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The Path To Presentation Peace - Mindfulness And Stillness

Apr 23, 2008
Imagine a classroom, then imagine thirty children sitting still and quiet. Imagine these children imagining loving kindness on the playground. The peaceful ring of a Tibetan singing bowl - no shouting, no laughing, no airborne paper objects. In a New York Times article by Patricia Leigh Brown, she explains the unlikely practice of mindful awareness being practiced by kids in an Oakland school. For this practice, a coach visits the school bi-weekly to lead fifteen-minute sessions on how to have "gentle breaths and still bodies."

While a fairly new concept in schools, the practice of mindfulness has been used widely and successfully in hospitals and businesses, sports teams and even in prisons. In the article, the principal of Piedmont says, "If we can help children slow down and think, they have the answers within themselves."

Another very handy place to use this technique is in the practice of presentations. It's all very well to be prepared, but if something goes awry (a cell phone rings, the wrong slide pops up), it's easy to panic. Anxiety, and stress = sweaty palms, physical tremors, accelerated heart rate and more. When this happens, we begin to focus on the feeling of anxiety and not what's happened to interrupt the presentation. This self-misguided focus exacerbates the problem as we berate ourselves inside, then wish we could just disappear completely.

Instead of all this panic, we need to develop a mind that's still and settled ,so that we can think clearly and communicate effectively. Think of the mind as a pond - a still, quiet pond. Then suddenly a rock plops into the pond and breaks up the calm, still surface. In response to this, in our panic and frustration, we hurl a handful of pebbles into the pond and shout, "Hey, you stupid pond! Settle down!"

We can keep going on this frustrating cycle of thought and stress and continue on, taking it further, thus spiraling downward into deeper and deeper levels of Hell. Or we can follow a simpler, better way of handling things. A five-step process known as mindfulness:

1) Be Aware. You become aware there's a problem (that annoying cell phone, etc.)

2) Practice Stillness and Silence. Stop moving and speaking. DON'T comment on what's happening with inane remarks like, "Whoops - What was I saying? No laughing or face-making. Just be still and silent. This takes discipline and practice but will pay off. The audience won't pay much attention to that cell phone ring if you appear poised.

3) Remember to Breathe. In moments of stress, a typical human reaction is tension and shallow breathing. Our brain is the body part which depends most on a constant fresh supply oxygen so if you're not breathing correctly, your thinking will suffer and you'll make poor decisions.

4) Think. Ask yourself, "How can I recover from this without making it seem important? Without the audience knowing this wasn't in the script?" Even better, ask, "How can I turn this into an opportunity?" Often the best moments in presentations happen as a result of a creative recovery from a mistake or interruption.

5) Speak. (After you've made a rational decision about how to proceed.) Go ahead; now that you've recovered in a mindful way, give it your best, and much-improved, shot.

Taking a moment to become still and mindful is the best antidote to the panic that so many of us feel when making a presentation. Not only while on stage or at an important meeting, but in ANY stressful situation. When panic takes over, we need to remember the five points of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a practice which can benefit many aspects of our lives: it helps reduce physical and psychological symptoms; it increases positive changes in perception, attitude and behavior.

For a more effective, dynamic presentation, ignore your desire for comfort. Dive into the reality of potential mistakes, a cell phone ringing, a siren whining outside the window, dropped index cards with all your valuable notes. You can do it...and appear more human and thus more accessible to your audience.

To paraphrase the principal from the Piedmont school: if we can slow down and think, we have the answers within ourselves.
About the Author
Terry Gault trains and coaches business professionals in the art of communication and presentation through our experiential methodology. Since 1990, The Henderson Group has helped Fortune 500 companies worldwide improve employee productivity and business results through the development of communication skills. You can find us online at SpeakFearlessly.net and HendersonGroup.com
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