Kelly McGonigal on Stress at TEDGlobal: Our Response

By | June 17th, 2021|Performance, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Uncategorized|

An intriguing TED Talk on stress recently caught our attention at MSB Executive. In his latest blog, Steven Maddocks, our Head of Voice, shares our response.

Though we cover a range of disciplines at MSB Executive, a few core themes cut across all our specialist areas. Stress is one. The subject arises wherever we work, from executive coaching sessions to communication workshops.

So when Martyn, our founder, told us recently that he had watched a TED Talk that shed new light on stress, our eyes lit up.

The talk in question, called ‘How to make stress your friend’, was given by Kelly McGonigal at TEDGlobal in 2013. McGonigal, a health psychologist, starts with a confession. For the last ten years she has been telling people that stress makes you sick. She now realises that this advice might have been doing more harm than good.

McGonigal quotes a study showing that stress does indeed raise the risk of dying. However, this was true only for people who suffered from stress and believed it was doing them harm. Stress sufferers who did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die than the stress-free.

In other words, it is not the stress itself that kills you. What kills you is the belief that the stress will kill you!

We must change our view of stress

Therefore, McGonigal advises, we must change our view of stress. Stress symptoms – namely rapid breathing and a pounding heart – are usually viewed as signs that we are not coping. Wrong, she says: they are positive signs that the body is preparing itself to meet a challenge.

What McGonigal says is broadly reflected in our own practice at MSB Executive. We agree that stress should not be viewed as an ‘enemy’. This is itself a stressed response that traps mind and body in a vicious circle. We work with our clients on managing stress, not on crushing it.

Like McGonigal, we are enthusiasts for the increase in oxygenated blood that flows around the body under stress. We love the energy bonus it gives us as performers. As I used to tell my young drama students, ‘It’s good to be nervous! It means you know it’s important and you’re getting ready to do your best.’

Practical Changes

There are areas, though, where we would develop and refine McGonigal’s advice. At MSB Executive, we like to work practically. McGonigal’s instruction to ‘change your beliefs’ begs the question: how? We like to give clients specific tips, tools and techniques to help them cope with stress.

McGonigal’s talk doesn’t cover the mental effects of stress – such as sleeplessness, racing thoughts, the negative inner voice. This mental turmoil makes it extremely difficult to get hold of one’s belief in the moment and change them. Therefore, a vital first stage is to manage the symptoms of stress downwards, so that the mind is calmer and clearer.

Stress stems from a primitive fight/flight response (see my earlier blog on this subject). The modern stress response is poorly aligned to the actual threat faced (there is no tiger!). Armed with this knowledge, we already begin to put ourselves back in control.

McGonigal talks about the effect of stress on the heart, but its symptoms can be felt throughout the body. There is not much one can do about constricted blood vessels, but one can directly address tense shoulders, a churning stomach, or a dry mouth.

In fact we find it reassuring to know that the path to a calmer mind can lie through simple physical exercises, especially breathing. ‘Change your beliefs’ takes a little work. ‘Breathe out slowly for a count of eight’ – now that is something that can be done immediately.

Nerves and ‘Fight or Flight’

By | May 26th, 2021|Body Language, Communication, Performance, Presentation skills, Public speaking|

In his latest blog, Head of Voice Steven Maddocks looks at the science of nerves to explain why they affect us in the way they do.

Lisa’s heart is racing. Her breathing is rapid and shallow. Her armpits are sweating, her hands are clammy, and her neck and face are red. Her legs are jittery, her mouth is dry and her teeth are clenched. Her brain is alternately racing, then going blank. She has pins and needles in her stomach, and she feels sick. She needs the toilet. Is Lisa ill? Is she dying?

No. She is on stage, about to deliver a workshop to two hundred senior industry figures. Lisa is nervous.

The Source of Nerves

As trained actors and performers, we at MSB Executive are familiar with pre-performance anxiety. Our clients often ask us for advice on the issue. We think it is important to understand what is going on in the body. Why do nerves put us, like Lisa, into such a calamitous state? The situation is not so serious. Lisa’s extreme response does not seem logical.

Indeed! Responsibility lies with a very illogical part of the brain called the amygdala. Located deep within the limbic system, it belongs to what Steve Peters calls the chimp brain (The Chimp Paradox, Vermillion, 2021). Lisa’s amygdala has detected a threatening situation and switched Lisa into ‘fight or flight’ mode. There is no nuance; for the chimp, every threat is a mortal threat.

