Once again, my dream of blogging ‘what-makes-a-good-presentation’ has been superseded by a conversation I had, and an experience I, er, experienced. But this little post IS all about presenting and performing, so perhaps that’s OK….
The conversation first: I was talking to someone who had been at a British Council conference in Beijing. She was talking about how nervous she felt when she asked a question and made a comment from the ‘audience’– much more nervous than when she herself presents.
My experience? I narrated a fabulous kids’ story called ‘Ferdinand the Bull’ (for solo violin and narrator) at a packed family concert in Ely, UK yesterday. The star of this event was actually my violinist friend Steve Bingham who played like an angel. All I had to do was to read the words so that the kids and the mums and the dads would enjoy it and laugh. It seemed to go well, but my legs were actually shaking and I had to hold on to a music stand on the stage to try and disguise it. The kids laughed at the story, the mums and dads loved it, and my voice and arms (when I had the nerve to let go of that stand) worked really well. So why on earth was I having the leg problem – a problem that more or less disappeared when I narrated the next, much more difficult longer piece a few minutes later?
All of this has got me thinking about what it is that makes us nervous – about what it feels like to present, to perform. For like my British Council conference-goer friend, I too have been really nervous when intervening ‘from the floor’, and felt shaky when I have done so. As an amateur musician, too, my bowing arm used to shake when I started playing the viola in an orchestra I wasn’t really good enough to join. And recently, when, considerably more experienced as a viola player, I played in a big concert (viola, by the way = orchestra workhorse who no one usually pays much attention to) I got the shakes again when I saw friends of mine (who are not at all knowledgeable about music and instrumental playing) in the front row.
I have had panic attacks too as a presenter. Sometimes the audience seems to ‘get away from you’ and you find yourself talking into a vacuum and have no idea how to get back in touch with them. It’s a frightening experience – and only made even worse when (as has happened to me a couple of times) your mind goes completely blank and you have no idea what you are talking about.
Everyone gets nervous about something. What surprises me (and confuses me, because I don’t understand it in the slightest) is how arbitrary it seems, and how sometimes, when you feel nervous because you are about to do a plenary to two or thee thousand people, those nerves only make you a better presenter whereas at other times your voice or your legs or arms (or any other bits) suddenly seem to get out of control. Weird or what?
Of course you CAN did something about it. Beta blockers stop your wrist shaking when you play a bowed instrument, I have found, and I’m going to see if they deal with the leg problem too! But surely, relying on drugs isn’t the answer. There MUST be better ways of dealing with all this. Or rather there must be ways of making nerves a positive experience always, rather than physically debilitating.
This is a complex area, perhaps. I wonder how much it is related to ‘Essential Tremor’, a condition that some people very close to me suffer from and about which my now deceased brother-in-law (himself a sufferer) wrote a great book. Sufferers from ET shake more or less all the time, but shake more when put in awkward situations. Some of them can control it through sheer will power, some use drugs or alcohol.
I don’t really have answers to any of this. Nor do my experiences equate in any way to people who are disadvantaged by shaking (e.g. ET sufferers). And anyway, I enjoy performing; I acted through school and university, deriving great pleasure from it; I sang happily in folk clubs and other venues for years; I love being asked to narrate or lead public events; I really enjoy giving talks at teaching conferences (when they go well!!), and most of the time I feel really comfortable ‘up there’. But sometimes, just sometimes the nerves, instead of having a good, positive effect, are ‘bad’ and screw you up.
What can be done (what do you do) about the ‘bad nerves’? Can/should you drug yourself out of them? Can/should you ‘image’ your way out of them? Ignore them? Find things to hold on to?
I am guessing that many people reading this blog post have suffered from nerves too. So what is it, for you, that makes nerves a disadvantage and what have you done about it? Over to you.