Did your nerves overwhelm you at important presentations even though you are prepared?
Do you stumble on your words when you speak to your boss?
Do you have a tendency to forget your script during an important sales call?
The problem may be that you have built a habit of anxiety. This anxiety has nothing to do with your ability level, but simply that you have grooved a bad habit into your physiology. Interestingly some of the greatest people in their field have built a habit of anxiety. Bill Russell is a prime example.
Bill Russell is regarded by many as the greatest team basketball player of all time and has won more NBA championships than any other player. Yet, before many games, he was so nervous that he would get sick and throw up. Bill Russell had conditioned his body to be extremely nervous before every game he played.
The understanding of classical conditioning began about a hundred years ago under the experiments of the Russian scientist, Pavlov. In his famous experiments with dogs, he paired the ringing of a bell with the presentation of food. Over time, he found that he could remove the food and the ringing of a bell alone would produce saliva in the dog’s mouth.
Like the dogs in Pavlov’s experiment, we condition our bodies to react to certain stimuli. Hearing a siren triggers us to pull over to the curb. Thinking about a serene place like a meadow in the mountains can bring feelings of relaxation.
Unfortunately, we can also condition ourselves to have excessive anxiety before important presentations and key meetings. A few bad presentation in a row can condition our bodies to react negatively to similar situations. Even if you are well prepared, you still may have an overwhelming sense of dread and nervousness before the event. Your thoughts may be appropriate, but your body responds in an inappropriate way.
To break this negative habit of anxiety, you must recondition your body. One of the best methods to accomplish this is with systematic desensitization (SD). Here are two simple steps:
- The first part is to devise an anxiety hierarchy, which is a list of scenes within one situation, starting from the least anxiety-provoking and ending with the most anxiety provoking. Let’s say you have terrible stage fright when you have to present to more than one person. Your list would start with you entering the building you are about to make your presentation. This is followed by taking the elevator up to the floor in which you will be giving the speech. Then the list proceeds with you entering the specific room you will be giving the presentation. This is followed with the people entering the room and concludes with you beginning your presentation.
- The second part is to visualize this anxiety hierarch while in a relaxed state. The key principle is that the relaxation response is stronger than the anxiety response. When you pair the two together, relaxation will win and you will reduce your bad anxiety habit. Of course, you must do this technique for at least a few weeks for it to begin to work.
Most people will prepare the content of their sales pitch or presentation. But to those who struggle with anxiety, you must also recondition your body to win the battle over pressure.