To succeed on stage, we need to improve our relationship with ourselves.

by Michael Rickwood

“Under duress, the body always wins”

Wendy Palmer (taken from her book Intuitive Body)

In 2013, at a prestigious economic event in northern France, I coached among others, a very successful Indian entrepreneur who has made quite a success in the luxury sustainable hotel industry. He was extremely charming, articulate, and eager to put together a good talk. Working with him was an absolute pleasure and a relatively easy mission for a young coach to get their teeth into because of his positive attitude and availability. However, when the day came, after some solid practice during the morning his confidence seemed to cave in on stage. Once he began his talk, he suddenly had to produce his notes, lost completely his presence, and looked and sounded a shadow of his usual self. The comments on the event Twitter feed were not kind. We tried to dissect afterwards what had happened. Perhaps he wasn’t focused enough right before the start, perhaps it was something in his material that threw him, but he couldn’t pin it down for me. I suspected his preparation before going on stage was poorly managed. Rather than taking time to focus his mind quietly, he was engaging in conversations with his peers right up to the last minute. For introverts with limited speaking experience, this is not a good move in my book. But we can look a little deeper to see what improvement needs to be made over the long term, because while external aspects can throw us the real enemy is within.

So, what does Wendy Palmer mean in her quote ‘Under Duress, the body always wins’?

As in combat, when we present, the enemy is indeed within. The secret to better stage performance in my experience starts with a better relationship with oneself. If there is not enough inner harmony the body will rebel to the inner emotional conflicts making the fear visible and creating an unhealthy audience/speaker connection. This manifests itself through the body in tension, cramps, poor posture, and shakes, through the voice we hear it as vocal cords tighten, and the mouth dries up. Now it’s easy to say to try to detach from it all, but it’s easier said than done.

Reducing anxiety and fear-based thinking has a lot to do with changing the internal dialogue. If an inner voice tells you that you haven’t done enough work, that you need to practice 101 times every talk you give, that you are not worthy to be stood up here, that you do not deserve the opportunity, that it doesn’t matter if you don’t get what you need such as respect, recognition, or empathy then what we get is like dirty water rising in a cellar. It weighs us down, pollutes our internal thinking, and blocks us from getting what we want. You cannot succeed with such an internal voice, neither professionally nor personally and it will lead to discouragement and burnout.

Fortunately, each one of us has the power to change this if we need to but it requires daily commitment. A rewiring of our daily thinking that allows us to trust ourselves and others more.

All we need is the right kind of spark to get it going. That spark doesn’t come with some sort of discomfort though.