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Optimism: A Mental Framework for Improving Presentations

BY MARK W. HARDWICK, PhD.

WHAT?
During our recent Facilitation and Presentation workshops at the National Educators Forum, many attendees expressed the need for more information on how to overcome their fear and anxiety when facing an audience.  Research has shown that most of our presentation anxiety symptoms, including sweaty palms, dry mouth, increased heart rate, headaches, backaches and loss of thoughts can be caused or influenced by our thinking, feelings and stress levels.

WHY?
When we experience anxiety, changes in our brain and biochemical reactions take place.  Research evidence reported by Dr. James Loehr, a famous performance psychologist, and Daniel Goleman, known for his work in  Emotional Intelligence, links negative thoughts and arousal with the stress hormone cortisol.  Cortisol is produced by the adrenal cortex.  Cortisol has been associated with feelings of anxiety, tension, helplessness, and loss of control.  Positive thoughts and pleasant experiences are linked to a positive trigger or rush of adrenaline, and an increase of catecholamines or epinephrine and neorepinephrine.

Having an optimistic attitude can help increase the positive effects of epinephrine and neorepinephrine.  Optimism, which produces these positive brain chemicals reduce many anxiety symptoms and can provide presenters with the ability to focus and concentrate on the activity at hand.
 
By learning to "look on the bright side," of challenges and seeing stressful situations as opportunities for growth, you increase the likelihood of producing a positive mental and arousal state.  This positive mental state leads to a chain of biochemical events that mobilize the brain and the body to cope more effectively with the situation.  A positive reaction to stress can then lead to what Dr. Loehr, calls the challenge response, which counteracts the negative effects of stress and improves your performance and enjoyment in presenting and speaking to groups. The challenge response helps presenters to be more calm, relaxed, alert, energetic, inspired, and enthused. 

Most of us are familiar with the popular definition of an optimist as a person who sees a glass as half full, while a pessimist sees it as half empty. Optimists have the self-awareness to stop, challenge their thinking, and choose to feel hopeful about how they see a situation and its outcome.  Optimists are positive thinkers who practice positive "self-talk." They tell themselves “this is fun"…I can…I want to". 

Pessimists are negative thinkers who “make stuff up” that is detrimental to their confidence and ability to perform at high performance levels. Their self-interference and attention to the dark side of situations leads to poor performance.  Pessimists have a tendency to get in their own way, by distorting their perception and acting on these distortions to produce results they do not want. For example, they see audiences as adversaries; worry about how they are being received; lack confidence that they can speak without a complete text or from copious notes.

This lack of self-confidence and negative messages about our ability to perform increases self-doubt and leads to trying to over control situations, which interferes with the natural learning process.  Positive thinking, can help presenters make a conscious effort to enjoy presentations and overcome a surprising number of fears and anxieties.

Recommendations and Action Steps for building your Optimism Quotient

1. Find a role model. Find someone who seems to make the best of any given presentation situation. Find out how that person maintains that attitude, and copy the behavior. This is called “Best Practices”. Chances are, even during difficult times, optimism helps your role model get through the battle with fewer negative effects.

3. Practice positive self-talk and affirmations. Tell yourself positive things every day for a month ("I can do the job," "I like myself," etc.). Practice positive self-talk for at least one month before judging how it has affected your attitude. Affirmations are positive, motivating statements.  Use short "I am" statements: "I am happy with my job.” Say the affirmation out loud several times then, imagine it happening.

4. Fake it till you make it. Practice Being Positive. See your presentation as a challenge for development rather than a treaded activity.

5. “Here and Now” focus. Clear your mind of poor past performances and concentrate on your goal and message. Before presentations visualize your audience, speech, and outcomes. Enjoy the moment and have fun.

6. Practice the Stop—Think—Choose technique for focusing attention.

7. Relaxation techniques. Fully prepare to remain mentally, physically, and emotionally tough through positive thoughts.  Achieve momentary relief by practicing deep breathing, flexing, and relaxing different muscle groups.  Be committed to remain flexible, responsive, and respectful of participants.  Try to practice the 10 second stress reduction response when you feel nervous, anxious or stressed.
                
Take deep breath and say to yourself

  1. My body is relaxed
  2. My mind is alert
  3. My eyes are twinkling
  4. And there is a smile on my face.

8. You perform like you eat. Always have a nourishing meal before presenting; consume some form of carbohydrates and fiber two hours before the presentation.  Be careful of caffeine. Drink only one or two cups before presenting and have plenty of water before and during the presentation.

9. Find a coach or build a support system for change. Put together an action plan for change. Commit to prepare and practice speeches at least twice before the performance. Find a psychologically safe environment like the Toastmasters Club to improve your speaking techniques, attend a presentation camp or training session for presenters.      

No one is optimistic all the time. But anyone can learn how to adopt a more positive, healthier attitude. When you practice being an optimist, you'll be on your way to being more confident, relaxed, humorous, and effective as a presenter.