Did you know that a study revealed 75% of individuals fear public speaking more than death? The profound impact of others' judgment swayed 3 out of every 4 to stop living rather than face the discomfort.
The human need for belonging to a group has existed since the dawn of human history. Back then individuals that were accepted by a group had a higher chance of survival compared to the ostracised who faced isolation, they were at a higher risk of death from predators, physical deterioration, other tribes etc. Today, it’s on a stage, on social media, in a meeting or at a social event and the same feelings of isolation, vulnerability and rejection persist. Here I explore the state of being present as part of the solution and how it can transform not only your performance to speak publicly but also other stressful situations in life.
What does it mean to ‘Be Present' and how is it different to Mindfulness?
These were questions I had for a long time and the answers were difficult to grasp. Being Present is a state of mind where your awareness is gently placed on surroundings, thoughts, emotions and sensations right in the here and now. Fully immersed in the present moment without judgement or attachment to thoughts or outcomes. Mindfulness is a deliberate practice of techniques to reach that state of mind and does not only refer to meditation, it can be practised wherever you are in whatever you’re doing. Mindfulness is a skill that can be learned and practised no matter who you are. From an analyst to a VP to a Managing Director to the CEO. It knows no bounds. And from my 12 years of practising, I believe it has endless levels of depth.
A Study of Mindfulness in Public Speaking
Professor of Psychology Ellen Langer ran a study that dug into the dilemma that women executives experience (2). If they act in strong, stereotypically masculine ways, they’re seen as bitchy, but if they act in feminine ways, they’re perceived to be weak and not leadership material. So they asked 2 groups of women to give speeches. One group was told to act masculine, the other to act feminine. Then half of each group was instructed to give their speech mindfully and they found that audiences preferred the mindful speakers, regardless of what gender role they were playing out. The mindful group were perceived as being more charismatic, authentic and trustworthy.
So then why is it not being practised more?
Well, one reason related to public speaking whether on stage, in meetings or at other events is Fear. Holding onto that fear is sometimes an unnecessary way to protect yourself. To be mindful is to allow that protection to dissipate. That fear of speaking up will keep you safe from potentially sounding stupid. That fear will protect you from the risk of someone ‘seeing through you’ when there’s nothing to see through, you made it up in your mind. That fear will protect you from experiencing uncomfortable emotions if you did speak up. However, the cost of allowing fear to dictate behaviour can be more uncomfortable longer term. You’re not being recognised outside your immediate team maybe, your value contribution is staying unrealised and your rumination for not contributing is exhausting. Preparation helps. Practising helps. But when it’s showtime and your heart races, your vision distorts, your mouth dries up and your hands shake something else is required to flow optimally. The missing ingredient has to be ‘being present’.
Underpinning a lot of great self-help books is a theme of ‘being present’. I sometimes laugh after reading another 300-hundred-page book to be reminded of it again in a regurgitated way. ‘Be present’, ’Being present’ or ‘Just be mindful’ have exploded into the Western world in the past couple of decades. A lot of work has been done to understand it intellectually but we’ve still a long way to go to embody it as a way of being. It goes unpracticed because of the pressures and expectations we’ve created. We’re constantly inundated with distractions, technology and the pressure to achieve more. To choose to be present is sometimes seen as forgoing productivity. However, when we are fully engaged in the present moment, our focus sharpens, distractions fade away, and we tap into a state of flow where productivity thrives. By directing our attention to the task at hand, we can optimize our cognitive abilities, make better decisions, and complete tasks more effectively. Moreover, being present cultivates a sense of calm and clarity, reducing stress and enhancing overall well-being. It allows us to prioritize effectively, manage our time efficiently, and avoid getting overwhelmed by the demands of modern life. I truly believe we can still be productive members of society and contribute to the growth of the planet without unhealthy levels of stress.
So what does the science say?
Neuroscience research is increasingly demonstrating the profound benefits of mindfulness as a way of being. Through advanced brain imaging techniques, scientists have observed the positive impact of mindfulness practices on the brain's structure and function. Here are 7:
1. Increased Mental Energy
The human brain weighs 2% of our bodies and is consuming 20-24% of our energy on average. How much of that is spent looping and spiralling on unnecessary thoughts? Worrying about nonsense. Most of our worries never come true anyway.
