Public Speaking? Anyone Might Freeze

21 Jun

How come, when it matters the most, we fumble, we drop the ball, we choke? You’ve seen the Miss USA pageant video this week where Miss Utah, Marissa Powell, making it to the final five, was asked about equal pay for women. Her answer was, well, loopy. Beauty queen, not so bright, right? I think we know that stereotypes aren’t usually true.

Here’s the way I see it. There she was on the stage, competing in a contest, on TV in front of millions, down to the wire, and Marissa is asked a question that even policy wonks have trouble answering with any sureness (much less with the solution!), and she freaked. It wasn’t a simple question. Should she have handled it better? Maybe, but getting flustered is not a sin. Would you be able to answer it – on a dime, succinctly, and eloquently?

Sure, contestants are coached on answering challenging questions. After all, there’s no surprise – there will be a question. Public speaking takes practice and training. Preparing chief executives before speeches, panel discussions, and media interviews, I show them deft methods that, even if they don’t have the perfect answer, they won’t come off looking like a deer in headlights. Still, things happen. We are human and our nerves can impede our best efforts.

It’s a harrowing situation to be in. Gathering your thoughts to formulate a sensible answer is hard. No matter what field you are in – sports, theater, music, advertising, sales – we all experience performance anxiety. We get nervous and go blank. And so it was with Marissa. Under pressure to give a winning answer, her brain went blank. So what does that really mean? What happens in our brain and body when we are under stress?

BrainUnderPressure.examinerSian Beilock, PhD, a cognitive scientist and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, writes “…when all eyes are on us, it makes us stumble on our words…” We worry, we overthink, and we overly focus on our performance, causing our anxieties to interfere with our brain’s power to perform complex thinking and reasoning tasks. Tellingly for Marissa, Dr. Beilock explains:

“Choking is not simply poor performance. It is sub-optimal performance. It’s when you perform worse than expected given what you are capable of doing, and worse than what you have done in the past. This less than optimal performance doesn’t merely reflect a random fluctuation in skill level – we all have performance ups and downs. This choke occurs in response to a highly stressful situation.”

Matt Lauer on The Today Show gave Marissa the chance to provide another answer – the perfect answer it turns out. But it was on The Jimmy Kimmel Show that she truly showed her true colors – a bright, lighthearted, and affable woman.

Miss Utah ultimately showed poise and a sense of humor about her demise, turning critical hype into endearing triumph. By giving us a glimpse of brainpower behind her beauty, she showed us her humanity. I believe she simply freaked. And that’s ok.

I give the last word to Marissa, who got it right on her first try:

“…it’s better to just not take yourself too seriously. And learn how to laugh…It happened. I’m owning it.”

Sources:
Miss Utah pic: ABC News, Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Choke: What The Secrets of the Brain…: Simon and Schuster
Pic of brain under pressure: The Examiner
Marissa Powell’s quote: The Jimmy Kimmel Show

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