When we feel nervous, most of us turn to those old frienemies: our brains.
I’m not talking about our logic brains or our innate creativity - I’m talking about the chatty voices that like to comment on everything we’ve done or might do and what everyone else did or will think about it.
For me, this internal conversation goes something like this:
Why did I say that? She hated it.
HEY, just calm DOWN.
Ok, I’m trying… but NOW what do I do?!
Just act like you’re normal! Think of something great to say next!
While it might make an interesting play, it’s not particularly pleasant to live through.
I work a lot with clients (and myself) on making an internal shift in moments like this. We can sense what’s happening in our bodies, practice a breathing technique, or create a new narrative (such as framing our nerves as excitement).
In addition to these practices, we can also make choices around our external environment to thrive while nervous. These tend to be more concrete, which can be helpful when feeling body sensations or taking a deep breath feels out of reach. We never know for sure what will work for us in a given moment - so here are a few more toys to add to your Nerve-Care Toy Box.
Music can instantly improve our mood - shifting our breath rhythm and energy level or even providing catharsis. Before auditions, it’s very common to see actors with headphones in the waiting room. It’s grounding, sends a message to others that you’d like quiet time, and it can also be an easy way to enter the world of a story. If you’re preparing for something specific, you might think of a piece of music that reminds you of your overall message. Listening requires no effort, and can allow us to “sync up” with the deeper meaning behind what we’re about to share.
Several studies have shown how smell is linked to emotion. If you’re presenting virtually, awesome news! You can light incense or a candle with a smell you find grounding. If you’re communicating in person, you can still use essential oils. And in a pinch, merely imagining our favourite smell can have a similar effect to actually smelling it (try NOT to take a deep breath as you imagine a sea salt chocolate chip cookie just coming out of the oven… or is that just me?).
Cozy sweaters aren’t only for watching Netflix (especially if you’re presenting virtually). If you can, wear something soft that makes you feel nurtured and cared for. Fuzzy socks are also very welcome. In the transformative book "My Grandmother's Hands," Resmaa Menakam suggests rubbing your belly as away to calm the "soul nerve" (also called the vagus nerve - the largest organ in the body's autonomic nervous system, which connects directly to our lizard brains). Soft strokes can send a message that we're safe and resourced.
I almost always bring a mug of herbal tea to rehearsals. You might choose to have a special tea you reserve for presentation days. Anything to make the experience special, and frame it as “get to” rather than “have to.” You can even make a practice of it - every time self-critical thoughts come in, take a long and slow sip to re-center.
When I’m feeling particularly negative, I play the “three beautiful things” game. You look around the room and find three things that are beautiful. It could be the view out of a window, the color of a chair, even your computer background. For an especially advanced version, try this with people. As you walk down the street or gaze out at your audience before taking the stage, find one beautiful thing about each person. Suddenly, they’re your beautiful friends and not the “sea of judgers.”
All of these techniques are an invitation to move out of tunnel vision. And there’s WAY more to explore. If you like, post something you find helpful in the comments!
The year I graduated from college with a BFA in acting, I was determined to be cast in a professional play by Christmas.
Most of my time was spent hoping my agents would get me an audition, freaking out if they did, running to multiple coachings to prepare, throwing my entire being into my 2-3 minutes in front of a casting director, then constantly checking my phone to see if I got a callback.
In November of that year (increasingly frustrated but no less determined), I got an audition for a part I thought was a perfect fit. It was a challenging and beautiful play about a 13-year-old girl with autism. I looked young and was passionate about the material. I was certain this was the one.
I called my Mom after the initial audition to tell her they’d given me a callback on the spot. Looking back over ten years later, I think that was pretty cool. It wasn’t an easy role, and competition in NYC is not slight. “Are you happy?” my Mom asked.
“I’m pending” I said. What mattered was getting cast.
It’s easy to live our lives “pending.” Oh sure, it’s going well NOW. But the other shoe will drop any moment!! Awards, praise, and other accomplishments can even make our self esteem worse. The more we feel we have to lose, the scarier it is to take risks.
And yet, celebrating now may be an essential part of our next opportunity for success. Allowing ourselves to feel joy and relief releases endorphins which we then associate with following through on a challenge. The next time we’re called upon to step forward, we’ll remember that along with potential fear and dread, we ultimately experienced positive emotions. We’re proving to our brains and bodies that it’s worth it.
I’ve been wondering about this in the Zoom world. We don’t have the same opportunity for a “great job” after a talk from someone we pass in the hall or a beer with our colleagues after a big event. Often we might complete a task that stretched us, then click “leave meeting” and immediately return to answering emails.
What is celebration to you? A nap, some ice cream, a walk in the woods? A silent or audible “thank you” to yourself ? You can take a full day or 30 seconds. But some moment of acknowledgment is essential to being a good boss to yourself (and making sure your employee - you - keeps on stepping forward).
