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Failure is a Positive Force

By Nigel Higgs.
Published in Training Officer Vol 31 No 1 Jan/Feb 1995.


Hands up who likes making presentations.
Well, put your hands up. One, two, three.... out of how many? You mean to say that the rest of you don't like making presentations?
Not even a little bit?
Or even a tiny, little, smidgen of a bit?
I wonder why?
Is it because your knees always knock, or you get that sick feeling in your stomach, or because your mind starts to race, or even because you just can't help thinking about all those mistakes you've made in previous presentations. Or maybe it's because you can't help thinking about all those mistakes you might make........ Ah! that's more like it isn't it. You just don't think you're good enough. You think you'll just go on making the same mistakes, you don't have the iron nerve, the steely glint in the eye, the seductive voice, the confident manner, the....
No, No, No. Stop all this negative thinking right now! Just take a deep breath and think nice thoughts. NICE thoughts I said! Think about all the times it went right. AND DON'T GIVE ME THAT GUFF ABOUT IT NEVER GOING RIGHT, I just don't believe you. There is no such thing as perfection, nobody, but nobody, can get it wrong one hundred percent of the time. I know, it can't be done, I've tried. We are all human beings and all of us get it right some of the time, if for no other reason but the law of averages. Therefore there must be something somewhere back in the depths of your memory that you can drag kicking and screaming to the front of your mind, into to the cold light of truth, just to show yourself that, maybe just once, just once, you actually did something right in a presentation. Its there in all of us, that link, however tenuous, that gives us some last vestige of that inner confidence we all need so much.
You all think I'm joking. Writing this for a laugh, to make a bit of money on the side (chance would be a fine thing!), or even to hype my own technical ability (much more likely). But the point is there are people out there who are regularly paid to make presentations day after day and they actually believe that they are useless at it, and find it frightening toboot! Can you think of anything braver than that. Maybe you know one of these heroes (I use the term for both female and male varieties), for that is what they are. I have the greatest respect for anyone who continues to subject themselves to regular torture and humiliation (as they see it) because they consider it as part of the job (presentation, not the torture and humiliation). I'm sure it's because they think that if they do it enough times they must get better at it, and they have a point. The trouble is that they continually think of themselves in what I would call negative terms and, when it comes down to it, those terms are invariably out of focus, not showing things as they really are. I mean, lets face it, would someone continue to employ a person to do this work if they didn't consider them to have the right skills for the job? I mean, if they were that bad they'd have been taken off the job quite a while ago. So they must be doing something right. And those 'right' areas are the areas which they should be thinking about, not the 'bits that always go wrong'.
Think about how you learn a new physical skill, such as riding a bike. All skills have techniques to help you to learn the rudiments, just like learning to read or to swim, there are stages you go through. Learning to ride a bike has a number of these, the first being able to sit on the saddle without slipping off. Then getting used to how the brakes work, changing gear (for those of you who were affluent enough to able to afford a bike with gears), steering, hand signals, and so on... The point is, I bet that not one of the people reading this article learnt to ride a bike without getting at least some of these stages wrong at some point. And what happens when we get things wrong? (Apart from your Dad telling you off). You tell yourself off! You call yourself names, you curse and swear (especially if Dad isn't there) - "You fool," you say to yourself, "can't you get anything right!".... "Why the hell did you do it that way, idiot!" .... "Dammit! Why can't I remember to put the back brake on before the front!" ... and so on and on. It's quite sad really, the way we berate ourselves, call ourselves names, put ourselves down. And, of course, if we do it enough we might even start to believe it, so when we continue to get it wrong we won't be surprised and, hence, we won't disappoint ourselves and eventually we come round to believing that we just aren't born to bike it.
What has this got to do with Presenting? Quite a lot.
The fear of failure is probably the most common root cause of presentation "problems". The fear factor shows itself in many ways:- gestures that are too big; gestures that are too small; gestures that just seem wrong; physical stiffness; too much movement; too little eye contact; too much eye contact; bad posture; vocal 'stiffness'; a lack of expression... the list goes on and on. But many of these contradictory I hear you say. Too big - too small, too little - too much..... it doesn't really matter that they are contradictory. The point is, they are symptoms, or indicators, and these indicators have different meanings for different people, hence the contradiction is unimportant.
Everyone has the same fear - the fear of failure - but just the same this fear they have is individual to each of them, it their own fear coming from a different place in each person. When it comes down to it, fear of failure is just another symptom. The area that really needs addressing is the reason why we are afraid of failing.
