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Strategy 6: Manage Yourself, Difficult Participants, and Difficult Situations

There are two kinds of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.

—Mark Twain

Managing Yourself

This chapter deals with how to manage yourself, difficult participants and difficult situations. It is also about how expert presenters get into the zone of peak performance, and once they are in it, how they stay there. In explaining the peak performance curve, we would state:

As job pressure increases, performance increases up to a certain point and then declines thereafter. The rustout lacks enough pressure in his job to bring forth his best performance. The burnout has too much pressure, has passed the peak, and has slipped down the performance curve. Highly effective presenters have learned to perform at the top part of the curve—not too much pressure, not too little.

Peak Performance Curve

Figure 6-1:  Peak Performance Curve

The zone of peak performance is where we do our best work. It is analogous to running a marathon. Some people just don't have the motivation or the energy to train enough. They may start the race, but they are too rusted out to finish. At the opposite extreme is the burnout. Burnouts have overtrained and overtaxed their bodies, so that when it is time to start the race, they are sidelined. A better place to be is the zone of peak performance.

The first method to get into the zone of peak performance is to focus on ways to make sure you are working effectively with yourself. Among the topics covered in this section are:

For example, it is important for you to ensure you are making attributions related to effort and/or the need to develop skills rather than ability. For example, if John is having difficulty organizing his topic and he tells himself that he just doesn't have the ability to present, then he has told himself that there is really nothing that he can do about his problem. The probable consequence of this type of attribution is that he will feel badly about himself because of his perceived deficit. On the other hand, if he tells himself that his presentation difficulty can be overcome by more effort, more time, more practice, or by developing better delivery skills or finding a good presentations coach, then there is something that he can do about his problem. The trick is not to be helpless and reactive. We have a choice: be helpless and reactive or be empowered and proactive. Our choice lies in learning how to monitor and change our self-attributions.

Make Appropriate Attributions

Attribution theory deals with how we react to difficulty or obstacles. In this section we are specifically interested in the attributions you make or the things you say to yourself about yourself when you encounter a difficulty or an obstacle. There are two main categories of attributions: those dealing with effort and those dealing with ability. Each of these attributions will result in markedly different types of behaviors as illustrated in Figure 6-2.

Figure 6-2

Focused presenters continually instruct themselves to take control and become active no matter what obstacle they are facing. In the following example, there were unforeseen circumstances that were impossible to ignore.

David: I was to be the opening speaker at a conference set to begin 9 a.m. in Arlington, Texas. At about 8:40, I overheard someone who had just arrived discussing the space shuttle Columbia. News of its tragic explosion and disintegration directly overhead was unfolding and spreading by word of mouth. Yet, by 9 a.m., as the program began, the majority of the 200 people in the room had not heard anything about it. The conference chairperson opened with this: "I just heard from my husband that we are being instructed to stay inside because potentially hazardous debris is falling all around us." "What?" someone shouted. She replied, "Debris from the space shuttle!" "What are you talking about?" "The space shuttle—it just exploded above us!" At this point, the situation was chaotic. No one was sure what had happened yet, and everyone felt devastated. And I was up next.

I knew the audience was not likely to hear my presentation and I thought about discarding it. I then thought it better to ask the audience what they preferred. So I opened with an acknowledgement of what we knew. I explained that what I had to say that day was not as important as what was happening. I asked for a moment of silence in recognition of the astronauts who had just lost their lives. And then I asked if they wanted me to proceed. Unanimously, they said yes, proceed as planned. The program went on by audience request, though more subdued than normal. Afterward, I received many wonderful comments from participants thanking me for the manner in which I handled a difficult situation.

In this case, David made the right decision by listening to his self-talk. One way to help you take a better look at the attributions you make and how they subsequently affect your behavior is to examine your self-talk.

Monitoring/Changing Your Self-Talk

Your self-talk, also known as self-statements, inner speech, or internal dialogue, plays an important part in determining your behavior. As a child, one's self-talk is completely external. For example, a little boy learning to talk would say to himself, "Johnny, put ball in box." As the child grows older this self-talk becomes more rapid, fragmented, and subconscious. Unless close attention is paid, most adults do not fully realize what they are saying to themselves or the way in which their self-talk influences their behavior.

