Overcoming Presentation Anxiety
During the first session, as we talked and I gently led her through a series of highly specialised exercises designed to get to the heart of the issue, it became apparent that Sophie was a person who embodied such an incredible paradox. On the one hand, she was a high flying Human Resources Director, on the other, she was trapped at a point in her life that had sent shock waves down through the years and was still affecting her.
She told me that her problems had all started at school. “I can remember that day so vividly it makes me shiver just to think about it. I was nine years old and that morning we had all been writing stories. The teacher had read mine and thought it was particularly good, so she asked me to come to the front of the class and read it out. I really didn’t want to do it, but I would never have refused, because I was a good girl and of course had been brought up to respect adults, especially teachers. I can actually remember an instant feeling of butterflies in my stomach, that even now it makes me feel a bit queasy talking about it. It was so powerful I could barely get out of my chair, let alone walk to the front of the class, followed by the eyes of the twenty-seven other children, who were probably either glad it wasn’t them or jealous it wasn’t them!”
It always amazes me that a particular moment in time can have such resonance for so long. The things that adults view as minor and straightforward, such as being asked to speak in front of a class, can loom so big in a sensitive child’s psyche, causing such stress and fear, it sets up a cycle of panic and phobia that can last into adulthood.
“I can see my nine-year-old self now,” Sophie recalls, “stood there, my face as red as a tomato, stumbling over the words and tears pricking my eyes,” Sophie almost whispers, her voice cracking with emotion. “I was so embarrassed that I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I could feel the intensity of my blushing and sense there were a few sniggers from the less kind members of the class. All I wanted to do was get to the end without crying, but no such luck! My emotions got the better of me and I broke down in tears and I was told to go and sit back down by the rather exasperated teacher who obviously thought I was being a bit pathetic.”
Later, at lunchtime, Sophie was subjected to some cruel teasing by some of the other children. “If you’re clever, sometimes you can be a target, and I was. I always came top in tests and I was a really studious girl, but that cost me quite dearly at school in some respects, because I was bullied quite a lot for it. That, coupled with the intensity of the experience I just described has meant that, increasingly, I found social situations difficult and I still do. But even more than that, the thing I dread more than anything now, is having to speak in front of other people. And the higher up the ladder I’ve climbed the worse it’s getting and I just really need some help with it.”
As Sophie described how she felt when she knew she was going to have to stand up in front of others, I knew her childhood experience had meant she had developed something called presentation anxiety. “I absolutely dread being asked to do a presentation at work. In the weeks leading up to it, my stomach churns with anxiety every time I think about it. It’s so bad that I’m sometimes even physically sick. Then in the days beforehand, I start to have all these thoughts about it going wrong and try to look for ways out. I’ve even gone so far as to deliberately miss flights or fake illness, so that other people have to cover for me. I can’t stand feeling like that, because I really pride myself on my professionalism and it makes me feel the exact opposite. In fact, nobody expects me to have any issues, being in HR they come to me with their problems. I listen to everyone… but nobody seems listens to me! It’s probably because I hide it so well, but my bosses are starting to ask difficult questions, so I knew I had to get some help, because I think there’s a chance that it could cost me my job.”
Having reassured Sophie that presentation anxiety is something that I’ve helped so many people overcome, I explained that it’s been caused by with a connection that her brain has made between ‘being in front of an audience’ and ‘feeling afraid’. Just as someone might learn to feel frightened of dogs after being bitten by one as a child, so her experience of having to stand up in front the class at school has caused her to develop extreme phobia symptoms and the panic she feels can even be triggered just by the thought of it.
I explained that this simple emotional association is something hypnosis can very quickly change, and update, so that she can begin to associate public speaking with feeling calm, engaging and focused.
“When Russell described how he could help me, I think was a little sceptical at first. I couldn’t visualise myself changing to such a degree that I could actually speak in front of my colleagues feeling calm and collected. I genuinely just couldn’t imagine it. But I’m definitely convinced now!”
After the first couple of sessions where I worked with Sophie using a combination of techniques, we decided it was time to start working towards her ultimate goal; delivering a presentation. I wanted Sophie to feel totally in control of the process, for her to set the pace and this worked wonderfully well as the moment she felt that control, was the moment she took ownership and that positive momentum moved her forward. I’d asked her to arrange an opportunity to give a brief presentation to her colleagues; a date in the diary and her line in the sand. She did so and we built the following four sessions around working up to this point, developing strategies to calm down those worry thoughts, so that they lost their emotional hold over her, and she could become calmly indifferent to them. This freed her imagination up to engage with sensibly optimistic thoughts about that upcoming presentation, so that she became much more relaxed and pragmatic about preparing for it. I told her that once she’d done a sensible amount of preparation for her presentation, it was important for her to be able to let go and get on with the rest of her life. Then, when came time to give the talk, she’d be much more relaxed, spontaneous, and engaging as a speaker, and in turn this would form more and more positive associations for her about speaking in public.
“Well, I couldn’t believe it,” she told me excitedly a couple of days after that ‘date in the diary’. “Everything you said would happen, did happen! In the run up to giving the presentation, I did start to feel those old panic feelings well up, but I went through the routines and strategies you told me to use and just dealt with them. Then on the day, I just got up there and did it. I’m not saying I wasn’t nervous, because I was, but I could control it. And I started small, just like you advised. I did fifteen minutes talking about a change that my company was making to performance appraisals to a group of senior managers and unbelievably, I just did it! It was over before I knew it and then I answered some questions. I was so pleased with myself afterwards too, that I had this silly grin on my face for the rest of the day. I caught a few people looking at me, but I didn’t care. It felt like a weight had been lifted right off me.”
That was a little while ago now and Sophie has gone from strength to strength, giving two more presentations in that time, each lasting thirty minutes. “I feel that my confidence has really rocketed and the more open I am to taking those risks that I would have shied away from before, the more I find that I’m being asked to be involved with things at work. I can see that the work I did with Russell is going to stand me in such good stead for the future when it comes to my career and I’m so grateful to him for showing me that it is possible to overcome these obstacles in life. It’s funny, the knock on effect of feeling empowered in one area has been that I feel so much more confident in other areas too. That anxiety I used to feel just talking to new people has faded and so have my blushes!”