The Empty Space

img_0460Ah, the empty space, how its stillness beckons. Those few precious moments prior the arrival of an audience — so full of promise and anticipation. They are beautifully quiet, wonderfully serene. I cherish them madly.

Yeah, right.

Let’s be honest… these moments are not filled with silent wonder — they are ridden with anxiety, fear and I usually want to puke.

On those rare occasions where it’s possible, I like to arrive early for a presentation to test the technology and hopefully sneak in a rehearsal, acclimatize to the setting, get a feel for the environment. But, like most things in life, it’s the waiting that kills you. My mind races with all the possible scenarios where everything goes wrong.

But, perhaps this is simply a matter of perspective. Recently I found myself in exactly such a situation. Instead of shivering in the corner with my hands over my head, I used the time for some quiet reflection and contemplation.

It occurred to me that the empty space in the auditorium was a bare stage, and on it was nothing but possibility. Very soon, the hall would be filled and every person in attendance would come with an expectation. Some expectations, no doubt, would be loftier than others — but in the world I work in, nobody really expects much from a presentation. We’ve been subject to so many “deadly” works of mind-numbing boredom that our expectations are pretty low.

And yet… there was that possibility. And in possibility, there is hope.

This is going to sound pretentious (actually, that’s because it is pretentious), but I was reminded of my early days as a theatre student. One of the premier voices in dramatic theory is stage director Peter Brook, whose book The Empty Space provided the foundation to my theatrical career. In it, he writes:

I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.

Yeah, I used to quote Brook a lot back then (I was sooo scholarly!). But the application of his theory to presentations is worth, at the very least, some consideration. The empty space is a gift. It’s untarnished, unspoiled. A bare stage in front of a blank screen or the whitespace of a yet-to-be-filled PowerPoint slide… is the opportunity to engage. And all it takes is for someone to walk into that space and suddenly — he or she is a presenter.

We have such a tendency to over-fill this space with information. Like the theatre of the day, too much drama, grandeur and spectacle. Too many damn bullets. Certainly in my business, presenters feel like every inch of whitespace needs to be filled with incomprehensible information. The basic practice is that if something doesn’t fit, change the font size until it does. I’ve actually seen fine print on a slide. FINE PRINT!

This is a travesty. It’s waste — wasted time and wasted opportunity.

If we simply shift our outlook a little, and respect the promise of the empty space, not only will presenting become easier, and far less stressful, but better — because our focus will shift too. Instead of focusing on filling the void, we’ll engage the listener.

All a presenter needs is an empty space, a story to tell, and an audience.

Stage Fright

stage fright

I gave the presentation of my life last week.   Standing there, among a group of senior executives looking at me expectantly I felt invincible, like a Cy Young winning pitcher throwing a perfect game.   Actually, nah.   The only thing I wanted to throw was my breakfast all over the floor. I wanted to vomit, and this isn’t a rare occurrence. It happens every time, without fail.

You wouldn’t think of it to look at me.  At least, that’s what people tell me.   They say things like ‘but it’s so effortless for you’ or ‘it’s easy for you because you’re an extrovert.’  But this is an illusion.  One, I’m a textbook introvert.  And two, no matter  how often I present, no matter how good I am at it, no matter how well I perform… I feel like puking my guts out.

Every single time.

Fear is a major adversary for anyone who stands in front of a group of people ready to be judged.  Even that sentence makes me sweat.   The fear of judgement, of screwing up, of forgetting your ‘lines’, of looking nervous plays on  ‘repeat’ in your mind, takes form in your guts and stays there. It is the number one killer of presentations today. It’s no wonder that so many people list fear of public speaking as their primary dread… over spiders, snakes, and homicidal clowns.

But fear can also be your friend.

Let me tell you a story…

Years ago, during my days in the theatre, I was performing in a one-man show called Tintin Untold — a play that I wrote myself so had no excuse for not knowing the lines.   About mid-way through one of the performances, in front of a sold-out house, I lost my place in the script and froze.  Without a clue of what to say next.

Time stopped and panic set in. The only sound I could hear was the heavy thumping of my heart in my ears (and my inner voice screaming HOLY SHIT). My stomach simmered and gurgled and I could feel whatever I ate that morning slowly working its way into my throat. I was sure I was about to do something far worse than forget my lines on stage. I was about to puke on the audience.

Now, every time I’m about to start a presentation, I remember that moment. I see myself standing on the edge of failure about to vomit on innocent spectators. But instead of letting it get the better of me, I use it. Because I remember what happened next.

While I did throw up a little in my mouth, the release actually gave me the chance to take a breath, shake it off, and say to the audience, “I’m so glad we could share this moment of reflection.” It got a nice laugh and some very kind, forgiving applause. And the moment allowed me to gather my thoughts, find my place in the script and carry on with my performance.

It also taught me that nothing is ever as bad as it seems, and sometimes all you need to do breathe. It makes a world of difference.

Whenever someone tells me they’re not nervous before a presentation, I wonder if they’re lying, not taking it seriously enough or they’re a sociopath.  We are naturally social beings engineered to care what other people think – to one extent or another.

But instead of allowing fear to be a barrier, we can use it to motivate us to be at our best – to put in the time, to practice, to perfect, to be fully prepared before we take to the stage. If we have done all that, then no matter what happens, we will be able to recover, and we’ll get through it.

Remember, when you are presenting, you are never alone. There is a room full of people who actually want you to succeed. You have all kinds of tools at your disposal to help you recover if necessary. Take a sip of water. Ask for questions from the audience. Or, just stop in your tracks, shut your eyes, take a deep breath, throw up a little bit in your mouth and carry on. Most people won’t notice and those that do, won’t mind.

What’s more, it’s okay to be nervous. Your fear is a good thing — it gets your adrenaline going, your blood pumping, your energy up. It doesn’t own you. It’s your fear, you own it. You are here for a reason. This is your show.

So take a breath, look to your audience, and engage.

Unless, of course, your audience happens to be a group of homicidal clowns.