Self-talk can be negative or positive. The three types of negative self-talk are:

  1. Talk-irrelevant. This includes talking to yourself about anything other than the target behavior or task at hand. For example, "I should have gone into another career where I wouldn't have to make presentations."

  2. Self-depreciating. This includes any statements where you put yourself down, such as, "I never could present," or, "I don't even like to talk in small groups, how can I present to a formal audience?"

  3. Task-depreciating. This includes statements where you denigrate the importance of the task, such as, "There are no opportunities for advancement in this organization anyway, so what's the use of knocking myself out over a presentation?"

Examples of negative self-statements that participants in our presentations courses have made to themselves include:

  • Because I haven't started working on my presentation now, it's already too late.

  • What's the use of "another" look at this topic?

  • No matter how hard I try, I just can't come up with a creative title.

  • I find organizing this presentation very difficult and frustrating.

  • Whatever I put together will not be good enough.

  • I am frustrated with not being as articulate, creative, or polished as other presenters I know.

  • I take too much time formulating ideas and sentences.

  • I'm just not smart enough.

There are also three types of positive self-talk, they include:

  1. Task-relevant. This type of positive self-talk occurs when you coach yourself to stay focused, for example, "I have one hour to work. What do I want to accomplish?"

  2. Self-appreciating talk sounds like: "I worked well this morning," or, "This paragraph is well organized."

  3. Task-appreciating talk sounds like: "Being able to make excellent presentations gives me more choice in the kind of work I do."

Examples of positive self-statements that participants in our presentations course have made include:

  • My job prospects will be improved as my ability to give presentations improves.

  • With consistent planning and good work habits I can write and complete my presentation by the scheduled date.

  • My colleagues or friends will be very helpful and they will give me excellent feedback on what works and what needs to be improved.

  • Starting to work on a presentation is always difficult, but it works out in the end, so worrying is not productive.

  • My presentations have improved, my thinking is more sophisticated, and the ideas are good; the language just needs some polishing.

The best way to find out what kind of self-statements you make is to use a sampling procedure to help you analyze your self-talk. Writing down your positive and negative self-statements as you work or think about working on your presentation can help you do this. But instead of keeping track of your self-talk all of the time you are working on your presentation, which would be very distracting, select several time periods during which you will collect this data. For example, you may want to monitor your self-talk when you start working on your presentation, when you stop working on your presentation, or when you think about working on your presentation and decide not to.

Exercise 6-1 has been designed to help you record this data and should be recorded for a period of one week.


Using the template that follows as a guide, keep a record of your presentation-related self-talk for one week. In the left-hand column, record all task-irrelevant, self-depreciating, and task-depreciating self-talk. In the right-hand column, keep a list of your task-relevant, self-appreciating, and task-appreciating self-talk. You may wish to develop a code for frequently occurring self-talk, for example, HP for "I hate presenting," NGP for "I've never been any good at presenting," or BTIT for "That's better than I thought," NGEx for "The point is excellent, now all I need is a great example."


Negative Talk: task-irrelevant, self-depreciating, and task-depreciating

Positive Talk: task-relevant, self-appreciating, and task-appreciating


Research on self-fulfilling prophecies. Some remarkable research on the effect of changing negative self-talk to positive self-talk is worth nothing. In a series of studies on creativity, students were divided into two groups: those who had previously been identified as "creative" and those who had previously been identified as "uncreative." These students were then given various creativity tests and were asked to solve the problems while thinking out loud. The results showed that the uncreative students emitted significantly more task-irrelevant statements, and significantly more self-depreciating and task-depreciating statements while the creative students emitted significantly more task-relevant, self-appreciating, and task-appreciating statements.

When the uncreative students were trained to change their negative self-talk to positive self-talk, the results indicated that these students made significant increases in originality, flexibility, and divergent thinking. In addition, there were positive changes in these students' self-concepts.

