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.

Feeling Nervous? – Good!

By | May 6th, 2021|Communication, Nerves, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Uncategorized|

In his latest blog, Steven Maddocks, our Head of Voice Coaching, explores the upside of nerves and shows how public speaking might even be good for your health.

Public speaking gets a bad rap. One well-known poll places glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, at the top – making it a more terrifying prospect than spiders, enclosed spaces and even dying. (As Jerry Seinfeld wryly observed, at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.)

Many of our clients at MSB Executive report feeling nervous – in some cases, very nervous – before speaking to an audience. We are commonly asked for advice on ‘combatting’ or ‘getting rid of’ nerves. Our response takes people by surprise: we tell them, ‘Don’t try to combat your nerves. This is the wrong approach. Your nerves are important!’

If combat is the wrong approach, what is the right one? Our answer to this question involves three stages: understand, manage and appreciate.

First, understand that nerves are a fight-or-flight response trigged by a situation of extreme danger. Or rather, triggered when the brain perceives a situation of extreme danger. Because in the case of public speaking, the brain has got it wrong! You are not on the savannah facing a sabre-toothed tiger. You are in the fourth-floor conference room facing your colleagues in HR. The nausea, the blushing, the sweaty palms – these are all vastly disproportionate to the situation at hand. Don’t let your body fool you into thinking this is life or death.

The second stage is to manage nerves. We have plenty of tips and techniques for managing the dry mouth, knocking knees, racing mind and other symptoms of nerves that threaten to derail a speech or presentation.

When we come to the third stage – appreciate your nerves – we are able to draw on our performance training and experience. Nerves are a fact of life for actors: we depend on them. Feeling nervous before a show gets us in the game. Judi Dench describes nerves as ‘an actor’s fuel.’ We know how to put our nervous energy to good use by channeling it into our performance. That’s what gives good actors their unmistakable fizz and stage presence. At MSB Executive, we show our clients how nervous energy, properly managed, can power a business presentation in the same way.

After a successful presentation – particularly if we were very nervous beforehand – we feel a buzz, that post-performance euphoria when we know we ‘knocked it out of the park’. This is partly rational: we take satisfaction in having mastered a challenge. But a recent scientific study suggests that there is something deeper going on. The buzz could in fact be a direct consequence of having felt nervous beforehand. The study in question placed its subject into a situation of stress for a short time and then took blood tests at intervals. The remarkable finding was that soon after feeling stress, the subject’s body was flooded with white blood cells. The stress had actually boosted the immune system.

If you think back to the savannah, this makes perfect sense. If the tiger takes a bite but doesn’t kill you, your body needs to be primed to fight off infection and heal. The immune system needs a boost.

Though ongoing stress is bad for us, the study suggests that we should embrace brief bouts of stress. Perhaps we should take a thrill-seeker’s approach to public speaking. Next time the nerves strike, remind yourself of the health benefits. Public speaking could save your life!

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.

Why not set a communication resolution this year?

By | January 27th, 2021|Communication, Online meetings, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Video|

Feeling disheartened already setting new year’s resolutions? We understand. 2020 was an unbelievably challenging year. There is still so much uncertainty around what options will be available to us in 2021 which can make setting resolutions tricky. We can’t necessarily join that choir or take that trip we wanted to.

At MSB Executive we’ve been thinking about is how we can scale down resolutions to make them more manageable and meaningful. Our team has therefore decided to focus on our communication skills and what are the small things each of us could commit to improving? Having a bit of focus gives purpose and a feeling of achievement.

Here are some of the team’s individual communication resolutions to inspire you to think of your own:

Embracing the pause

Too often we can rush in to talk and fill a silence. It can lead to ‘filler’ sounds such as ‘umms and ahhs’. Practicing pauses and getting comfortable with silence is a great habit to develop.

Prioritising listening over talking

Regularly choosing to pay complete attention to someone without the intention of speaking at all until asked. Our team member has put a post-it note on their screen which says ‘shhhhhh and listen’ to remind themselves.

