iangilham.com

By on

musings

I first wrote this article back in February 2010 but lacked a suitable medium to share it. Now I publish it in full.

Self-confidence is a major stumbling block for a lot of people. Problems in this area can manifest as performance anxiety, exam stress, and fear of approaching people in public. Let’s take a look at some of the more salient issues people suffer and some concrete methods of overcoming them as well as some general methods for raising your personal confidence level and cultivating a sense of inner peace in all areas of our daily lives.

Classifying Fear

People have many specific fears but they can often be generalised into simple categories. Performance anxiety is a very general category that can cover a wealth of different activities: from public speaking to teaching; from karaoke to concert performances and anticipation of sex with a new partner. Then there’s the fear of rejection when making the acquaintance of a stranger, typically in a bar or sports or social club.

Some people really panic about exams, giving presentations, and other similarly tricky situations. They put themselves under tremendous pressure and in some cases, can’t handle it. Their high level of distress may keep them up all night and interfere with their concentration during the day. It may temporarily destroy an otherwise relaxed and sociable disposition in some and lead to eating disorders in others. All these negative effects contribute to the downward spiral into misery, or worse, apathy. Fortunately, we can deal with all these and more by working on our overall self-confidence and self-belief. Let’s first look at a couple of specific cases: exam related stress and public performances.

Meeting people

Why is it often so difficult to approach a random stranger and say “hello”? What’s the worst that could happen? Are they going to pull out a machete and chop off one of your limbs before beating you to death with it?

Have you ever made the mistake of greeting someone you recognise, only to realise on getting closer that you have mistaken them for someone else entirely? Take a moment to run what happened through your head. Notice how it wasn’t nearly as scary as it would have been if you had realised that you didn’t know them before opening your mouth. There is no long, embarrassed silence, if they don’t respond well you can just grin and move on; no harm done.

It turns out that an easy way to overcome this most fundamental fear is simply to say “hi” to people on the street from time to time. I wouldn’t suggest trying to engage them directly until you’re comfortable with meeting people or trying it with obviously aggressive, maladjusted sorts. Next time you get a good feeling about someone, say “hi”. If you get a negative or defensive response, you can always say, “Sorry, I thought you were someone else”, without losing face. Even with this one simple tip, you can quickly muster the confidence to talk to strangers and start getting to know more people. Speed dating may be another way of putting your self-confidence on the fast-track to rapid growth. You don’t have to be there to look for anything in particular; the desire to talk for two minutes with a random stranger is enough. If you can do that ten or twenty times in an hour or so, you can certainly say “hi” to the pretty girl at the bar, and even have something to say other than “you’re pretty”.

Exam stress

Many students suffer near terminal exam-related stress. They may lose their appetite or feel nauseous, or suffer severe sleep deprivation leading up to the exams. This is especially prevalent in cultures where students are encouraged to believe that a simple mistake on an exam paper can destroy the rest of their life. Such fears, however deeply entrenched are largely unfounded however.

Failing an exam is not the end of the world. Indeed, in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t make much difference. A large number of the most successful people in the world are college drop-outs and academic failures. Does anyone judge Bill Gates or Steve Jobs by their academic records? The only exception to this general rule may be found if you want to pursue a career in academia, where such artificial metrics as formal examinations are believed to have some kind of value. Even then, a gifted candidate will still be welcomed if they can prove their worth to the institution.

Public performance

Performing in front of other people is often cited as the single greatest fear of humanity, even out-ranking the fear of death. Like all fears it serves a purpose but it can also be a huge block to making progress on your path of choice. The problem is often multiplied by the amount of authority the audience gives you and the number people present. The old adage of imagining the audience in their underwear doesn’t help, so what can we do?

Conquering fear

There are many ways to overcome our fears and they all share one thing in common – it is necessary to challenge yourself and push past your comfort zone in order to learn how to take such things in your stride. A few examples from my own experience follow:

Presentations

I used to be terrified of giving presentations. Of course, being at university has forced me to give a number of presentations in front of the class over the years. The first one I gave was early in my foundation year, about a subject we had studied for only one week, and was in front of students and members of staff from all levels of the university. In short, I was thrown in at the deep end.

Nonetheless, I swallowed what I could of my fear for the five minutes I had to present and only faltered once, when it occurred to me that I was talking in front of about 200 people, and that it might be interesting to analyse what’s going on in my head. I stammered on, regained my composure and finished with a generous applause from the audience. I would have to dissect the experience very thoroughly to be sure of squeezing all the learning I could out of it.

I had stood in front of a class and spoken before on a few occasions in school and college, although at the time I still hadn’t figured out what really worked for me, so I largely just did what everyone else was doing. I’m sure you know the routine, I wrote out pretty much everything I wanted to say, put almost all of it in a slide show, and proceeded to faff about the visual appearance instead of worrying about the all-important content. These presentations were very stressful to give, and were largely met with indifference from the class. A fundamental failure was to try to be un-noticed while standing in front of thirty bored people.

