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Poised for Success: How Developing Self-Awareness Can Improve Your Presentations

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There are a number of factors that determine how your audience will judge you and subsequently your message, one of the most visible being your posture. Posture is a reflection of your attitude and may at times betray your misgivings or uncertainties in difficult situations like an important presentation. You would normally not consider revealing your inner most thoughts to your audience about exactly how you feel about your new product or service; but your body language may be doing just that. A substantial part of communication is based on non-verbal aspects such as body language. When preparing a presentation much thought is given to its content yet there is far more to it than just words. Some of the best-prepared presentations can be badly let down by how you look and behave during the delivery. When Richard Nixon spoke to the American public of his involvement in the Watergate scandal his performance was received more favourably by radio audiences than those who saw a worried, hunched and perspiring president on the television. How you hold yourself, the movements you make and the gestures you use all contribute to how well your presentation is received.

Our innate ability to read much about someone from his or her posture, or body language, has elevated its importance in society. From an early age parents and teachers will probably have told you not to slump but instead to stand or sit up straight. In some schools, books are still placed on top of the head to encourage the pupil into the right sort of position commonly known as 'good posture'. If you do not look good people will get the wrong impression, slumping is associated with laziness whilst an upright person is interpreted as reliable, dependable and basically good. It is no coincidence that many words used to describe character are related to what we see, for example, from 'balanced' and 'centred' to the opposite extreme of 'spineless'.

Posture and Performance

It is widely accepted that many health problems can arise from poor posture. However, attempts to attain a good posture can also have a detrimental effect on health and consequently how you perform. Sustained periods of fixed postures can be a contributory factor in many conditions such as neck, shoulder or back pain, headaches, tiredness and poor circulation. So not only does your posture influence your position and reputation in a community it also has implications on your health.

The conventional concept of posture has caused it to become associated with effort, stiffness, discomfort and something you have to remember to do from time to time when it is necessary to create a good impression. The common response to the thought of correcting posture is to adopt a military style stance and throw the shoulders back, the chest forward and hollow the lower back. However, these actions increase muscular tension and distort the body to the point where functions such as breathing, circulation and even voice production are impeded.

A good voice adds weight to a presentation. The quality of your voice is dependent on resonance and breathing, both are reliant on a good posture. If your attempt to stand up straight results in inappropriate tension the movement of your ribcage will be restricted and other parts have to compensate in order to get air into the lungs resulting in further unnecessary effort. This tension held in the body also affects the body's ability to resonate making it harder to project the voice. A sore throat is a symptom of a poorly balanced speaker who misuses the muscles of the throat and thorax in an attempt to increase volume.

There are few speakers who do not at some stage suffer from performance stress. In addition to the obvious signs of stress such as increased heart rate and breathing there is also a more physical reaction as the muscles of the neck and shoulders contract. This response, known as the strauss startle pattern, pulls the head back and down causing the larynx to become constricted thus reducing the space for expelled air to pass over the vocal cords. This lowers the volume of the voice and leaves the speaker, oblivious of the tension in the neck, no choice but to try to speak louder by using more misapplied effort. This becomes a viscous circle as more effort leads to further difficulties such as loss of confidence and even embarrassment; neither is conducive to good presentations. This response is both visible and audible to the group as your voice may begin to tremble and your posture is interpreted as a person who is uneasy with what they have to say.

So here is a dilemma. If good posture can determine your status in the minds of others it requires attention, yet if attempts to directly improve it can lead to excessive effort and distortion there is a conflict. The solution is rather than trying to make your posture look right you should focus on what it is you may be doing to make it look wrong.

Changing Postural Habits If you have ever seen a video of yourself presenting, or even at a family wedding, you may at first have difficulty recognising yourself. There will be many actions you perform that look odd simply because you are unaware of doing them. These may include constantly shifting your weight from one leg to the other, putting hands in pockets or rounding your shoulders and are known as conditioned reflexes ? a response performed over and over again until it has become a subconscious habit. It is these habits that need to be addressed to help promote the easiest way to an effortless upright stance.

You stand the way you do because it is a habit and once a habit is learnt it cannot be unlearnt simply by trying harder. It would be counterproductive to try to stand up straight to create the right impression because from the physiological aspect it is not the shape that is important but how it is maintained. The human body has a number of systems to maintain posture namely, the postural and balance mechanisms that activate the appropriate muscles in response to changes in position. When we attempt to 'stand up straight' the conscious mind overrides the body's innate systems that know what is best for balance. A company whose managing director sweeps the factory floor would not be considered the most efficient of organisations! The balance mechanisms work at a subconscious level and should therefore be left to their own devices to perform their function. The best way to allow this to happen is actually quite simple. By having an awareness of the floor beneath your feet can help to promote effortless standing and movement. Gravity gets a lot of negative press and is often blamed for many ills we suffer such as backache and tiredness. The human body has developed ways over millions of years to 'defeat' gravity so you can stand up and move around the Earth's surface. Newton's third law of motion states that 'for every action there is an equal opposite reaction'. Rather then being pulled down by gravity the body uses it for support. In response to your weight going into the floor (support force), there is an equal force that 'pushes' you back up (ground reaction force). This force is a constant and can be used to help ground or centre you during a presentation. If when standing you can think of letting your heels drop to the floor and simultaneously think of growing up away from them this will help activate the postural reflexes and release unnecessary tension.

Through self-awareness it is possible to maintain the sensation of support from the floor and determine whether you are using unnecessary effort whilst delivering your presentation. To improve self-awareness it is necessary to develop the ability to 'be in the moment' allowing both external and internal events to be observed. The very public, and often vulnerable, act of delivering a presentation can divert attention away from the physical body and reduce awareness of the self to the point were you can become inept at performing the most basic functions. This is evident in a large percentage of presenters who become clumsy and struggle to change a video, maintain balance or even operate a computer mouse. Again all these actions are interpreted by your audience and do not give an impression of confidence and ability.

So what is meant by self-awareness? This is simply being aware that 'this is me in this moment' and can help to calm you down making it easier to think and be more conscious of your actions. There are many ways to practice self-awareness skills including meditation, yoga, mindful sports activities or even taking a few minutes to just sit at your desk and observe how you do it, are you fixed, slumped or are you allowing the chair to push you up. With practice these experiences will help you to become more attentive to how you act even in stressful moments when the pressure is on you to perform.

The ability to allow your body to 'just stand' helps to promote poise. When you are poised, inappropriate muscular actions are not a problem leaving you in a better-balanced state, both physically and mentally. Breathing and speaking become easier allowing you to focus on the presentation with the knowledge that you body will not let you down. When you perceive things are going well confidence improves along with your posture as this reflects your attitude. In the absence of annoying habits, your audience will be able to listen consciously to your words whilst subconsciously picking up the right impression from your poised attitude.

In the late 1890s an Australian actor called F.M. Alexander developed a radical approach to tackle a career-limiting problem with his voice. His method evolved into what is now known as The Alexander Technique and is widely used by people in sport, education, business and the performing arts. It is a valuable tool for developing the level of self-awareness necessary for addressing habits that may be limiting your potential.

Roy Palmer MSTAT Member of The Society of Teachers of The Alexander Technique ECB Level 1 Cricket Coach

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