Developing a presentation is a creative activity; changing your self-talk from negative to positive will improve the originality and creativity of your presentation as well as improve your self-concept as a presenter. To test this, make a concerted effort to change your negative self-talk.

After recording your self-talk for one week (in Exercise 6-1), use some of the techniques that follow when you encounter negative self-talk.

  1. Use the Stop Technique. For example, say Stop silently to yourself when you first notice that you are becoming distracted, then refocus on the task at hand.

  2. Use a current negative world event to keep things in perspective. For example, when you think, I'll never get this presentation finished by the deadline, say to yourself, Compared to the war in _____ or current famine in _____, how important is this? Then take three deep breaths and continue working.

  3. Use thought reversal. For example, I hate presenting. Well, I didn't like tomatoes, spinach, oysters, or _____ either at first, but I like them now. Or change, I don't want to work this evening, to, I will reward myself with a walk in the park, hot bath, or _____ when I put in this evening's allotted time.

Try this for a week and do Exercise 6-2. When you have finished, compare your self-talk recording sheet from Exercise 6-1 with the one from Exercise 6-2, when you actively intervened to change your self-talk.


Keep a record of your presentation-related self-talk for week two. You should actively intervene when you realize you are engaging in negative self-talk. In the left-hand column record task-irrelevant, self-depreciating, and task-depreciating self-talk. In the right-hand column, keep a list of your task-relevant, self-appreciating, and task-appreciating self-talk. Remember, you can develop a code for frequently occurring self-talk. You may wish to develop a code for frequently occurring self-talk, for example, HP for "I hate presenting," NGP for "I've never been any good at presenting," or BTIT for "That's better than I thought," NGEx for "The point is excellent, now all I need is a great example."


Negative Talk: task-irrelevant, self-depreciating, and task-depreciating

Positive Talk: task-relevant, self-appreciating, and task-appreciating


Perfect Perfectionism

Many presenters suffer from perfectionistic tendencies. These tendencies usually increase during times of high anxiety, and you will need to identify the point at which your need for perfection becomes dysfunctional. One way to do this is with a cost/benefit analysis.

You can ask yourself what is the cost of developing a 99-percent perfect presentation compared to the cost of developing a 95-percent perfect presentation. The cost of that extra perfectionism may not be worth it. One of our clients, Linda, found that she was so focused on developing a perfect presentation that she wasn't getting anything done. Once she realized the cost of her perfectionism and allowed herself to develop a less-than-perfect first draft of her presentation, she began to be productive. Not only did she get the work done, but it was at a less personal cost to herself. In addition, the quality of her work was as good as, if not better than, before.

Besides dealing with your own expectations, many presenters often project their perfectionistic tendencies onto their potential audiences and allow these expectations to inhibit their work. One of the things that helped Brad with this problem was to say to himself that it is his audiences' job to assess the quality of his work and it wasn't up to him to do their work for them.

David: When I started as a speaker, I thought my goal was to be perfect. What a mistake that was. First, I learned that perfection is not possible. Next, I learned that it is not even desirable. I also learned that an occasional fumble or stumble can actually help you connect with an audience. It shows you are human and thus, more approachable. The audience reads that as "The speaker is real, fallible, and just like me." It is important to note, however, that I said "an occasional fumble." A few are acceptable; too many are intolerable. A colleague, E. J. Buray, said, "Perfection is not possible. Mere excellence will be good enough."

Similarly, I learned that if we hold on to a project until it is "perfect," it will never be done. I admit, I fought this tendency all the time. I continually fussed over a project until it was "perfect." The problem was, I could always find a way to make the project better, so my work was never done. Finally, Stephen Kent, a colleague, told me of the best advice he received. He said, "Done is better than perfect, every time." When I finally accepted that wisdom, I was able to take a project to completion, comforted by the knowledge that I could always go back and make it better. But if I waited until it was perfect, I would be waiting forever. In sum, a good presenter doesn't waste time and effort striving for perfection, but they do strive for excellence.

