In years of coaching students and corporate executives, on how to conquer the dreaded oral presentation, my number one piece of advice was to respect your fear, not suppress, ignore or attempt to over-power it. What I mean is that the feeling of nervousness felt in these moments rightfully registers the importance of the task at hand in our brain. If we didn’t care about the situation, felt no sense of urgency about it, experienced zero flutters of butterfly wings in our bellies, then we would not be very effective in achieving our objective - which is to win over a client, employer, investor or business partner.
There is not enough nervousness in our interpersonal communications anymore. We have become too blasé in the face of pressure-cooking situations. I don’t know if it’s an unintended consequence of two years of Zooming, or if it’s a ‘Gen Z” thing (both of which are too easy), but we need to better recapture that all-important sense of "good tension" in our in person communications if we want to be respected.
But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we’ve come to feel that we will not be respected if we demonstrate our nerves. There was an anti-perspirant commercial in the 80’s whose tagline was “Never let them see you sweat!” This whole notion of suppressing our feeling of nervousness is not the way to win the respect of your audience, whether it’s a small theatre of students, or an office of a potential employer.
Last week one of my students was describing her feelings upon first meeting an entrepreneur with whom I had matched her to work on a term-long group project for my Advertising class. “We were so nervous!”, she uttered, as if surprised at both her candor and her felt emotion. “That’s good”, I assured, “I bet she took that as a sign of respect”. It was no coincidence that later in the day I received an email from that same entrepreneur, enthusiastically sharing how impressed she was with this group of students. “They were so engaged, had so many questions, and they listened to me”, she recalled, as if surprised by what had transpired.
You know why all those things happened? Because my students were nervous. They were aware of the importance of the task at hand. Admittedly I had tightened the vice-grip prior to their obligatory first meeting, when I informed them that I could not attend, and that this particular entrepreneur was leary of “student projects”, given her experience that they consume more time than they’re worth. That rather deliberate seed was planted to ensure these students knew this was their meeting to run, they had to prove themselves, and that I would not be there to assist nor stick-handle through any awkwardness.
In our interpersonal business communications we will earn respect with our preparedness, promptness, knowledge, and courtesy, but allowing those with whom we meet to know that we are human, that we possess authentic human responses to high stakes situations, is not only a sign of respect, it actually helps us succeed in these situations. The words, “I’m nervous” in today’s environment will usually elicit an immediate positive response, especially when they’re followed up with something like “I know your time is precious, and I don’t want to waste it.” These words can also be used like pressure-relief valve - simply turn the knob and let some excess pressure out.
Our world is so rife with filters and phoniness, the rampant runaway train of a society obsessed with an image of things we are not. It is actually a relief to encounter real, unashamed honesty in people. Want respect? Respect others enough to feel and acknowledge your nervousness. To be human. You have permission to sweat.
Communication is one of the 8 pillar competencies from my book, "The Daily Undoing: Being Better at Being Human". In it I share over 350 daily exercises like the one above, designed to habitualize the use of these invaluable competencies we all possess, but rarely access. I'll leave you with a sample below.
Have a great week. Best wishes at being better.