2. Lower Stress Levels
Increasing activity in the Prefrontal cortex region of the brain through mindfulness can decrease activity in the amygdala (the brain’s fear centre). In layman’s terms, your forehead region is dampening down the intensity of triggers arising in the brain stem region.
3. Enhanced Focus
Practising mindfulness can be seen to strengthen the connections between the brain’s attentional networks hence improving focus for longer periods and lessening the pull of distractions. I think we can all use more of this in today’s world full of technology.
4. Emotional Regulation
Increasing activity in the Prefrontal cortex region (forehead) of the brain through mindfulness can allow us to respond to triggers and stimuli with more calm and rationality. Consciously choosing how we respond as opposed to knee-jerk reactions we may later regret.
5. Improved Cognitive Control
Neuroscience has taught us that there are multiple ways the brain makes meaning of something and makes predictions. Mindfulness can allow us to take full advantage of different brain region functionality to make decisions, solve problems and ultimately take smart action.
6. Decreased bias
Increased awareness of blind spots in decision-making driven by bias. Whether that’s personal beliefs, cultural upbringing, or experiences all can play into making a decision. Mindfulness is going to help decouple this aspect within the decision-making process.
7. Live longer, happier and healthier (increased immunity)
By reducing stress, boosting positive emotions, and fostering a state of inner balance, presence supports a healthier immune system and contributes to longevity.
Neuroscience demonstrates that mindfulness practices increase activity in brain regions associated with perspective-taking and cognitive flexibility. By being present, we activate these regions, allowing us to perceive ourselves and the world with greater objectivity and empathy, leading to more balanced and insightful views.
So how do I practice it?
To practice it is both complicated to comprehend and so simple once experienced. It’s like walking a tightrope. Staying on the rope is being present through the practice of mindfulness and falling off is being distracted again by either the past or the future. Deliberately practising this skill will advance you to levels where you’re able to switch it on in any situation needed. The breath is just one way to switch it on. It can be used as a springboard to switch states and anchor into that state. There are many breathing techniques now out there including deep belly breathing, the physiological sigh, box breathing, different counting sequences etc.
I have experienced freezing at a podium and walking off stage during a presentation at University. I have experienced a blackout delivering a demo to Global executives a few years into my corporate career. I understand first-hand what that fear feels like and can do to someone's performance. Even though I commenced a meditation practice 12 years ago, I wasn't applying mindfulness until a couple of years later when I deliberately trained in it over 4 days at a centre. Practising mindfulness in the likes of chewing food, walking, yoga etc but ultimately switching on my senses in some form. I wasn't trying to stop thinking but instead, I was deliberately focusing on everything the present moment offered around and inside me. I noticed the shift when I returned to the big city on that Sunday. Usually, I would be thinking of everything I had to do that week at work and everything that could go wrong with what I had to do but this felt different. I remember being in the gym that Sunday late afternoon and my focus was completely on the reps, each millisecond. I wasn't thinking about anything, I was fully immersed in the present moment. I can still remember that gym session 10 years later because that level of calm was nothing I had ever experienced before. From then I knew I had a powerful tool to utilise and have been building on it ever since in all sorts of scenarios including presentations, podcasts and social events.
I'm all about deepening levels of self-awareness, mindset work and taking courageous action to build confidence but mindfulness is up there too with them. It's so versatile that it can be practised at any time. So when it's time to take courageous action, your offline practice will kick in creating space to dissolve fears and consciously choose a better behaviour in the moment.
The next time you’re speaking up in a crowd of people, flip the switch to present mode. Even more so when senior/ authoritative figures are there. Use the power of presence in the presence of power. Prepare in advance, yes, know your audience in advance, yes, work on self-awareness, yes, but in the moment try not to think about any of that and practice the skill of being present to conquer the fear. Your wisdom will flow from a calmer state of being. Gradually you’ll notice the loosening of your rigidity and an inner confidence will grow. After the event, reflect on the result. Test it out like you’re a scientist running an experiment.
The practice of being present helps form a new more beneficial way of thinking. Choosing presence will activate your brain’s frontal lobe region for conscious thinking. The old story of not being good enough, smart enough, and worthy enough can quieten down. The voice that holds you back can no longer. Connect to your inner intelligence and live fully.
And who knows, the power from pure presence just might be an advantage humans keep over AI Robots...
Mindset, Career & Life Coach
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