Locus of Control

Psychologist Julian Rotter did research on locus of control. According to Rotter, people are located along a normally distributed continuum (see Figure 6-3), where one end point is characterized by people who are external and the other is characterized by people who are internal. People who are at the external end of the continuum believe that what happens to them is a result of fate, chance, luck, or external circumstances. In other words, they tend to view themselves as being acted upon rather than as actors. People who are at the internal end of the continuum believe that what happens to them is a result of their own behavior. Effective presenters take an internal stance regarding themselves in the development of their presentations.

External-Internal Locus of Control

Figure 6-3:  External/Internal Locus of Control

Five factors related to your locus of control in regard to developing, rehearsing, and delivering your presentations are:

  1. Your level of commitment to finishing your presentation.

  2. How you handle the roadblocks and obstacles that get in your way.

  3. The amount of persistence you bring to the task.

  4. The ability to forgive yourself and start over again when you make a mistake.

  5. How you control excess anxiety.

1. Commitment. It has been said that the two hardest things in developing a presentation are starting it and finishing it. Starting and finishing a presentation takes a high degree of commitment. One technique that is helpful is to ask yourself how committed you are to finishing your presentation. There are three levels of commitment: intellectual, irregular, and true commitment. At the intellectual level of commitment, you say you are committed, but your behavior doesn't match. In other words, you are not doing anything tangible and little, if any, progress is being made. At the level of irregular commitment, you work on the presentation one day, but not the next. Progress is painfully slow and when you do get back into it, you waste a lot of time trying to figure out what you are doing or where you are heading.

If you are operating at the level of true commitment, you follow Stephen Covey's advice by "putting first things first." You know that you are at the level of true commitment by looking at your behavior. You have set up a work schedule and you are sticking to it. You are taking advantage of working at prime times (the time of the day when you are most alert and work and concentrate the best). You have also made sure that you will not be interrupted unless there is an emergency.

One way to increase your commitment is to plan a reward for when you have achieved a milestone in completing your presentation or even a section therein. The reward could be anything from a dinner out, going to see a much-anticipated movie, a walk in the park, or a game of golf.

2. Handling roadblocks. There will be times when you are working well, there will be times when you are working adequately, and there will be times when you are not working well at all. This is to be expected. It is important to note how you handle the times when things are not going well. Let's look at how two presenters handle the same situation. Tom was working extremely well and was very pleased with himself. The following week he had to do some unexpected traveling, which threw off his whole work schedule. Tom became very discouraged, stopped working completely, abdicated control, and ended up depressed. Sue was in a similar situation, but had scheduled some extra time into her plan, just to accommodate unexpected delays. Therefore, the extra travel time did not completely upset her work schedule. Her strategy was to ask herself if there was anything she could learn from this situation, in order to prevent or minimize this type of interference in the future. In other words, she reestablished control by being solution-oriented rather than problem-oriented. Sue knew that there would be some days when she would work better than others and she did not criticize herself for the things that went wrong. You have enough to do in developing your presentation without wasting time and energy by being your own worst enemy.

3. Persistence. To run a marathon requires a great deal of training and a lot of persistence. In fact, completing a marathon has as much to do with persistence as it does with ability. A presentation is like a marathon. Developing a presentation becomes a question of putting the time in whether you feel like it or not, and it is up to you to structure your life in order to get the job done. You can do this by using techniques such as having a set time and place to work, setting manageable time-limited goals, monitoring the use of your time, or eliminating or postponing other activities. These techniques will help you to program your presentation into your daily schedule. Eventually the natural rewards of completing the presentation will make working on it easier and easier and as you build up momentum, the issue of persistence will largely take care of itself.

4. Forgiving yourself. Even with the best of intentions, we all make mistakes. One of the factors that separates the top notch presenters from their less masterful counterparts is the ability to limit the damage from the mistake and to learn from it so that it doesn't happen again.

If you don't fail now and then, it means you aren't reaching far enough, and you aren't growing.

