Stop Adrenaline from Taking Over Your Brain and Leaving You High and Dry!

Stewart Bewley

The Hero’s Journey — we know it well, Catniss Everdeen wins the Hunger Games, Frodo finally destroys the ring, Luke Skywalker becomes a Jedi and repels the Dark Force, Andy Dufresne escapes Shawshank. We love it. In fact if there isn’t a hero on a journey we switch off. If you have ever seen “16 years in Provence” you’ll know what I mean — a man and his wife retire, drink wine, plants a vineyard … and that’s it. Most presentations we have come across over our time at Amplify are like that. Except they actually do have a story. They aren’t stuck in a perpetual vineyard fretting over wine and cheese, they are stopping villains from getting our data, they are getting people with no bank account paid and into jobs … the stories are ripe and ready. They just don’t tell them well.

Why is that? Well if the hero in this story is the story-telling startup/corporate, then the villain that steals it is adrenaline. Adrenaline is this wonderful thing that fires through our body and makes us run for the hills when we see danger, but sadly fires through our bodies and tries to get us to run for the hills when we go to speak in public — it sees danger. The brain can’t differentiate between social threat and physical threat — it is the same impulse and puts it into Fight/Flight mode. So when we go to speak it sees social threat and says “Shut down — alert, alert, run for the hills”. It protects itself and leaves you high and dry, dry in the mouth and stuck in a dry desert of jargon

Is there an off switch? Of if there isn’t, is there a way we can tell the brain we are okay and control adrenaline? Amy Cuddy in her TED talk on body language gets us near this exciting zone when she talks about power poses — if we can learn to stand and sit in a power pose (a bit like a super hero) we are actually firing our body with testosterone, which is the anti- “run for the hills” hormone we need. This is great, except when you are halfway through a pitch or the nerves kick in and you can’t pause and pretend to be a super hero … Well you could, it would certainly male you unforgettable.

What if we could train our bodies like athletes train theirs to control adrenaline and use it it in our favour? What if we knew our triggers that send us running for the hills and stepped out of their way instead of being run over them? What would happen then? We would be fully present to the audience, fully present to ourselves and fully present to the story we are telling.

We are wired for story — it’s how we understand the world as humans and how we explain the world to our kids. We certainly don’t use powerpoint and abstracts. So to be able to get your panicking protective self out of the way and to tell a good story is incredibly satisfying. Once you have done it well then you start to create a habit — the habit of story-telling. You can start to re-populate your brain with oxygen, your memories with good presentations and that will instill confidence into you as a great presenter.

How we do it? Here are some things to start you on your journey.

  1. Prepare your presentation as a two and a half minute pitch — no longer. Deliver it to someone safe and get that person to ask you questions about it (Why? What? How?). Record the questions you answer as well as the presentation you gave. Your answers will be full of story and your presentation may well be full of “things I must say”. Scrap the presentation and re-write, using the answers you gave. Keep your presentation as informal and real as the answers.
  2. When you re-do your two and a half minute presentation give your audience permission to interrupt you at any point with these phrases: “which means” and “because”. These phrases, a bit like the questions above will get you out of your “speak lots of jargon and sound important” flow and force you to say what you actually mean, to backup what you said with a story and a “Why”? No one cares about the what until they get the “Why”. Hopefully you will be so annoyed by the interruptions which means that you will answer with passion, very specifically and get straight to the point. Record these answers and include them in your presentation.

If you can practise these two story-telling techniques regularly in a safe environment you will be able to start to interrupt your panicking self when you are presenting and take us back to the story. It doesn’t mean it will always go well or be easy and you may have to pause and start again. Which in itself is a bold move. But as far as I am aware no one ever got fired for pausing, rewinding, taking a breath and starting again.