This past week has been a week of challenges. Physically – reaching the end of the first trimester of my second pregnancy, and trying to get over the physical challenges of feeling ill and start to get back into exercise, and also trying to push through that tired feeling. On top of that I was asked to give a short opening presentation on a safety topic at the start of a large company meeting last Thursday. This wasn’t just any company meeting, it was a meeting for all expatriate employees to hear about upcoming restructuring and layoffs. It was not a happy meeting. And I was going to be the opener. Great……
But this wasn’t the kind of ‘opportunity’ that you said no to. It was going to be seen by all the senior managers in the country. An opportunity to set me apart, or a big flop….?? I generally take these types of things on head first, without looking back or considering a way out. So I jumped straight in, and came up with an idea that I wanted to share. I figured that such a difficult environment would need diffusing if I wanted any hope that people would listen to me at all. And I know that personal stories are always much more impactful than statistics, facts or numbers. So I decided to tell the story of a large catastrophe that I was a first responder at – and the lessons I learnt from that event about safety, with the key take-aways being dealing with stress and difficult situations to try to relate it back to the current downturn and layoff environment. And being such a high profile meeting, many other managers had their views on what I should talk about. Some of which may have been relevant, although not a topic I felt qualified to speak on, and others were just not something I felt was pertinent to the audience at this time. So I was glad to be supported on my suggested topic.
A couple of things I did that helped to make the topic relevant to the audience was firstly to tell a story and make it real – by sharing details of what was happening in my life as the catastrophe occurred, I was able to make it come to life for them. I tried to steer away from too many technical details, as my key message was about dealing with stressful situations. I focused on the people and the impact this event had on them, and how we got through it. And I shared facts in a way that everyone could relate to – such as heights compared with powerlines or volumes compared with swimming pools. I also tried not to rely on powerpoint slides or words on a screen, but to speak from the heart and use the screen for images to help my story come alive.
Some feedback I got was that I was very composed and the story came naturally. I was even asked if I had given this presentation before (I had come up with idea two days earlier). There were several techniques I used to ensure that I came across calm to the audience. The first was to speak on a topic that I felt passionate about, and had authority to speak on. Rather than pick an arbitrary safety topic, I picked something that I felt really impacted me, and also that I felt I could relate back to the key topic of the meeting (layoffs and restructuring). I ran the key themes by the manager organizing the meeting to get their feedback. I also practiced what I was going to say at least half a dozen times over the two days leading up to the meeting. Even though it was only a 5 – 7 minute presentation, and was a topic very close to me, I knew that practice would help calm my nerves and make sure I got my key messages out in the short time I was allotted. The benefit of practice meant that by the time I gave the presentation, I didn’t need my prompts, and had a few little stories and key facts that I wanted to share, and even if I didn’t give the whole presentation as I practiced, I could weave these stories and facts into the presentation and make sure I covered everything I wanted to. Finally, I arrived early and practiced in the empty meeting hall to make sure I was familiar with the room and the AudioVisual logistics of that room. Giving a presentation standing at the front of a large room, with a big screen behind me and speaking into a microphone is a lot different to practicing by myself in my office.
I also employed some more general techniques to calm my nerves over the course of the day. The first couple I tried I heard about in an interview with Denise Duffield-Thomas, author of the book ‘Lucky Bitch’ and money-mindset coach. The first thing Denise shared was that to make a million bucks, it helps to ‘feel like a million bucks’. Its true that often after getting my hair done or putting in some extra effort with my make-up or clothes – I feel like I could take on the world. This was definitely true before my big presentation, and I made some extra special efforts that day to help give me that little boost. I spent extra time on my hair and make-up in the morning, I pulled out a dress I really like and haven’t worn for a long time and spiced it up with a fun little patterned jacket that I love over the top. Already by the time I walked into the elevators that morning I was getting compliments. That small extra effort in the morning helped me to ‘own’ that room during the presentation. The other thing I learned from Denise is that many of us (particularly women) don’t use the things we have – we ‘save’ them, or want to ‘use up’ our old things so keep our shining new items tucked away. She claims that bringing out new things is an easy and cheap way to give ourselves an ‘upgrade’ in our life. I had been given a gorgeous red leather tote bag for Christmas, and I was guilty of leaving it wrapped up in the cloth bag it came in, not wanting to bring it out in case it got scratched or damaged. I decided that was the day I should use this gorgeous bag, and I walked into my office that morning, with my gorgeous tote bag packed with my 2016 Spark planner and special pens, my snacks for the day and other bits and pieces I needed, rather than the old bag I had been stuffing everything into but it really didn’t fit – I really had a boost for the day.
In addition, as I started to feel anxious as the big meeting approached, I stopped letting my thoughts get the better of me, I took a few deep breaths and I went for a walk around my floor. As I did so I ran into a young engineer who was facing some challenges. I was able to spend some time discussing the issues he was facing, and help him to develop a plan forward to make some progress. I realized later that this was another technique to deal with stress and nerves – be of service to others – it really helps to get out of your own head and suddenly the thoughts that were plaguing me and anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach had disappeared.
I’m glad I took on the challenge to give the opening at this difficult meeting, and followed my instincts on a pertinent topic – I felt calm, confident and composed as I gave the presentation, and got a lot of positive feedback on how it went. When I approached the presentation, I didn’t think of the downsides or negative outcomes, but came at with a mentality of wanting to share my story and be of service to others. This mindset, coupled with my preparation and calming techniques, I think helped to make the day a real success. I’m trying to use this as a lesson around what other things get me nervous or stressed, and how can I turn that stress around to hit it out of the park? Often it’s the things that are the most nerve-wracking or have the most at stake that can lead to the most impactful or game-changing outcomes.