I recently did something that I never do...
I stood up in front of a group of people I’d never met and I gave a talk on marketing and branding. It was intimidating. When I first agreed to do it a little voice inside my head said “What the hell are you doing?!” but I ignored that voice and accepted the challenge. I then spent nearly three months preparing. To anyone who has given a talk like this (meaning to a small group with no real consequences if it doesn’t go particularly well), three months is perhaps a long time to prepare. But I was nervous and the best way to get around the nerves was to refocus my energy on preparation. I’m also a firm believer in taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. Sure, I had no real consequences for failure, but if I did well, who knows what additional opportunities might present themselves as a result down the line?
So, I read a book on how to give a great presentation. I asked friends and mentors about their experiences with public speaking. And I went to work crafting content that was engaging, testing out examples until I found the best analogies that would land. I didn’t want to use a script or notes during the presentation, so I also memorized everything I planned to say. To practice, I said the talk out loud while cooking, driving, or even when I was doing my afternoon run. (When I passed someone on the trail I took a pause for their sake. I didn’t want them to be nervous about the women talking to herself while running down the sidewalk!) I did more prep on this talk than almost anything I’ve recently worked on.
The day finally came to give the presentation. The room filled and I received an amazing introduction from a friend and client of mine. As I took the “mic” (there was no actual mic - like I said, it wasn’t that big!) I faltered. I lost my train of thought. No words came. I stumbled for my notes, started to speak again, and then fumbled again. A slight panic began to grip me. I was having a flashback to presenting my college thesis when almost the exact same sensation and lack of words thwarted my attempt to hold a room.
Almost in the exact same moment that panic was sinking in, some more powerful voice (well not even a voice, it was more of a feeling) overtook me. I remembered that I had prepared for this. I knew my stuff. I made eye contact with a few people in the room, felt a calming connection, and pushed forward despite the fact that I knew I sounded like I was reciting a line. I successfully said one whole sentence, then two, then I was through an entire paragraph. I began to speak more casually and less forced. Before I knew it, I was making my closing remarks and then shaking hands with almost everyone in the room as they approached me to introduce themselves and ask questions.
Overall, the talk was a success. But that painful moment in the beginning is what I remember most. I remember that moment almost second by second in excruciating detail. The rest of the presentation is lumped together in my mind as just that, “the rest of the presentation,” with very little detail.
Try as I have, every time I think back on the talk, my focus inevitably drifts to what went wrong. Because that’s what we humans do. Our bad memories are stronger than the good ones. Literally. Studies show that we have to have five good experiences in a given situation to offset a single bad experience in a similar situation. If someone does something that upsets you, they have to make up for it at least 5 times! If you lose $50, you have to gain $250 to make up for the emotional toll of the loss. We are wired to focus on the bad.
So what good is this information? That’s a great question and something I’ve been pondering...For me, it brings awareness that I'm fundamentally wired to be too hard on myself when I’m beating myself up for a slip up. When the battle starts in my head, I now have a legit weapon to use for the "I'm not a total failure" side of the argument!
We punish ourselves too much. It’s a fact. We focus on the negative and give it way more weight than the positive. That’s just silly and self-defeating. I had one minute of fumbling and 39 minutes of successfully presenting. If I look at it that way, I have to congratulate myself on a win.
The next time you’re punishing yourself for what you perceive to be a mistake or flaw, first tell yourself it wasn’t that bad. Because 9 times out of 10, it really wasn’t nearly as bad as we convince ourselves. Then allow yourself to move your focus elsewhere to a more positive takeaway. Every time the negative review starts, intentionally shift your review to something positive about the situation (even if that’s simply that it’s over and a thing of the past!). Remember that crazy ratio: a “loss” gives you 5 times more negative feelings than a win gives you positive feelings. That’s not because a loss is 5 times worse, that’s because we weigh it as 5 times worse.
Get ready to break out your new weapon— Knowledge, baby. Now that you know more about how your mind tends to work against you, consciously make an effort to evenly and appropriately distribute the weight of good and bad experiences. Not only could this lead to a happier life (you are after all getting rid of negative and bringing on more positive, if that doesn’t help with a happier life I don’t know what does!), you’re also speaking to yourself more kindly. You’re showing more self-compassion. And you’re allowing room for more self-confidence. There’s no doubt, that’s a positive outcome.