Stress is our body’s reaction to external factors. Stress can be either positive or negative stress. Positive stress is called eustress. Negative stress is called distress. The common root portion of the two words is “stress”.
When you ask yourself “Am I in a stressful mode?” think about potato chips and chicken wings. “Potato chips” is something you may be experiencing right now. Take a moment; make a really tight fist with both of your hands, notice how your shoulders and your jaw feel? Tight? That’s stress manifesting itself in your body. Now, very slowly release those fingers – feel the stress coming down your jaw, down your neck, your shoulders, your arms and all the way down to your fingers. Now wiggle your fingers and there’s an indication about how much stress is released, it’s tangible. Any kind of stress we have can build that kind of tension.
Even things that cause we think of as ‘positive’ (eustress) can also create tension. Getting a promotion at work, falling in love, the birth of a child, playing with your dog or your kids outside in the snow, to name a few. All of those things we look at as positive things but they still cause a physical and mental reaction, which is stress.
Potato chips: If you were holding a bunch of potato chips in your hands with your hands wide open and you started to clench your fist and you feel that potato chip breaking, then you’re experiencing stress – sometimes on a daily basis.
Chicken wings: When your shoulders are pulled up tight (like a continuous shrugging of the shoulders) and your hands are next to your body. If you’re walking or running and your hands are close to your body, you’re not getting very much motion. Your body is working against you. The disconnection between what your body is feeling and your mind is thinking also forms stress. Once you recognize this, you can lower your shoulders, put your hands at your side, wiggle your fingers and shake your arms out. When you do that there’s a natural tendency for the body to relax.
Why Speakers Need to Recognize Stress
There are countless studies that prove that one of the most stressful things that people can experience is public speaking. No matter how well you know the material, no matter how much you feel comfortable with the audience, when you’re making that eye connection with the audience in person or through Zoom conferences, you know that you’re being judged or at least you have this fear of being judged. You can also create stress when you see someone in a live audience looking down at their phone or when you see someone on a Zoom call looking away from their camera to do something else; you might have a tendency to focus on that one person instead of the other 100 people in the audience or on that call that ARE connecting with you. When you do that, you’re causing yourself stress. When you’re focusing on that you’re not being in the present moment.
When you speak to groups, observe the audience and pay attention to body language without judgement and look for the opportunity to connect. For example, if you see someone in the audience and their eyes are closed that doesn’t mean that they’re falling asleep. Maybe closing their eyes means they’re really concentrating on what you are saying. In that scenario, scan the audience rather than focusing in on that one person. Look for a smile or someone’s eyes lighting up in response to what you are saying. This can also be done in a Zoom room. As a speaker, taking this approach can tell you that what you’re interpreting in the moment may not be what that audience member is feeling. That can bring you back to the present moment which will help you release the stress.
Stress and Zoom Meetings
One of the biggest sources of stress in Zoom meetings is wondering “Are they paying attention?” This question arises when someone is eating something, getting up from their chair to walk around as if the speaker on the call can’t see them. This can cause the speaker to think that he/she isn’t resonating with the audience and that their message isn’t getting across. If you experience this, you can decide to think “They’re so comfortable listening to me that they feel okay eating or getting up from their chair.” This helps you turn a negative thought process into a positive one.
As the speaker you can take action to help the audience relax and maintain their attention. Go through with your material, trust yourself and trust your process. When you believe in the material and you believe in yourself you exude confidence as a speaker. When you exude confidence, it really doesn’t matter what the audience is doing. You must believe that the information that you’re imparting to the audience is going to be useful. You need to believe that its going to be useful either in the moment or sometime down the road. Believe that you’re going to say something that’s going to resonate with most of the people in your audience. It could be that ‘a-HA!’ moment when you make a statement in your presentation or it could be something the audience realizes tomorrow or next week – their a-HA! Moment may be delayed gratification, remembers your comment and thinks “THAT’S what he/she was talking about, now I get it!” It’s not always in the moment of the presentation. As a speaker you have to realize that you are having an impact. Knowing you are making a difference can relieve the speaker’s tension and stress.
Planning for Less Stressful Presentations
Think about the environment, whether it’s on a Zoom call or when we get back to live presentations. What’s the environment in which you are presenting? Are you sitting next to a space heater or a drafty window? You need to create a space that is environmentally sound to give a comfortable presentation. What is the environment that you’re setting as a speaker? Recognize the environment that you present best from and create it.
While that is easily controlled in a Zoom situation, live presentations are a different beast. In those environments you might not be able to control the thermostat. In that case you can plan ahead by bringing a jacket and a short-sleeved shirt to adapt accordingly to the environment. Be comfortable enough with yourself to take the jacket off if you’re too hot or leave the jacket on if you’re too cold.
That’s only one example for live and Zoom presentations. The takeaway here is to know yourself and where you’re most comfortable; all the while being able to adapt and be flexible. Expect the unexpected and roll with whatever happens. When you’re on Zoom calls and you know that you’re giving a presentation to 100 people, you know what the topic is, you know that you can set the stage in your home and have everything you need at hand. In live presentations things can go wrong that are out of your control no matter how well you plan. You have to trust yourself to be able to adapt on the fly.
In either situation if someone asks you a question from left field that’s going to disrupt your thought process you have to find a way to deal with that. If you’re confident with yourself, you can handle that distraction. If you’re not confident with yourself, you’re likely to be thrown off your game. To deflect a situation like that be confident enough to say, “Thank you for asking, I’ll get back to that in a minute” That gives you the opportunity to regroup. When you expect the unexpected, you’re in a better position to not experience stress when the unexpected happens.
If you’re going to do one thing to have less stressful presentations, you should… Have fun! If you have fun you’ll be authentic and in line with your values. If you have fun, you’ll be relaxed. If you have fun, you can deal with distractions. If you have fun your presentation will come across as being genuine and relatable to everybody in the audience.
If you have fun, you’ll experience less stress.