—John Paul Getty

Author and presenter Richard Bolles says everyone is entitled to an off day:

An unknown genius once said, "To forgive oneself is to give up all hope of ever having a better past." In other words, you look back only briefly, to see what you can learn from that mistake, and then you resolutely turn your face toward the future. Those who cannot forgive themselves are those who keep dwelling on their past mistake or mistakes, in their mind and in their meditative moments, as though this could create a better past. I never do this. I expect to fail sometimes so, when I do, I simply say, "Ah well, that's part of being human." Part of being human is also learning to improve.

I once gave a talk where the listener evaluation of "excellent or good" was only 66 percent. The next time I gave a talk (to that same group, as it turned out) I got an evaluation of "excellent or good" from 97 percent of the listeners. That never would have happened had I obsessed over what went wrong the year before. That is the secret for all of us. We are human. We will fail sometimes. But every moment you or I spend dwelling on that failure only saps us of the energy we need to deliver better talks in the future. We only have so much energy in us; what energy we have should always be employed in the service of the future, not of the past.

It is interesting to note how forgiving our audiences and our society can be, if the person admits the mistake. For example, every day we hear of someone who makes a mistake, whether personally or professionally, and as soon as they admit the mistake people rush to support them. In fact, there are many times when the person who admitted it fares better in the public eye than someone who didn't err in the first place. Conversely, when you err and try to deny it, it can be much more harmful than a frank admission of the facts would have been. Bill Clinton can attest to this. Similarly, audiences forgive a presenter's blunders if the presenter acknowledges or addresses them; audiences will not be as tolerant if the presenter ignores or denies blunders.

A colleague, Pat Lasaruk, told us that one of the best things someone said to her at a train-the-trainer program was: "You are going to make mistakes and do things you wish you hadn't when you are presenting. This is referred to as ‘laying an egg.’ Turn around admire your egg, hatch it for the wisdom it contains, and then move on."

In other words, acknowledge your mistakes, apologize if appropriate, and proceed smarter. This is a natural part of the learning process.

5. Controlling excess anxiety. Almost all speakers have or have had anxiety before and during a particular presentation. In fact, a certain amount of stress, tension, and anxiety are necessary in order to be a peak performer as the peak performance curve demonstrated in Figure 6-1. The trick is to control the excess anxiety, not let it control you. In the section below, we will examine six methods presenters use to control excess anxiety.

Differentiating Between Normal and Excess Anxiety

Just differentiating between normal and excess anxiety will help you. Some anxiety, stress, and tension are necessary. Your job is not to eliminate anxiety; that would be counterproductive. Your job is to control your excess anxiety. Normal anxiety is when you are totally prepared for your presentation. You may still be nervous about presenting, but you are confident that as soon as you get going, you will settle down. Excess anxiety is when you worry that you will forget some important points or that you will get them in the wrong order or that you don't know the transitions from one part of the presentation to the next. You start the presentation with a great deal of fear and foreboding and it never gets any better. Techniques to control excess anxiety follow.

Make a checklist. Almost nothing makes presenters more anxious than arriving to give the presentation only to find that some key material or a critical piece of equipment is missing. One of the reasons that flying is one of the safest ways to travel is that the pilot and co-pilot must go through extensive checklists before taking off. Sharp presenters not only have a checklist, they have a Plan B for those times when something happens that is beyond their control, such as the computer or projector dying in the middle of a presentation, a general power outage, or other such calamities. In other words, if you plan for the unexpected, then you won't be thrown off if it occurs. And make no mistake, at some time, some type of disaster will occur.

David: I recommend three checklists: one for packing before you leave home, another for setting up onsite, and a third for packing up at the end of the presentation. Copies of my checklists are shown in Appendix D. Whenever I discover—always too late—that I left something behind, it's the result of not using one of these checklists.

Physical activity. Exercise is the natural antidote to stress. Therefore, getting into good shape and staying in good shape is a natural stress reducer. Go for a run or a brisk walk before your presentation. If it is raining or too cold, go up and down the stairs, jog in place, or do a few push-ups. Presentations author David Peoples suggests you can release tension by pulling at the rungs of the chair you are sitting in or pushing up under the table at which you are seated to alternately increase and release the tension. Please note that this needs to be done as unobtrusively as possible. And don't overdo it; you don't want to look as if you are in the middle of a workout.

