Post by Frances Cole Jones, contributing Women On Business writer
One thing I’ve heard—and seen– over and over from clients over the last few months is the debilitating effect of long-term stress and fear on their mental and physical health. Daily plunges in the stock market, daily announcements of layoffs, non-stop Doomsday commentary by the media left many of them feeling so overwhelmed they literally were incapable of deciding what to do next. And in the middle of all this, they were having to put on a brave face for family and friends, and keep an upbeat attitude at the office, which drained their resources still further. By the time I was called in a number of them were in a state of near collapse. They weren’t returning calls. They were canceling appointments. They weren’t sleeping a lot—or they were, but in the middle of the day.
Why was my expertise needed? Because over the years I’ve been teaching people to present themselves I’ve learned that in the same way stuffing down nervousness only makes you more nervous, stuffing down your anxiety and fear only makes you more anxious and fearful. When you’re getting ready to speak in public, you need to embrace your nervousness—work with it to give you the energy and commitment you need to carry your audience with you. The same is true for handling anxiety or fear. These emotions are appropriate responses to stressful situations. The fact that you’re feeling them isn’t a problem—what’s important is that you recognize and you handle them. And in fact, a critical component of courage is recognizing it is not fearlessness. Instead, it is the quality that allows you to do what needs to be done in the face of fear – both yours and other people’s.
Are there specific things you can do to help make courage an easier choice? There are. In fact, one of the most seemingly mundane things you can do is to start keeping checklists. That’s right, checklists: those work-a-day items that inevitably get left on the front of the refrigerator when you leave for the supermarket. But before you skip ahead, thinking this is too simple to be an effective tool for you, consider that both surgeons and pilots must complete rigorous checklists before they begin operations. Pilots have a list of over twenty five items that must be checked off, in order, every time they leave the ground, despite the fact that most of them know the list by heart, and December 2007’s New Yorker contained an extraordinary article about a one-man crusade over the past seven years to make Intensive Care Units safer in our country. The work of this man, Peter Pronovost, has already, in the words of the article, “saved more lives than that of any laboratory scientist of the last decade.” How did he do it? By instituting checklists.
If you’re still feeling skeptical consider the Marine Corps phrase, “Checklists are written in blood,”: another world in which if you forget to do something, somebody dies.
So, what kind of checklists am I talking about? Well, if you have a big meeting coming up about which you’re anxious, you might consider instituting a presentation checklist that includes:
- Have I identified what I want my audience’s primary takeaway to be?
- Do I know my opening story, and my closing thought?
- Do I know the cues and the choreography–whom I follow, and who follows me? If I am being introduced by someone else, have we discussed what he or she will say? If I am introducing myself, do I know what I’m going to say? If I’m passing the baton to the person behind me, have I spoken with them about what they would like me to say?
- If this is a presentation that I give regularly, have I checked that my slides do not contain references to the previous engagement?
- Have I done an advance recon on the room to check the lighting, the sound quality, the podium, the microphone? Am I sure I have the right cable to connect my computer to their system?
- In keeping with that idea, if someone else is in charge of the technical aspects of the day, have I introduced myself to them, and do I have their cell phone number? There are very few people whom you want more on your side than the ladies and gentlemen in charge of audio-visual.
- Do I know the names, titles, and background of every person who will be attending? Have I built acknowledgement of their presence and thanks to the appropriate parties into my remarks?
- Do I know the answers to the worst three questions I anticipate getting? – Sometimes I like to preempt these by starting my Q&A session by asking them of myself. For example, “Some of you may be wondering how I could bring up X given our sales figures from the last quarter but…” and then offering my best answer.
- Have I thought about the timing of any handouts? Will the audience already have them, or will I need to distribute them? Should that be done before, during, or after I speak?
Speaking from my own experience, having a checklist of this kind has saved me from disaster on more than one occasion— and the confidence I’ve gained from ticking off each item beforehand has meant my mind was free to deal with the multiple factors over which I don’t have complete control.
What other practices might you implement to help institutionalize courage? If you are dreading a conversation—with your boss about your performance review, with your colleague about their work habits, with your employees about a difficult decision– one way to plan for courage is to practice having the conversation out loud with someone whose judgment you trust. Yes, this will feel deeply uncomfortable at first—far too much like the “make believe” games of your childhood—but it is only when you practice out loud that you hear the holes in your argument, can begin to consider the tone of your voice, and will be able to get feedback about how to manage your physicality. When doing so my recommendation is to first run it with you as yourself and have your friend be the person (or people) in question. Then swap roles. This is often incredibly helpful as it allows you to hear how someone else might tackle the same situation. If there are specific phrases or ideas that come up that are useful, write them down in longhand. As was discussed in How to Wow, doing so will embed them in your body more deeply, making it far easier for you to remember them during your high-stakes moment.
Finally, if your fear is very specific, you might embark on a “confidence course” of doing small, not-too-scary things that allow you to build toward the bigger thing. For example, if you want to ask your boss about a raise, you might begin with a super low-stakes activity like entering a store and asking for change for a dollar. Then you might graduate to negotiating with sellers at yard sales and flea markets. After that, you might give your phone or credit card company a call and see if you can talk your way into better rates. Finally, you might make a checklist of all the questions you anticipate having to answer in your meeting with your boss, role play your answers with a friend, and get the appointment in your boss’ calendar, knowing that you’ve planned for courage.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.” Taking this approach to courage ensures that while you might not start looking forward to doing those things you fear, you will find yourself rising to the occasion despite that fear—my definition of courage.