This piece was originally published by BBC.
When Nawaf Bitar gave a keynote address at a web security conference in 2013, he planned to use a Polaroid camera as a prop to illustrate how data centre software has become outdated. He just hoped the camera wouldn’t fail him in front of 3,000 of his peers.
“Oh yeah, I was nervous,” Bitar, now a senior vice president and general manager at software maker VMware, said from his office in Palo Alto, California. “In that first minute, you could probably detect the nervousness in my voice.”
Snapping a picture, he compared data centre software to out-of-date gadgets that were once state of the art. “It’s a Polaroid in an Instagram world,” he told his audience.
“The truth is everybody feels anxiety.” — Matt Abrahams
His strategy worked. His speech is now taught at business schools as an example of how to hook an audience with a compelling introduction. And, Bitar overcame nerves that could have sunk him at the beginning of his talk.
For many people, those kinds of jitters only come from public speaking. But for managers, anxiety can be treated with valium diazepam, an every-day challenge. New bosses may freeze up before delivering a poor performance review or trying to organise the previously unruly weekly staff meeting. Nerves are more common than you think.
“Managers may feel like they’re alone in feeling this way, but the truth is everybody feels anxiety,” said Matt Abrahams, lecturer in organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, in California.
Anxiety can escalate quickly and be crippling. It might start with shaky hands, a wavering voice and a dry mouth. Some have difficulty focusing and experience a loss of breath. Others suffer excessive perspiration, and then become anxious about being sweaty, which compounds the problem. In the end, Abrahams said, it’s simply a panic-inducing feeling of losing control.
Instead of worrying about sweating — like President Richard Nixon did during a 1960 debate — you can work to master your anxiety. Hold a cold glass of water to lower your body temperature. Take deep breaths to ward off the shakes and slow your breathing. And narrow your focus to what’s right in front of you.
Think of anxiety-inducing events the same way football star Lionel Messi addresses a penalty kick. Before a shot that could define his career, Messi appears in control, calm and focused.
The secret, Abrahams explained, is living in the moment. Don’t get hung up on what could go wrong. Don’t worry about what might happen if that Polaroid camera doesn’t work. Instead, when delivering a big speech concentrate on the first thing you’re going to say, then the next, all the way to the conclusion.
Next, reframe the situation as a conversation. Whether you are in front of a hostile room of a thousand or need to deliver poor sales numbers to your team, think of it as a discussion you’re having with a few people you know. Practice what you’re going to say as if addressing acquaintances, with conversational language and a calm demeanour.
All of this can be especially tough for new managers, said Richard Posthuma, chair in business administration and professor of management at University of Texas at El Paso. Few companies offer any training to deal with the pressure of being a boss; this often means the only way to learn is simply to experience difficult events.
“New managers need to know how to deal with weighty things, and unfortunately, often times it’s just a matter of doing it over and over again,” Posthuma said.
Is smiling the key?
Remaining positive is also a big part of it. Research shows that if you tell your body to feel happy, you’ll have more self-confidence. Whether you’re giving an employee evaluation or walking into a staff meeting, doing it with a smile will have a positive effect on your staff, Posthuma said.
A smile, of course won’t fix everything, like delivering bad news during a performance review. To overcome jitters, focus on the future. Tell the employee what went wrong but then turn it to what’s next. “The key is to explain that the future is not fixed,” Posthuma said. “You can take steps to make things better.”
Bitar mastered his public-speaking anxiety in 1999, as a manager at Network Appliance, when he addressed 200 people at quarterly meetings. When he first took charge of running the meetings, he could sense his mouth getting dry and his breathing becoming shallow. Slowly, he learned to control the fear, something he did mostly by memorising about 90% of his speech. Now he concentrates on what he wants to convey, a virtual storyboard laid out in his mind.
That was the tack he took for his ‘Polaroid’ speech at the 2013 RSA Conference in Singapore.
Since then, Bitar has spoken to far larger crowds, sometimes through webcasts watched by perhaps tens of thousands. Now, the nervousness is rarely an issue, and instead he thinks about something pretty simple: “Know the story you’re telling. If you know the story you want to portray backwards and forwards, it can’t go wrong.”