Deep breathing. Rapid, shallow breathing increases stress, but slow, measured, deep breathing is nature's tranquilizer. Try it the next time you feel nervous prior to taking the platform. Take 10 deep breaths over the course of one minute—three seconds to breathe in and three seconds to breathe out. By concentrating on the rhythm and timing of the breaths you take, your focus will become sharper—partly because you will not be dwelling on all the typically negative "what if's," and partly because you will increase the oxygen level in your blood. Just make sure you don't overdo it and hyperventilate.

Use lip gloss or lip balm. Often when you become nervous your mouth dries out, especially your lips. We then mentally make the attribution that our dry mouth proves how anxious we are and this reinforces our thought that we are nervous. It's a vicious circle. There are two ways to intervene: We can change our attributions and we can treat the symptoms of anxiety such as dry mouth. A simple application of lip gloss, lip balm, or Vaseline will keep your lips moist and increase your comfort level.

Talk with participants before presenting. Talking with participants before the presentation starts can be a great way to relax. The reason is that after you've shared a few pleasantries or shared a few laughs, the ice is broken. When you take the stage, you are no longer speaking to a group of strangers. As a bonus, you may get some valuable clues on how to better align your presentation with that particular audience's needs and expectations. As an added bonus, by focusing on the participants, you will be less likely to focus on yourself and your own nervousness.

Know your opening and closing cold. Know your opening and closing so well that you could present them in your sleep. Almost all presenters we interviewed reported that once they get through the opening and it goes well, there is a big sense of relief. On the other hand, when the opening doesn't go well, there is a marked increase in distress.

David: I have a standard four- to five-minute humorous opening specifically designed to read the audience. It's some of my sure-fire material that I have high confidence in. I know that when I get my usual response, I'm going to have a good presentation. On the other hand, when the response is subdued, I know I will have a tougher go of it. When my best material doesn't work, I know I will have to make adjustments to my presentation and/or brace for a less-than-satisfying presentation. If I constantly changed my opening, I wouldn't know if the problem was with the material, with the audience, or with me.

Similarly, knowing your closing as well as your opening will give you added confidence at a critical point in which many presentations are made memorable or forgettable. Remember the laws of primacy and recency—we remember best that which we hear first and last. Therefore, your conclusion should be as perfect as possible. If you close as strongly as you open, you will be well on your way to becoming a masterful presenter.

Make eye contact with friendly participants. In any audience there will be friendly faces—find them, they will give you reassurance when you need it most. Start by making eye contact with a friendly face in one part of the room, and then do the same thing with someone else in another part of the room. Search out the participants who are nodding in agreement as you speak. There may be a sparkle in their eyes or an encouraging smile. Come back to these people when you start to feel uncomfortable or ill at ease. Soon you will be feeling more comfortable with most, if not all, of the participants.

Increasing Your Sense of Control

To help you increase your sense of control in developing and delivering your presentation, ask yourself the following questions: "To gain more control over the development and delivery of my presentation, how should I behave differently?" or, "How can I structure my personal environment/situation/life so I have more control?" If possible, check your conclusions with an objective colleague and then design a plan to act on your recommendations. You may want to pay particular attention to how you could increase and demonstrate a higher level of commitment to finishing your presentation, how you deal with and overcome roadblocks, the level of persistence you apply to your work, the types of attributions you make when you encounter an obstacle or make a mistake, and how you could better control excess anxiety. Answer these questions as specifically and in as much detail as you can in Exercise 6-3.


Please write down the steps you could take to increase your control over developing and completing your presentation in a reasonable amount of time.

In summary, you always have more control and more options than you think. Sometimes it just takes a little help to see that you do. Even though it may be difficult to admit to yourself that you need help, it is a statement of strength rather than of weakness. You owe it to yourself to explore all of your options. Getting good help is one option that should not be overlooked.

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