Remembering to SMILE at the start of calls/presentations

It’s too easy to get into our heads about the content of our presentation rather than remembering that when we smile – not only do we relax but we visually demonstrate to the audience that we are relaxed and happy to be there…so they can relax to.

Speaking directly

Omitting the ‘just’ out of communications e.g. ‘I was just wondering if…’ ‘I’m just getting in touch to see…’. It’s an easy habit to get into but it subtly diminishes your own importance. It’s ok to ‘wonder’ or ‘get in touch’ without tip-toeing.

 

We hope this inspires you to think about your own communication habits and pick something of your own to work on. Let us know what you might work on and we’d love to give you more tips!

How video affected Prime Minister’s Questions

By | November 19th, 2020|Authority, Online meetings, Online video, Public speaking, Q&As, Video|

History was made at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday when Boris Johnson took part by video link. We were interested in how this would affect the dynamic of the exchanges, particularly with the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer.  We noticed an interesting change in status between the two speakers.  As audience members, we felt additional gravitas was afforded to Boris thanks to appearing on video call.

Why was this the case? Firstly, PMQs is usually a circus of whoops and jeers when a politician is speaking. This was still true whilst Keir Starmer was talking as he was physically in parliament and the background heckling was alive and well albeit with fewer MPs to do the shouting. This was contrasted when the camera shot switched to Boris on video where he was bathed in silence. Subconsciously, his communication carried more weight because of this.

Similarly, Boris was talking right into the camera lens, making good eye contact. It creates the impression that he is talking directly to you and comes across as more sincere. This contrasted with Starmer who was being filmed in parliament, often from above, so he rarely looked into the camera. He looked down and read his notes often which created a disconnect with the audience. This departure from the level playing field of all politicians being filmed in the same location does create a different impact on authority.

It is likely that we will enter a period where business meetings are often a hybrid of in person and video participants. The dynamics will be different to PMQs but we need to be aware of how the medium of our communications affects meetings and this will be a topic we return to over the coming months.

For more information on looking and sounding confident and authoritative at online meetings, have a look at our Online Masterclass: How to make a great impression at online meetings!

Is there anything more infuriating than not being heard?

By | October 5th, 2020|Authority, Building Confidence, Difficult conversations, Leadership, Presentation skills, Public speaking|

Some communications lessons from the first US Presidential Debate

We are always keen observers of communications in politics and US politics in particular. Although the first US Presidential debate seems a long time ago given events since then, we wanted to capture some of the lessons we learned last week.

If you stayed up to watch it or watched the highlights the next day what was your reaction? For some it was disbelief, for others fury or hilarity? I personally found myself writhing around in sheer discomfort – especially watching the 7 minute ‘highlights’!

Regardless of your politics, any human being would have had an emotional response in some way to what they witnessed. We’ve been analysing the communication between the two candidates and the lack of respect shown between the two is remarkable. The debate went off the rails, the rules of debate were broken and there was weak moderation to bring it back on track. The result – an unbearable mess to watch.

Here are just a few sins made against the fundamental practice of humane communication:

  • The incessant interrupting and speaking over one another – Trump interrupted Biden 73 times!
  • Personal attacks and shaming –Trump berating Biden’s education and intelligence, Biden calling Trump a liar, a clown and the worst president America has ever seen.
  • The moderator being outright ignored in his interventions.
  • Shutting each other down – ‘will you shut up man?’

These aggressive tactics are a far cry from Michelle Obama’s ‘when they go low, we go high’ doctrine.

One reason that it was so painful to watch is that it tapped into an innate human need to be heard, to be understood, to be acknowledged as a fellow person. It was obvious that Joe Biden in particular was denied that right. It tapped into our inbuilt sense of empathy at injustice. We were able to relate to that feeling from our own experiences when we might have been ignored or berated in public which is what creates that emotional and physical reaction.