A big subject, and not one which can easily be addressed in a short article. It is wrapped up in our individual histories, how we were brought up, our parents, schooling, peer groups, etc.. Each of these influences has an effect on us and moulds us into being who we are - and it carries on moving and changing us until we go to make that final big presentation in the sky. These influences have both positive and negative effects, making us caring, loving, sensitive individuals and at the same time allowing us to be destructive, difficult and selfish. These influences also create insecurities within us which we require to be fulfilled. We need to love but we also need to be loved. An instance in point, which many people may be able to relate to is the way children try to impress their parents. Getting praise from a parent is an important part of life for most of us (children or not). And in just the same way, it is important to most parents that their children succeed in what they do.... This creates dilemmas and conflicts in both parties when the child fails at something. Our society is also based on success and failure and there are few areas where we can feel just as good about losing as we do about winning. Therefore failure is set up in our minds as a negative, bad thing to experience, however much we rationalize it out, it is still in there hidden deep. WE HATE TO FAIL BECAUSE FAILURE IS BAD.
So, If that is the problem, how do we solve it? Well you can't start psychoanalysing every single presenter's past because - a) the majority of us are not psychoanalysts, b) we don't have the time, and c) I don't know about the rest of you but I don't have the inclination. And also, lets face it, not everyone wants to be psychoanalysed just to get better at presenting. So what do we do? The way I approach it is to look at how this fear shows itself in the presentation technique of each individual I'm working with.
Each of us has different facets or faces to our personality (I believe Jung called them masks), and we present a different one to each situation in which we find ourselves - work, home, pub, car, bed.... Even to the point of being subtlely different with each person that we meet. These differences may be noticeable or not but the ones we do notice, we write it off as 'a change' in the other person - which it is, to us, because we have never seen it before.
Presenting is just another one of those situations where we have to find another facet, face or mask to show. The problem also starts to get exaggerated by the fact that this 'situation' is weighted with other issues - status; job security; pride; self image - being just a few. It is not, therefore, unsurprising when we show a particularly distinct mask when presenting - revealing itself by the presenter being too still or not still enough, giving too much eye contact or not enough and/or using vocal patterns which they do not use in 'normal' speech. The presenter tends to look uncomfortable which is accentuated by incongruent body language (the body not being in agreement with what the voice is saying). This then starts to get in the way of the message behind the presentation (the objective) and other, subtler messages start to come through, such as - "I made a mistake and everyone saw it...", "I don't want to be here...", "I want to get to the end of this as quickly as I can...". The vocal patterns also tends towards being less expressive and less interesting.
I have found it is by addressing the problems that the mask brings with it, that begin helping the person start to address those other, more forbidding areas. Just getting the presenter to ask themselves why they think they are stiff and formal, or why they have problems finding something to do with their hands, is a mini breakthrough, allowing a person to try being more expressive by finding an answer with which they feel comfortable. The other important area to explore is getting each person to accept the fact that they will get it wrong and that it is OK if they do - FAILURE IS A POSITIVE FORCE. They need to keep challenging themselves to go that little bit further. An example which crops up regularly is one of vocal variation and interest. When a presenter is hiding behind a particularly distinct mask, the vocal pattern usually takes a major nose dive and becomes monotonous and less interesting, tension mounts and goes straight to the jaw closing the mouth and restricting the clarity of the words, the audience start to miss words and once that happens they start to lose interest, the presenter picks this up, gets more nervous, more tense and... well, you get the picture.
It is easy to say "by addressing these symptoms....." but how do we address these symptoms. The best way I have found is by breaking the pattern which the mask sets up. Give the person the feedback on the areas they are good at, and the areas they aren't so good at, and then give them a challenge such as improvising the presentation, or presenting in a particular stereotypical style, the use of exaggeration (going Over The Top) can help a presenter see or hear a problem they have - they always think they have gone too far when they haven't gone half as far as they should. The main aim is to get each person to experience presenting well (or at least a lot better than they have been), so that they can take a memory away with them. That memory can then become like a beacon in the night, giving them their bearings on where they are going and how they are travelling, they can always come back to find the beacon if they get lost. The exercises also instills in them a sense that rehearsing is a good thing - the more you do, the more you learn, if you keep exploring and taking calculated risks. After all, if you are standing still you're going nowhere.

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