Become a more inspirational and resonant leader by fully aligning who you are with how you communicate.

This is a clip from this summer’s Spielberg movie, “Bridge of Spies.” If you haven’t seen the movie, the clip takes place during the trial of a Russian spy Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) and captures his conversation with his attorney James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks).

In it James Donovan asks Rudolf if he ever worries about anything.

His response: “Would it help?”

Worrying is one of the biggest gremlins when it comes to communication. It is the demon that creeps into our minds, telling us that we are going to make a mistake, slip up, and embarrass ourselves. The higher the stakes, the more worried we become. The more worried we become, the more afraid we are of making a mistake and being “found out.”

The fear that we are going to make a mistake and the thinking about how we don’t want to make that mistake actually causes our brains to go into a kind of paralysis. Even the simplest of questions can trip up an expert when he/she has allowed fear to take over.

In his book Stress Test, Timothy Geithner describes his first speech as Treasury Secretary as being “an unhappy passenger on an unsteady ship.”  His lack of experience with public speaking not-withstanding, he articulates a common experience for people who have a fear of speaking in front of crowds:

“Ever since high school, I had dreaded public speaking. . . . I swayed back and forth, like an unhappy passenger on an unsteady ship. I kept peering around the teleprompter to look directly at the audience, which apparently made me look shifty; one commentator said I looked like a shoplifter. My voice wavered. I tried to sound forceful, but I just sounded like someone trying to sound forceful.” – Timothy Geithner, Stress Test

This sounding like someone “trying to sound forceful” and looking “shifty” is what happens to us when we allow our worry to overtake us and infect our thoughts. It is what golfers mean when they talk about the “yips” or what happens to baseball players like Chuck Knoblauch when they suddenly can’t throw to first base.

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(This ball ended up in Hawaii)

This comes up in acting as well since it involves a combination of memorization, motor-coordination and collaboration with others. Actors talk about “going up” on their lines, which means forgetting them, in front of a live audience and all of their fellow actors.

(It’s a terrifying feeling)

Okay, so what can we do about it?

My first suggestion is for you to look at the amount of worrying that you are doing in your head. Worry is an important process as it can sometimes prevent terrible things from happening:

(Like, maybe I should be a little worried about putting my hand in this shark’s mouth…)

Then there is the type of worrying that we do which gives us the impression we have control over outcomes. When we put worry into things that are out of our control, then we set ourselves up for panic and paralysis.

Just in case you are unsure of what the difference is between things you can control and things that you can’t, I have made a list.

Things that are not within your control:

  • Other people (including what they think, do, say or how they react)
  • The weather
  • Laws of physics
  • Your family (same principle as “other people,” but I felt like it needed its own section)
  • Your boss (see “other people”)
  • Other governments
  • Other businesses that are not your own
  • Wild animals (and even some domestic animals)
  • Your spouse/partner (see “your family”)
  • Thoughts/feelings

What you can control:

  • Your behavior and your reactions to your thoughts.

At times it feels like most communication advice centers around how to make people think, feel and behave a certain way. Marketing has evolved to the point where we believe that we should be able to manipulate people into feeling and thinking almost anything, but that isn’t how it works in normal communication  (unless you want to leave people feeling used and manipulated).

While worrying might feel as though it were productive, it often serves to undermine our confidence and our spontaneity. If you want to convey confidence and a sense of presence when speaking in front of a group, prepare yourself emotionally as well as mentally by following these steps.

  1. Know your material. Actors talk about having the lines “in their bones” which is just a way of saying that the material is not only memorized, but integrated. It doesn’t mean that you have to know the answer to every question, but it does draw on the correlation between understanding the subject matter and self-confidence.
  2. Drop the perfectionism. The goal of being perfect is what is going to cause you the most worry. Why? Because you have no control over the process of communication. It isn’t like measuring a piece of wood or drawing a straight line. There is no such thing as a “perfect conversation,” rather there is a flow and give and take that we are seeking. Much like surfing a wave.  (Or so I’m told)          
  3. Imagine the audience filled with people who love you. Seriously. When we focus our attention on the negative, we find plenty of evidence to support our worried brain. There will be one person in the audience who is rolling his/her eyes or who looks bored. Don’t focus on that person. Pay attention to the people who are engaged. If you can’t find them, imagine that they exist. The less time you spend looking for the negative and the more time you spend believing that the audience is there to support you, the less the worry can eat at your confidence.

When you feel the pull of anxiety and worry, ask yourself “is this helping me move forward or holding me back?”

Worry that focuses on outcomes rather than on preparation is never going to be helpful because outcomes are rarely under your control.

“All you can do is everything that you can do.” – Someone wiser than me.

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