plant their feet before they begin and to feel their ground. For others, it might be to begin talking while walking up to the front of the room. For still others, standing silently to help them connect with the audience before speaking might be the perfect approach. Personal stories often help loosen up both the speaker and the audience. Humor is good for some people, but not for others.
Regardless of the approach, if you’re feeling anxious about a presentation, then what you do to open your talk should especially be designed to help you relax, and as you do so your audience will come along. The rest of the talk can then be for the audience, but the opening is for you. Openings are your opportunity to move from “arrows in” to “arrows out” and to set the tone for your “conversation” with the audience. Ironically, by taking care of yourself, you will also be more successful in engaging the audience.
November 7, 2009
I was having an important conversation with my daughter this week when I became very aware that I was not connecting at all with her. We were standing by a car and I couldn’t find a relaxed, comfortable position. So instead of really listening to what she was saying, I was focused on where I should put my arms and how I should stand to be comfortable. In doing so, I felt separate from her and removed from the conversation.
So often when I’m coaching people to be more comfortable when they speaking, they ask me, “what should I do with my hands?”. Interesting that this is such a universal concern! My response is that we can’t choreograph our movements ahead of time and that the most natural neutral stance is with our arms down by our side allowing natural gestures to arise in the moment, while also eliminating distracting, unconscious, repetitive movements.
But focusing on our arms and hands will increase our self-consciousness which, in turn, leads to feeling less confident. It’s really superfluous and not central to what we want to accomplish. Instead, we need to bring our attention back to our core, our center – to be conscious of self as opposed to self-conscious – and to speak from there.
So instead of thinking about what do to with your hands, try these three levels of awareness:
- Feel your feet solidly on the ground. Find your roots.
- From that grounded place bring your awareness to your belly, your core, to center yourself.
- Then become aware of your back body, your spine, as you bring your attention to your audience. This will open you up to an expanded sense of the space around you,your place in it, and the people in your audience.
As you speak, your arms and hands then become like branches in a tree. They are still when there’s no breeze and move gently when the currents of the air (or the subject matter) move them.
October 30, 2009
In response to David’s comment to my last post about fear arising not at the beginning of a talk but rather 3 or 4 minutes into the talk, I thought I’d share the first article in a 26 week article series I’ve written entitled The ABCs of Presence in Speaking, Leading, and Life! This first article explores the what happens when we become self-conscious and compares it with presence. Here’s the article:
A is for… Arrows of Attention
Recently I had the privilege of watching a lovely young woman at her high school graduation party as she performed a modern dance she had choreographed. A living room had been cleared and we were all sitting and standing within five feet of her “stage.” Not an easy place to perform because the scrutiny was so close!
She was quite remarkable and maintained a strong connection with her movement, the music and the emotional tone of the dance throughout her performance. Only occasionally did I notice that she became self-conscious and in those brief moments, the sense of presence I experienced dropped away, and instead I saw a young woman feeling a bit awkward.
This was fascinating for me because it so clearly marked the distinction between self-consciousness and presence. When we are self-conscious, when the direction, or arrows, of attention are directed towards ourselves, we often feel awkward, clumsy, and we feel a sense of separation from the outside world. When we are really present, we are fully engaged in the activity of the moment, our arrows of attention are directed away from our ego, and we no longer feel separate, alone, afraid.
This is especially true when we speak in public. So often, we become self-absorbed and fearful about looking inept, making mistakes or forgetting what we planned to say. If, instead, we turn our arrows of awareness towards the people in our audience, becoming open to receiving them, and being genuinely curious about them, we lose that self-consciousness and drop into a shared place with our audience that better serves them (and ourselves).
September 29, 2009
I swim for exercise. I swim in pools that are kept relatively cool so that lap swimmers don’t overheat when they work up a “sweat”.
This means that it’s always hard to get into the pool at the beginning of my swim. Once I’ve been in the water for even one lap, the chill wears off and the temperature feels fine, but the anticipation of diving into cold water always makes it hard.
I’ve found that I’m much better off just not thinking about the water temperature ahead of time. This is especially true as I’m getting ready to leave home on a cold and snowy winter morning because I’ll never get to the pool if I think at all about the cold water awaiting me.
Transitions are always hard. Getting into the cold water is one example. Moving from one project to the next is another. Arriving at a party is another. And, starting a presentation is classic!
Probably the most common statement I get from my public speaking clients is “If I can just get over the first few minutes I’m fine.” Most often, it’s the accumulated anxiety in anticipation of a presentation and the surge of nervous adrenalin when we first get up to speak that make those first few moments so miserable. In fact, many highly capable and talented people opt out of important speaking engagements simply because they dread those first few moments.