Mortal Danger

Lisa’s body is behaving as though there is a snarling tiger a few metres away. Her adrenal glands are unloading adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine into her blood. These hormones are racing around her body, delivering instructions.

Her digestive system has been issued a shutdown order: the blood it uses is needed in her muscles. As the capillaries in her gut give up their blood, she feels a fluttering sensation – the butterflies. The digestive shutdown – which is giving her the urge to throw up or go to the toilet – extends all the way up into her mouth, which has stopped producing saliva. Her jaw has clamped shut. (Has the tiger seen her? She mustn’t make a noise.)

Lisa is breathing rapidly to take in oxygen, and her heart is furiously pumping the oxygenated blood. The large muscles in her legs twitch as they receive the extra supply. She is heating up (blood is hot), and her sweat glands have kicked in to cool her down.

Lisa’s amygdala wants her hyper-alert, so her brain also gets extra blood. The capillaries in her neck and face dilate: that’s why she’s blushing. She hops from idea to idea, trying quickly to make a plan. Fight or flight? Only those thoughts are permitted; if she attempts to think analytically or self-reflectively, she draws a blank.

Getting Control

Lisa’s workshop starts in two minutes! She needs to make a big impact with her opening words. How does she switch off her amygdala? She can’t close capillaries, seal up sweat glands, or reboot her gut. Is she trapped in fight or flight?

Good news for Lisa: she has worked with MSB Executive, so she has plenty of tools for dealing with nerves. Her favourite technique is to take a few slower and deeper breaths. As soon as she does that, her heart rate slows, her temperature drops and the butterflies ease.

In the words of breathing guru Stuart Sandeman, the Founder of Breathpod, ‘Calm your breath, and your mind will follow.’ It is true: by breathing better, Lisa feels as though she is soothing her inner chimp: ‘Sssh,’ she tells it. ‘It’s only a workshop. Everything will be fine.’

The workshop was fine – better than fine, in fact. It went so well that Lisa was invited to deliver it the following year as the keynote speaker at a prestigious international conference.

Top Tips For Setting Up A Webinar

By | February 4th, 2021|Communication, Online meetings, Online video, Performance, Presentation skills, Public speaking|

There were a couple of questions at the CFA UK webinar I ran yesterday (03/02/2021) about how I managed my set up for the webinar. In particular people wanted to know about how I kept eye contact with the camera while using notes. Here is a photo of my set up. You will see:

  • The platform on my desk allows me to stand up while presenting. This is useful for longer presentations. It helps the voice sound more authoritative and the body language to be more expressive.
  • Camera above the screen. Most importantly it is at eye level.
  • Notes above the camera. This has some key words or phrases to keep me on track. I don’t need to look far from the camera to check what comes next.
  • Notes at bottom of the screen. If I need to read the notes in more detail looking down for a few moments is better than looking up or to the side.
  • LED ring light: balances the natural light from my window on the right.
  • Split screens: the lap top has the videos and the small number of slides that I used ready so I can make sure everything is correct before sharing the screen.
  • Cup of tea: essential.

Do get in touch of you have any questions about getting the right set up for your online meetings and presentations.

Part 2: how improv can boost creativity and collaboration in business

By | December 20th, 2019|Building Confidence, Client skills, Networking Skills, Performance, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Team Building, Uncategorized|

In part 1, we covered ‘let yourself fail’ and the ‘yes and’ principles.

This blog looks at how Improv can reframe the way you interact with others.

Make your partner look and feel like a genius

People often say to me ‘It must be terrifying to do improv, there’s so much pressure to be funny’. Yet, Improv is really about the collective contribution of the group – not you as an individual. There’s nothing more irritating than someone in an improv scene on their own agenda and taking the attention away from the group. This irritation might be familiar in the office too!

The focus instead lies on how to set your scene partners up for them to be in the best possible light. How you can make it easy for them to add something to whatever you’ve just said.This completely takes the pressure off you so you relax and just focus better on being present in the scene. What’s more, if everyone is trying to make each other look good, there’s a good chance everyone succeeds!

At work, we can so often be worried about our own performance – we tend to have individual appraisals and targets. However, no one ever really achieves anything alone. Our culture applauds the lone genius but Einstein, Edison and Jobs – they all had teams of people helping them! Ideas were honed through collaboration and discussions.

Improv encourages us back towards the creative power of the group. At work we can often feel that should never present an idea until it’s a fully formed and ‘perfect’. It’s a real creativity inhibitor. Instead, sharing and building ideas as a collective allows them to evolve into so much more than one mind could have created on their own.

