Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Four secrets to not screwing up under pressure

Neuroscience has revolutionised the way we understand  the ‘science of choking‘. I don’t mean getting a chicken bone stuck in your throat, I’m talking about the common problem of baulking or   ‘losing it’ when the heat is on, so you fail to do something you can normally do with ease. It happens to most of us  (ever forgotten how to type when your boss is looking over your shoulder? ) but especially to students, performers, athletes and public speakers.

It’s to do with the way we store and recall things. The conscious or ‘working’ memory is described by researcher Sian Beilock in New Scientist as the ‘scratch pad’ of the brain.  It holds only a small load. The long term memory is more like an internet download, something you’ve taken in and which is  a part of you.

When you’re under pressure to perform, you may react by paying intense attention to what you’re doing.  The trouble is, if you concentrate hard on an activity which normally doesn’t require much thought, you engage bits of your brain which are not normally engaged for that activity. With a different neurological ‘pilot’ in charge…surprise surprise, you don’t do that activity so well.

If you’ve taught your teenager to drive you’ll know what I’m talking about. You can operate the vehicle and deal with the environment – traffic, road conditions, wayfinding, all at the same time.  You can even carry on a conversation and listen to music while you’re at it. But when your teen takes the wheel, they need to consciously focus on a series of  steps which you  filed in your long term memory decades ago. The instructions on ‘how to drive’ need to come out of  the file and onto the scratch pad for you to be able to help  Junior get a licence. The paradox is that trying to focus on ‘how to drive’ while driving  makes you less able to do it.

Four ways to get the better of it

First, to do well under scrutiny you need to be thoroughly prepared and practised.  A classically trained musician knows to practise repeatedly until they  attain ‘muscle memory’ so they can play  the piece without thinking.  This requires  many repetitions over an extended time. By practising in different ways, they also bring concentration to bear on different aspects of the piece. They might go slow, change the rhythmic patterns, not start at the beginning, pick out the hard bits and not bother with the easy bits,  play it staccato when it’s really legato, loud when it’s meant to be soft and so on.

By tutoring themselves this way they  achieve a deep knowledge of the work.  The brain can eventually lock that knowledge away in long-term memory and go off duty on the ‘get-the-notes-right’ part of the job. Once the brain  don’t have to concentrate on technical execution, it’s free for other things like expression and artistry. Cricketers do this when they go to the nets, soccer players when they drill their ball skills.  It makes them better at playing the real live game.

Public speaking and presentations operate exactly the same way. You need to have mastered your material, trained your thoughts to be fluent and your lips and tongue and teeth and voice to say those words; your eyes and body need to know how to face that audience, manage those slides, get on and off that stage. It takes a while to do this.

So,  allow sufficient practice  time. Not to do this is one of the biggest mistakes  a speaker can make. It’s no different from a musician going on stage and sight-reading, or playing a match without going to training. You might get though but it won’t be your best.

The second, and in my view most useful step,  is to have a dry run or dress rehearsal, with an audience. As soon as there are people out there, everything changes. You get nervous. The more familiar you are with how it feels to have the jitters, the sweaty palms, the anxiety-induced error, the less they will put you off. If you can  get acquainted with the effect of adrenalin,  you’ll be able to cope with  it.

Ratcheting up the pressure at your practice sessions is the best way to avoid failing when it counts. 

A ‘try out’ audience can be colleagues, friends, family, neighbours…anyone that understands it’s a preview, and will help you create an experience which approximates the real one.  Speaking to  a group of strangers in a  less familiar setting will increase the stress.  Make it harder again by setting someone up to act bored while you are doing it.

Third, keep your skills secure –  speak to an audience  frequently. If we go back to the music and sporting analogies, you need to stay in condition and keep your practice up. If you are not presenting regularly, find some forum where you can practise. Toastmasters and improv classes both provide a friendly, supportive  environment for you to develop with other people who are learning too.

Fourth and finally, watch what you say to yourself, and keep positive.  When you begin to feel the creeping cramp of concern, try  saying “I’m excited. My body is helping me get ready for this extra level of activity. This is good.”


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