I wasn’t cast in the play. But in February (not so long after Christmas) I was cast in another. I looked at the audition as a failure because I didn’t get what I wanted. The cool thing is, though, celebration doesn’t have an expiration date. I’m proud of myself for pouring over the play, jumping into the role, stepping boldly into a situation that many people (including myself, still!) would find intimidating. And celebrating that success simply through writing about it increases my motivation to step into the next audition room/auditorium/coaching session with my whole being, risking both failure and success.
How are you sitting right now?
Are you cross-legged on your rolling chair, like me?
Are you craning your neck and hunching your shoulders, ready to dive into the computer screen?
Are your legs spread wide, your feet flat on the floor, head reaching to the sky?
Are you playing with your pencil?
We’ve all heard that 70% of communication is non-verbal (even if the specifics of the original study are contentious).
Still, many of us privilege words in communication. We’re afraid we won’t know what to say, that we said the “wrong” thing. We may even “rehearse” our words internally before we speak them (any other introverts out there?).
In our neuro-centric world, this makes sense.
But when you think of someone you love, what comes to your mind first? For me, it’s rarely the words they chose the last time I saw them - more often, it’s the sparkle in their eyes or their jaunty walk. I once saw my younger cousin approaching from about a hundred meters away. I was delighted that before I could see her dark hair or hear her cheery voice, I knew it was her - or, rather, my body knew it was her - just by the way she moved.
Our bodies constantly tell stories.
We know that we appear more confident to others when we are standing tall with our shoulders relaxed. But what about the stories we tell ourselves? How does softening our shoulders change our thinking? What about planting our feet on the floor?
Bodies bring up a lot of shoulds, which is the last thing I want to offer you. Instead, I'll invite us to bring a sense of artistry to the way we move. A sense of choice and play.
We’re all walking around with 5ish to 7ish feet of Play Doh. What story would you like to tell with yours today?
Notice how you’re feeling in this moment. Now put that quality into your body, cartoon style! If you’re tired, slump over completely. If you’re energized, start leaping around the room. We’re looking for the bad acting, melodrama version of how you feel.
After a minute or so, let that go and return to a more neutral position. Begin to think of a quality you want to bring into your day. Wisdom, strength, kindness - whatever works for you.
Even if it feels forced, explore the “cartoon” version of that quality. How does your chest respond to courage? How does courage change the pace of your walk?
Let that go; and sit, stand, or walk in whatever way feels natural to you now. Know that these qualities and so many others live inside of you, that you have choice in how you move your body and, therefore, the messages you send to your psyche (and that ANY choice you make is human… and will ultimately connect you to others).
In the year after college, my friends and I decided to start giving each month a theme. There was Anything Goes January (not all that much “went” for the innocent crew we were), followed by Freedom February and Meditation March… you get the idea.
This year - older, wiser (?), and often kinder to myself, I’d like to propose a new title for February... Fun with Failure!
I could tell you all about Albert Einstein, JK Rowling, or Denzel Washington (the later two have excellent speeches here).
Chances are, you’ve already heard a lot of stories like this. But as much as we often know intellectually that failure is good for us, it’s hard to greet the sinking feeling of plans gone awry with open arms. We tend to distract ourselves, blame others, or devolve until self-criticism. It may hurt more than the disappointment itself, but at least it’s in our “control.”
And so, I propose a project for the month: fail once a day. This doesn’t mean to sabotage yourself, but it does mean to put yourself in situations where you don’t know you’ll succeed. Ask someone out, crack on a high note, yell out a window, make an awkward joke on Zoom… you get the idea.
The most important part of this project, though, is what happens afterwards - which is a Celebratory Silly Dance. You may shout “yes, failure!” if this is possible in your location. OR it can be a subtle, internal, “yes” and silly dance. But know this: the more we can welcome failure, the more we can take the risks necessary for success. So the slightest moment of getting to know that uncomfortable feeling is of great value.
“HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO SPEAKING?” You ask.
We don’t remember speakers who are sleek. We remember speakers who got out on a limb and show us their humanity. Otherwise, we would just read the information - it’s much faster.
Before bed each night, you can ask “when did I fail today?” Perhaps jot it down, and celebrate that you are living a life of passion and growth, that you’re creating a story worth telling.
(And yes, I do write the blog posts that I myself most need to read!)
Any description of the past year feels like an understatement, and events of the past week are similarly beyond words.
I've been finding comfort in Pema Chodron's book Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. She writes:
The truth is that we're always in some kind of in-between state, always in process. We never fully arrive. When we're present with the dynamic quality of our lives, we're also present with impermanence, uncertainty, and change. If we can stay present, then we might finally get that there's no security or certainty in the objects of our pleasure or the objects of our pain, no security or certainty in winning or losing, in compliments or criticism, in good reputation or bad- no security or certainty in anything that's fleeting, that's subject to change.
When the outer world feels scary, I often habitually grasp onto something I feel I can control: work, chocolate, self criticism...
And yet, the only true security is accepting insecurity- change upon change upon change.
Of course, this interests me as a communicator. We never know what will happen when we get up to speak. We can practice consistently, analyze our audience and their needs, and clarify our message: all of this creates the conditions for the speech to go well. But the actual speech only happens once (even if you speak the same words another time). And to be effective, we have to jive with mood of our audience, the environment around us, our own internal feelings: like a crazy jam session.
