Nerves, voice and body language

Although your body language and your pitch can be more important for the impression you make upon your audience than what you say, it’s very difficult to control consciously. There is a vast number of subtle movements that is not under your direct, conscious control, but is regulated by the “deeper” mind*.

Therefore, a conscious effort to control your body language is, if not doomed to fail, then at least exceedingly difficult to manipulate according to your wishes.   

And this is not the only difficulty. It gets worse. Your audience will only be unconsciously aware of your body language: just as your body language is controlled by the parts of your mind that you can’t access directly, so is the interpretation of your body language allocated to the same non-accesible parts of the mind on the part of your audience. You will be judged by their “gut feeling”. And there’s a good reason for people to listen to that feeling contrary to what you may think – at least if you’re a bit like me.

You see – I’ve always thought that people listening only to that indefinable sensation needed to take a 101 in science methodology. Didn’t they know that the world is infinitely more inaccessible than what can be fathomed by our puny sensations? Turns out those “ignorant” masses were more right than I could dream of, and the reason is this: what we usually refer to as our “gut feeling” is the way that our deeper mind communicates its interpretation of the world around us to our conscious mind: through feelings. Millions of neurons are fired in the deeper mind and through chemical transmitters we experience different feelings that allow us to interpret things like body language correctly (or at least according to our biological pre-programming and individual experience). What this means in relation to your body language is that if you try to control your body language through a conscious effort you will very probably come across as a fake. It simply is not possible to communicate tranquility with your body when you’re feeling like a rheumatic rabbit caught in the headlights of a AMG’ed Mercedes driven by an 18-year old punk with an ego to prove. You just can’t do it. So let’s talk about what you can do. 


 So… what do I do?

Well, there is a way to cheat the system. As our body language, and our voice and pitch, is affected by our feelings (resulting, as you will recall, from all that neuron and chemical transmitter activity), what you need to do is change those feelings and your body language will follow automatically. There are basically two ways to do this; both via visualisation. 

The first method has been around for a long time. In the year 1700 the “Hagakure” was written in Japan. A series of sayings, stories and japanese philosophy, the book describes the “Bushido” – the warrior ethos. As Bushido is thought of as a “way of dying” it was deemed important to really learn how to die properly. “Properly” meant without fear and with an extreme calmness of mind. In order to achieve this calmness, the Samurai were taught to meditate upon the realities of battle so they would be ready when the time came. To reflect deeply upon losing a hand, being shot with arrows and other niceties like that. Having visualised all of these very real possibilities, the Samurai were prepared and would emerge as the very essence of a warrior.

If this sounds just vaguely familiar, it may be because a lot of the current self-help genre and therapists use visualisations as a way to improve whatever it is you want to improve. Visualise in your mind that your presentation will go wonderfully well; the audience will be in rapt attention and all will end with standing ovations. Personally, I think this is overdoing it. I’ve tried it myself and it’s difficult not giving in to your fears even when contemplating the presentation itself. I’ve unwillingly pictured the audience turning their eyes to heaven, snickering amongst themselves, posing impossible questions and generally behaving like the kids in “The Lord of the Flies”. No; if your mind is not into meditative techniques – go for the other option: it’s easier and nicer. 

The other option: instead of using hours and hours going “Ommmmmm” and embarassing your kids and pets it’s much better to imagine something entirely unrelated. Well, ok, not entirely unrelated. Unrelated with regard to the event itself (for heaven’s sake; don’t think about presentations) but related to the infusion of adrenaline. Coming back to the workings of our minds, brain scans reveal very little difference between – say – being very afraid and being very excited.

What that means is that you should picture an experience in your mind’s eye that brings to mind some of the same adrenaline as giving a presentation does. But with one major difference: instead of recollecting a frightening experience; think about something that excited you: preparing to ski down a very black mogul slope; parachuting; bungee-jumping; whatever you have done that infused your mind with adrenaline and endorphines (those morphine-like chemicals that make us feel good). Imagine that situation vividly: Turn up the colours; make the sun brighter; the touch on your skin nicer; the sound of the wind louder; the taste on the front of your tongue sweeter. Be there with all your mind. Think about this experience many times so you know the feeling well. And just before you go on stage; spend a minute or two getting in the groove. Everything counts. You want to be ready to perform. 

When using this visualisation technique, you side-step the automated system that cramps you up and make you look and sound nervous. You can concentrate on what you want to say and let your automated systems in the deeper mind take care of your voice, pitch and body language without having to worrying about yet another thing when you need to focus on your message. Simple, right? Well, yes, if you really put your mind to it. It will very likely be difficult the first few times, but as you get more used to it you just need the first few minutes to get started. And then you roll. 


Stop thinking!

Some years ago, the world-renowned opera singer, Renée Fleming, was on stage performing the “dove sono” aria of Mozart’s “The marriage of Figaro”. It’s a difficult aria and many a lesser soprano than Fleming have strugggled with it. But not Fleming. At least not before. Right before the most difficult part of the aria, she experienced a lack of self-esteem. She became afraid of making a mistake even though she had sung this aria hundreds of times before. She could hardly breathe. Her pulse started to race. She couldn’t achieve the normal power in her voice. She barely managed to get through the piece but she was shocked by the experience. And the experience kept repeating itself. In her memoirs she writes that she heard an inner voice telling her to “do that.. don’t do this.. your breath is tight… relax your shoulders.” It got to the point where she thought about quitting opera altogether. 

Professional singers know this phenomenon as “choking” because the self-made pressure make you feel out of oxygen. The tragically fascinating thing about choking is the fact that nothing but the performer’s own thoughts are holding them back. Maybe you’ve tried something similar yourself? “This is going wrong… I won’t be able to do it… I’ll forget the next point…” and so on and on.  

Choking is caused by thinking too much! It happens when you become self-conscious and start thinking about actions that are better left alone. You know how to speak in a normal, social context, right? You can tell a story to you family and friends without thinking about it, can’t you? But when you’re up there… on the stage… and all eyes are on you… it’s suddenly different. You start to think. And when you start thinking, you’re doomed. When you go “what is my next subject?… damn! I forgot to say… How do I get back on track?… “ you know you’re in a bad way. 

When that happens, stop it right there! Kill that little inner voice directly when it shows up. Actually tell “yourself” to shut up. And be present in the moment. Focus on communicating your story and you’ll be fine. You know very well to communicate your message. So stop thinking about how to communicate it – go Nike and “just do it!” 

 The trick is to be completely present in the moment. To really, really focus on your message. To become a performer – to “be one with your story” (sorry – that was somewhat self-help book / new age-y… but you know what I mean)

And speaking of stories – this is why you should tell a few of them. They are easy to remember because that’s how we normally communicate with our surroundings. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end and it’s easier to stop thinking when we tell stories than it is when we relate facts. So hand out the facts on sheets but illustrate them with compelling stories. Nobody will remember the numbers anyway. But they will remember the stories. 

Best regards,
Christian Schönström-Lund 

*The expression; “deeper mind”, refers to all but our conscious mind. For details on the workings of our mind I recommend the book “Incognito – the secret lives of the brain” by David Eaglestone.

P.S. Check out Amy Cuddy’s wonderful TED presentation about how to change the way you feel!