Be fully present

There is no more important skill in improv than listening! When you’re in a performance, you have to be so fully present because new details are flying around you by the second – everyone suddenly has new names, are in new settings with new scenarios! If you miss the details, the audience is going to notice.

In real life however, we often listen only to respond. When someone is talking, we are busy formulating our reply rather than intently tuning in. We miss so much detail that way. There are many improv games and exercises, which challenges us to listen to every single word our partners say. It’s enlightening.

In business, imagine if everyone listened in an ‘improv’ way to colleagues, clients and stakeholders. It not only reduces the chance of creating products no-one wants or marketing campaigns that miss the point. It’s deeper than that. If you truly listen to someone, they feel heard – one of our basic human needs. It changes the way someone feels about you.

So not only do you give someone the gift of being heard, you also get access to a lot more accurate information to enable better decisions. It’s something you need to actively switch on though. Honing these skills in the improv classroom gives you a better chance of activating this ‘listening mode’ in any meeting or important conversation.

A final word

The real beauty of Improv is not in any one of these principles but in the alchemy when they are all in force together! Imagine – you are not afraid to share an idea because your team-mates have got your back. Ideas grow into something because everyone  ‘yes, ands’ what is offered. Solutions develop and evolve. Everyone is fully listening and responding to each other in an attentive way.

I grant you this may still seem like a distant fantasy for the office. Yet, what if you chose to just implement some of these for yourself? What would that do for your performance? How would it change how others viewed you?

What’s more, it’s a more joyful approach to work. Improv advocates permission to ‘play’ again. It’s an extremely fun way to refine the very best of human skills.

For more information on how to bring Improv into your office or team, get in touch with Nicola (nicola@msbexecutive.com).

Donald Trump: Storytelling in 140 Characters

By | January 31st, 2017|Blog, Featured, Perception, Performance, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Storytelling|

“Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world – a horrible mess!”

So says President Trump. Whatever you think about the personality or the policy, one thing is for certain: Donald Trump knows the art of storytelling.

Villain, Victim, Hero

One of the classic storytelling techniques we cover in our workshops is the Villain, Victim, Hero formula. It is so familiar to us that our brains expect it and respond to it. From bedtime stories as a child to Star Wars, the formula’s power is used again and again.

To summarise how it works:

Villain: this could be person, think Lex Luthor, or a “thing” such as the shark in Jaws or a volcano about to erupt.

Victim: the poor, innocent victim.

Hero: Superhero or ordinary person doing extraordinary things  (or both in the case of Superman/Clark Kent).

To make the story more dramatic, make the Villain more dastardly, the victim more worthy of our pity or the hero more compelling.

Donald Trump uses this formal in a relentlessly consistent and simple way:

Villain: the establishment, “crooked Hilary”, “the swamp” in Washington.

Victim: You! The honest, decent hard-working ordinary soul.

Hero: An outstandingly successful businessman with stellar talents and dealmaking prowess…….

Instead of varying the message, Donald Trump is a master at giving more impact to his storytelling by repeating and strengthening the formula. He makes his villains ever more villainous. The victims and their suffering, “the horrible mess” from the tweet above, is presented in colourful and dramatic ways. And of course, the more dangerous the villain and the more wronged the victim, the more impressive the hero is!

Using storytelling in your presentations

We may not want to emulate Donald Trump but we can certainly learn from how he tells stories. If you have to present data and facts in a way that will have your audience paying attention, try to think about:

  • Who is the Villain?
  • How bad is that Villain?
  • Who is suffering because of the Villain?
  • What is the impact on the Victim?
  • How can this be solved?
  • What are the qualities of your hero?

Next time you hear a speech from Donald Trump listen out for Villains and Victims. You will hear what an impact storytelling can have.

Martyn Barmby

MSB Executive sponsors Windrush Aquathlon for 2nd year

By | July 26th, 2016|Performance, Uncategorized|

Triathlon is a sport many of our clients enjoy. It is wonderful to take part in an activity that has so much variety and a focus on the great outdoors. The Windrush Aquathlon is great way to get involved in this sport.

Windrush is our local club. It set up a Junior section in 2014 and now has over 45 kids getting focused coaching on their swimming, cycling and running. The Windrush Aquathlon includes a swim in Brockwell’s iconic lido followed by a run round the park itself. After sponsoring the kids’ Aquathlon prizes last year we were delighted to offer our support once again in 2016.

Find out more about how you and your family can get started in triathlon here at British Triathlon’s website.

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