It is striking that the communication between two adults pitching to lead the most powerful country in the world could invoke such a primitive response in people. Given President Trump’s illness we don’t know what will happen with future debates. Whatever happens, let’s hope that the human right to be heard is not forgotten.

Online Meetings Can Be Daunting

By | July 21st, 2020|Building Confidence, Online meetings, Presentation skills, Public speaking|

It can be daunting to have to speak up at online meetings when you are confronted with a sea of faces.

At MSB Executive, we recognise the variety in our clients’ communication styles. Most noticeably at online meetings, you can spot the extroverts and introverts. It is said that extroverts ‘speak to think’ and introverts ‘think to speak’. One is not better than the other but at meetings extroverts can be more comfortable speaking up.

Top Tips for an Inclusive and Successful Call

 Be respectful of each other’s communication styles. Notice if someone looks uncomfortable when being forced to speak up. Smile, be encouraging visually and give them space to answer. Hold the space for them so that no-one else jumps in.

Think about using the chat function to encourage questions or comments throughout a call. You could also use functionality such as Zoom polls to quickly gather opinions on calls.

For those who find themselves overwhelmed having to speak up suddenly, a good tip is to switch your screen view if you can. For example, on Zoom you can switch between ‘Gallery’ and ‘Speaker’ view. Speaker is better if you want to see less faces on your screen. You can either talk to yourself on screen or pick one friendly face and imagine you are just talking to them.

If you want more tools and tips on making an impact at online meetings, check out our online Masterclass ‘How to Make a Great Impression at Online Meetings’

 

The Power of the Pause

By | June 30th, 2020|Authenticity, Leadership, Public speaking, Storytelling|

At MSB we often talk about the importance of pauses. They are great for adding impact and helping your audience process information. Pauses are a great replacement for filler sounds and words.

We generally say you can pause for longer than you think. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes this to the extreme with a 21-second pause.

Empathetic Communication From Leaders In The Time Of Covid

By | May 28th, 2020|Authenticity, Leadership, Personal Profile, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Uncategorized|

We often look at how our leaders communicate to see what we can learn. Sometimes we share examples of outstanding communication as well as times they get it wrong.

 At the moment, what our leaders are doing and saying is affecting our lives in an extraordinary way. This means we all have strong opinions about the actions that are being taken and how they are explained to us.

 From the many briefings and Q&A sessions going on around the globe, we have been repeatedly struck by one lesson. That is the importance of empathy.

 This is often an underrated quality in speakers. Unfortunately, some leaders confuse it with showing weakness and vulnerability in a way that will undermine respect. We do not believe this is true in ‘ordinary’ times and it is certainly not true in a crisis.

 For anyone who underestimates empathy as something ‘fluffy’ or untrustworthy, they are on shaky ground. From Aristotle’s Rhetoric onwards it has been an essential part of persuasion.

 Two politicians who have unquestionably shown the power of empathy are Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Andrew Cuomo Mayor of New York.

 For Ardern, there are the memorable moments of empathy on a small-scale level including warning children the Easter bunny might not make it to every house . When empathy is combined with simple, powerful messages it hits home. Particularly effective was her comment: “We only have 102 cases – but so did Italy once.”

 For Andrew Cuomo, he wasn’t afraid to share his personal pain:

 “I haven’t seen my daughter in over two weeks. It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart. And this concept of maybe I can’t get next to her because of this virus. There’s a distance between me and my daughter because of this virus. It saddens me to the core. And it frightens me to the core.”

 This gives him the right to talk about shared struggles and his belief about the ability of the people of New York to come through it.

 “Understand what we’re dealing with. Understand the pressures that we’re feeling, but we will get through this time. Be a little bit more sensitive. Understand the stress. Understand the fear. Be a little bit more loving, a little bit more compassionate, little bit more comforting, a little bit more cooperative and we will get through this time.”

 Empathy is something we can all embrace and become stronger leaders.

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