But an awesome thing about a jam session is that you're never alone. When we're present, we can be carried by the moment: it's not all up to us. To speak is to collaborate with an audience, a space, and a message. And that kind of unity can heal ourselves, our audience, and maybe even our world.
Performers look at their whole being as an instrument. There is artistry in the way you call to someone across the street, your posture as you write a job application, and your breathing as you sit in traffic.
The modern world can tempt us to abandon this awareness. We feel constant pressure to “do” from our iPhones and “be” from the flat image of our web presence.
All people deserve to connect with, and express from, their truest selves -- to know that their bodies, voices, and thoughts are an ever-evolving mystery and a means of bringing compassion, awareness, and joy to others.
Ultimately, whether you are at a family dinner, running for office, or playing “Juliet,” your whole being tells a story, and your whole being matters.
Most of us take chronically shallow breaths.
But being told to "take a deep breath" can bring up a bit of... well... resistance.
Instead, I challenge you to breathe like an elephant, from the tip of your trunk to your big, heavy feet.
ESPECIALLY, if you're feeling rushed/ on the spot/ depleted.
You deserve your breath!
Have you recently muttered anything of the following phrases, either aloud or in your head?:
Augh, I’m just the WORST!
I’m SO much better than ________! Why did they pick them?
If so, I want to start by acknowledging the enormous bravery of putting yourself forward in any way, and that frustration/ anger/ discouragement are a highly difficult but often unavoidable part of that process. Please seek help when you need it, and know how many others are struggling alongside you, whether or not you can see them.
If, however, these phrases have a certain tone under them... one of, well, self-importance, I have urgent news for you: you may have been overtaken by your inner ARTÍSTE.
Oh now, you don’t need to be a professional artist to have one of these. We all have them.
Mine wears a black turtleneck and large round glasses, and has an exceptionally long neck. He drinks straight-up vodka and smokes, and he likes to say things like “now the night is ruined!” or “no matter how hard I work, I’ll never be good enough”-- that sort of thing.
Unlike your inner ARTIST (and trust me, you have one of those, too, in any line of work) your inner ARTÍSTE is concerned almost entirely with themselves. I bet you can guess what that “e” stands for-- yup, big fat EGO.
I was lucky enough to be in a show in Charleston, SC the night of my 26th birthday. My parents and grandmother flew out for it from New Jersey. After the show, they took me out to a lovely dinner at a beautiful hotel on a lovely, warm night in one of my favorite pastel-covered cities.
Did I feel overwhelming gratitude to have their support? Hopefully somewhere, deep down. But mostly, I felt depressed and angry. The show hadn’t gone the way I wanted it to. I sat in front of my bubbling prosecco feeling deeply sorry for myself. Who could care about seeing their 80-year-old grandmother when they hadn’t landed all of their laugh lines?
Communication, be it a formal performance, speech, or interview, is extremely vulnerable. It can be highly fertile ground for all of our inner critics, those creatures who simultaneously sabotage us and make us feeling extremely IMPORTANT.
Luckily, the ARTÍSTE has a powerful foe: your ARTIST.
Your artist isn’t speaking to impress people-- they’re speaking because they have a message to share. They know that their vulnerabilities are what will connect them to others. They recognize that so much of communication (and life) is out of their control, and the best they can do is work with the resources they have at the moment. They realize that the person they are after the talk/ show/ meeting is just as important as the one in the spotlight.
Above all, they know that it's not about them, but about the amazing human ability to share information that moves our world forward. That space at the end of their name? It stands for "awe."
I wish you a day full of space for your generous, unpredictable, strong, and majestic Inner Artist to come forward!
After finishing a talk, we're often so ready to get off the podium and onto celebrating/ relief eating/ schmoozing that we mutter "thank you," almost as an apology.
Next time, try taking a breath, looking one person in the eye, and making that "thank you" the most important part of your presentation.
It gives your audience time to process what you've just said, makes you look poised, and recognizes the time people have taken to listen to you.
No matter how your talk went, you've just made the world a better place by offering some sincere gratitude!
How are your feet doing?
Are they cold, like mine always are? Can you feel them tingling? How about your toes clenching?
The furthest body part from our attention-seeking brain, feet often get “swept under the rug,” so to speak- especially when we're about to do something important like give a talk.
And yet, feet hold a super power! If you’re standing to deliver a speech, wait for the bus, or give a cute someone your number, your FEET are connecting you to the ground.
And what an amazing ground it is. It’s roughly 6,370 miles to the center of the earth. That’s a lot of matter on your side (if you’re curious about exactly what’s below you, check this out: http://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/story/20150306-journey-to-the-centre-of-earth/index.html).
Feeling our feet can pull us out of our uber-opinionated head and into the present moment. And everything moving, inspiring, and liberating happens in the here and now (it's called stage PRESENCE for a reason!).
It takes less than a second, and it might remind you that you deserve to be here, on this earth, sharing what matters to you.