It helps to look at these moments from the perspective of transitions. In fact, our brains are designed to automatically become more alert when we move from the status quo, what is known and comfortable, into a new situation.
This is because it’s in those moments that the most primitive structures in the brain must determine if our survival is at stake. If danger is detected, signals get sent that trigger the fight, flight, freeze or appease response and we experience the sweaty palms, rapid heart, and racing thoughts that so often characterize the fear of public speaking. But if it seems that we are safe, there’s no threat, then essentially that primitive brain goes back to sleep and we can go on with our business without interference.
This entire sequence of events is engaged whenever we encounter a moment of transition. And, if we can simply take the process in stride, recognizing that it’s a natural part of our reaction to change, we then simply ride the waves of the anxiety without getting too attached to the feelings, knowing that it will eventually pass.
The problem for many speakers is that they mistake this heightened state of alertness for fear. And, fear begets more fear, feeding off itself, until it becomes intolerable.
To a certain extent, getting over the fear of public speaking is really about getting out of our own way and staying in the present moment.
When I get ready to go swimming I don’t focus on the temperature of the water. I do focus on how much I enjoy swimming and how good the water feels by about the third lap. Then I stay in the present moment. I just take one step at a time. I take the shower to wash off before going to the pool’s edge. I put on my bathing cap. I put on my goggles. And, then just as I put my legs in the water I jump in. I don’t linger, giving the fear its head. Instead, I just go. The first length is cold, but then I start to feel my stride (or stroke) and I’m in the flow and loving the water.
The same is true with public speaking. Instead of putting our attention on our fear and all that can go wrong, we focus on the key message we want to make and why it’s important. We then stay present with what’s happening in the moment. We say hello to people as we enter the room. We focus on the person announcing us. We feel our feet on the ground. Whenever we feel anxious, we simply take whatever next step is upon us. We don’t let the anxiety take control of us. We simply say to ourselves…. “Ah… there you are, just as I expected.” And we don’t attach to it. We don’t give it power. And, as we begin to speak, and settle into the rhythm of our interaction with the audience, the anxiety begins to diminish, eventually melting away, leaving us to fully enjoy our time in front of the group.
April 5, 2009
I am moving! My new home is about one quarter the size of my current home. This is a conscious choice for me as I have begun to realize that the only way we can truly impact our ever growing environmental crisis is to make a much smaller footprint on the planet. And, I have discovered in the past year that a “less is more” approach to living brings me considerable joy!
This process of packing, though, is not an easy one. As I prepare to pack each item, I have to make a decision. Does it come with me, or do I have to find a new home for it? I have many things that have been in my life for a long time. They are important to me. But are they essential? That’s the question I have to ask as I pack. And, if I bring too much stuff with me, there’ll be no space for me to enjoy myself. (There’s a great video by Annie Leonard called the Story of Stuff which is very worth watching!).
In my work as a public speaking presence coach I’ve found that my clients often confront the same issues. Most people feel like they won’t be doing their jobs as speakers if they don’t cram everything they know into their talk… if they don’t fill their time with words… if they don’t provide every single piece of useful information on a slide show.
I would say that the bulk of my work with clients is helping them discover the value of “less is more”.
We begin by discovering the value of silence, learning to be comfortable with pausing so that we can give ourselves a chance to regroup and our audience a chance to take in what we’ve said.
We then focus our attention on the core message. What is it that we want our audience to leave with? Once we have real clarity on that message, we then identify the minimal number of key points we need to speak about in order for them to fully get what we want them to take away. In this process, we often have to let go of many of our favorite stories or much of the detail that we are deeply attached to.
Finally, for those clients who use slides in their presentations, we spend a considerable amount of time eliminating the number of slides and the density of information on each slide. (I’ve written an article on the misuse of PowerPoint called Wake Me When It’s Over! which addresses many of the problems that poorly designed slides shows create.)
One of the many reasons to ruthlessly eliminate information in our slide shows is because too much information on a slide makes it very difficult for our audience to know what to focus on. Should they read the slide (thereby not listen to us) or should they listen to us (thereby not read the slides)? Most of the time, they do neither well and so don’t fully get the message.
As speakers, we need to make it easy for the audience to know where to focus their attention. So, the important question to ask is, what should appear on the slide that will truly support my message? And, we eliminate everything else (if it’s information that you think they need to have in written form, then create a separate document as a handout).
The process of sorting through everything you could say, letting go of most of it, and staying committed to what’s most essential will make it so much easier for your audience to truly hear your message. And, then you might even find that when you do this, you and your audience will truly enjoy the experience.
(Check out my photo blog, www.revealedpresence.com, where my commitment is to post a photo everyday (either from my archives or from a photo shoot of that day) that reveals the presence of whatever I have focused my camera on!)