For me, the key to beating performance anxiety was to understand it, and to face it head on. First, I did a little research on the nature of fear, its causes and effects. I found that armed with a little understanding, the thing I feared seemed fairly pointless, so it would be as well to let it go. Knowing this, no anxiety needs to well up inside of me before the event that I fear; I can start in a clear and confident state – this is very important.

I needed more experience to prove my theory, so I began volunteering for more speaking roles in group work, pushing the envelope as far as it would go. At first, I did still feel some anxiety before a performance, and it would slowly increase during the event. I am now at a stage where I can just walk in clear-headed and talk about a topic for a while without worrying too much. After a bit of practice it started to come more naturally to me and the fear was all but gone.

What else can we do to eliminate the fear of public speaking? Well, for starters I feel it is critical to know something about the topic you are discussing. If you know what you are talking about, you can relax, safe in the knowledge that you aren’t expected to know about some magic you’ve never even heard of. Reading around a topic will allow you to insert anecdotes and think more laterally during the event, much like we do in casual conversation. As long as you maintain the focus on the core points of the discussion, then there is nothing wrong with digressing along related subjects briefly. This is especially true when answering questions from the audience.

Second, for me it is very helpful to lay out a rough outline of the order of events in the presentation, the order in which you will present things, what topics to cover etc. That way, if you lose your trail of thought or get distracted by questions, it is a lot easier to get back into the flow. I use only a very general heading for each topic and allow the conversation with the audience to evolve naturally.

Another useful thing to bear in mind is that few things are more boring to sit through than a lecture where the presenter just reads directly from a slide show. Anyone who has been to university will have experienced this tedium. It takes an hour to cover content that you can read in ten minutes and you don’t even get anything from the extra dedication of time. So don’t do it, yourself. Slides should contain only the most important information that you might otherwise forget, like the details of precise product roadmaps, or some relevant statistics. It is often more effective to avoid slides altogether and have the audience engage with you directly than to present a load of text. As a rule of thumb, anything that is absolutely critical should go on the screen. Everything else is spoken.

Slides can, however be useful in that they give the audience something to look at so you don’t have too many eyes on you. Reference material is often better produced and distributed separately from the slide show, as too much text really detracts from what is really given to the audience. The screen is of course a great place to display a demonstration. Videos, software demonstrations and animated experiments can all be used to great effect, but be careful not to distract the audience too much from the topic of the presentation. As a rule of thumb, it is often best to keep it brief and specific. Finally, the most important thing for my personal presentation style is, counter-intuitively, not to rehearse, or to at least keep it to a basic minimum. If I have practiced a speech ten times then chances are I’ve used ten different ways of saying every phrase it contains, skipped bits, and improvised in different ways. Each repetition is unique. If I then have to deliver the speech to an audience, I might run out of ideas for how to express myself genuinely without sounding like a robot. If I haven’t rehearsed too much, then I can have a living conversation with the audience. I can embellish, make humorous asides and drag in previously forgotten anecdotes and anything else that runs through my head. You have to fact-check and sanity check these random thoughts before voicing them, but that is a skill you can learn in conversation with anyone, so it doesn’t present any significant challenges.

Further progress

What can you do to continue making progress with your self-confidence once you are comfortable with presentations and exams are no longer scary? Move on to different kinds of performances. Join a dance club, sing on karaoke night, or study a martial art and give performances for special occasions like Chinese New Year. Whatever you’re interested in, there is likely a way you can get involved with the community and become skilled at it.

Learning languages is a great way to meet new people with world views you may not have encountered before. In 2008 I went to Spain for a year, and not knowing anyone, I had little choice but to pick up a bit of the language and try to chat with waitresses, shop assistants and others that I met along the way. Working in another country is a very fast way to become more adaptable to new situations and thus, more confident in yourself.

Personally, I’ve been involved in the martial arts since 2003, gradually improving and earning the respect of my peers. I have demonstrated at the Portsmouth Chinese New year event and at several club recruiting events at the University of Southampton. During the annual club holiday in April 2010 I did karaoke for the first time, and have since been invited to join the university choir – another great challenge for self-confidence.

All these clubs, societies and special interest groups provide obvious opportunities to meet new people and learn new things. Martial arts can teach you a calm confidence and inner peace that is often less accessible in other disciplines. Dance and music generally present a great opportunity to meet women and the occasional womaniser.

There are groups for all tastes and preferences. University is the perfect opportunity to try on different personas in search of the authentic self, and play with many different sports, arts and social groups, and similar opportunities are abundant elsewhere as well. The Internet makes it very easy to find groups of people of just about any imaginable interest and get involved in the fun.