Thinking on your feet – don’t let those ghosts of presentations past get to you!

by Bernadette Healy

ghosts of presentations past

Think back to the times when you have been required to ‘think on your feet’. Note down your experience of these times, as chances are that your experience of the first couple of times when you have had to ‘think on your feet’ in the professional domain, continues to influence your attitude to this inevitable task.

During your reflection consider the who, what, where, and how of the situation. That is, who was there, what was expected, where was it held, and how did you feel and act? Ask yourself has there been any pattern so far, for example, do you tend to handle the situation to a more or less personally satisfying degree depending on the who, the topic, the level of detail required etc. Why might this be?

If you are haunted by a ghost of presentation past, it may be that this is influencing your current behaviour in any situation which is even slightly like that past event. Paradoxically, often the most effective way of overcoming that kind of triggered anxiety response is by allowing oneself to confront the fear.i One of the ways that you can do this is via the use of imaginal exposure through writing.ii This is the telling to yourself of the whole story of that distressing past thinking on your feet experience by repeatedly writing about it in detail until it no longer triggers anxiety, as described below:

  • Describe as vividly as possible, the most distressing aspects of the event.
  • Make it as real as possible.
  • Describe the feelings and thoughts that trouble you the most about this event.
  • Describe the catastrophic results that you worry about.
  • Continue the story. What happens after the negative outcome occurs – how do you cope?
  • Read and re-write your story as often as possible. Read it out aloud, as well as silently.
  • Spend at least 20 minutes a day writing and reading your story, for 5 – 10 sessions (this ‘exposes’ you to the material until eventually its toxic effect is neutralized).
  • You can write about the same material every session, or you can vary it or let your story progress. Write continuously – don’t worry about how it sounds. You are writing only for yourself.
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    During your reflections on presentations past, also apply a reality-check to your reactions to the situation – that is, even though you may have concluded that it was inadequate, it is possible that your reaction is not consistent with the view held by those involved. Did you receive any feedback? Did you seek any feedback? For the future resolve where possible, to seek out feedback from trusted sources, in order to help keep a check on any tendency to catastrophise such situations and to collect data about ways of improving performance.

    Thinking on your feet is all about the preparation!

    Often we can predict the times when our day is likely to include a requirement to ‘think on our feet’ and therefore we have the opportunity to prepare. This preparation time may be limited but even 5 minutes is enough time to pause, take a few deep breaths and ask oneself honestly : what is a reasonable expectation of my input in this situation at this stage of my professional life and specifically with regard to the subject of the sought input? This reflection will help to ground you in reality and protect against any exaggerated response to your performance.

    If you have a little more time ask yourself: what background knowledge, expertise and past experience do I bring to this issue right now? What is it reasonable to expect of me in terms of my level of knowledge given the amount of time I have had to prepare? Do I know enough to predict the 3 issues most likely to be raised? Which of these do I know anything about right now? Do I have any time to find out more? Do I know any experts in this area who I am willing to call for an opinion? Do I know a reference to which I could possibly refer?

    Preparation will help as knowing that you have done all that you could- even where the preparation is limited to acknowledging the fact that there was no time to prepare – will free you up to be present in the moment rather than being a slave to your feelings.

    3 minute preparation

    Remind yourself before the meeting what you bring to it in terms of previous experience, training, qualifications, personal attributes and life experience. If you are going through a stage of reduced confidence, consider producing a list of your skills, experience, qualifications and personal attributes which you can read through as a reminder to yourself that it is perfectly reasonable that you are about to go into a situation where your professional input may be sought.

    Prepare mentally for the meeting by checking in with yourself in terms of how you are feeling, particularly whether or not you have any left over negativity from a previous meeting or situation which if not controlled, could cause you to bring a negative bias to the new situation.

    No preparation time

    Be yourself – do not try to emulate someone else. Pause, take a breath. Don’t pretend to know something that you don’t. If you don’t have anything to say but you can see the validity in the question and/or the logic behind your having been invited to input, acknowledge it and ask for time to give it the attention that it deserves. Consider the possibility that you are being asked mainly to give you the chance to practice such a situation, or from politeness and therefore are not really expected to make a significant contribution. In other words don’t overestimate your own importance in the matter.

    If, based on prior experience, you suspect that your input is being sought in this way to serve someone else’s less than positive agenda, again acknowledge the opportunity and thank them for their question etc and firmly say that you will get back to them and specify when you will be in contact. Don’t commit to a timeframe for providing your actual input, if you don’t know enough about the subject to estimate how long it will take. Be prepared to repeat the fact that you will get back to them (in the face of those who may be trying to ‘make you squirm’).

    Ensure you do get back to them!

    i   NB For fear related to serious traumatic events it is advisable to seek professional help, for example, through the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health

    ii  Adapted from Sarah Edelman (professional development forum 2013) and material in Thoughts and Feelings McKay, Fanning and Davis. New Harbinger Books, 1997.