NOTE: On the week that I wrote this post, two very high-profile people struggled with panic — in public.
Scott Stossel Survives Anxiety
The Atlantic‘s cover story, Surviving Anxiety by editor Scott Stossel, is about his “Anxious, Twitchy, Phobic (Somehow Successful) Life.” Stossel’s account of coping with multiple phobias and crippling anxiety is harrowing, yet ultimately inspiring. After all, this is a very high-functioning guy. If he can succeed with this level of anxiety, there’s hope for the rest of us!
Of course, we still have to develop coping strategies, which bring us to…
Michael Bay Walks Offstage at CES
Action director Michael Bay’s meltdown — a very public sort of public speaking panic — occurred at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where he was being interviewed on behalf of Samsung’s new 105-inch curved TV screen… became flustered… and actually turned away mid-sentence and walked off the stage.
Lots of good writers, including Fast Company’s Jessica Hullinger, have commented on this, and every speaker coach will have a slightly different reaction. But in my view, Bay’s experience stemmed from a failure to connect, on several levels.
What I saw, watching You Tube videos of this moment was:
1. Bay Comes Onstage and Immediately Begins to Speak, Without First Making a HUMAN Connection
This is a common mistake, and an understandable one. It’s tempting for anyone who suffers from stage fright to hurl themselves into talking, hoping to get this over with before the fact that they’re onstage fully sinks in.
If you begin to speak without connecting with your audience, you’ve actually increased your sense of isolation, vulnerability, and (if this is applicable) shame.
On the clip, you can see that Bay doesn’t make eye contact, either with the audience or with the moderator, let alone greet them and absorb their response. And that’s a mistake, because connecting with people — looking at them, acknowledging that you’re sharing this experience with them — will help calm you down by taking your mind off yourself and your own vulnerabilities.
2. Bay Doesn’t Seem Connected to His MISSION, the Reason He’s Onstage
So Bay was off balance to begin with. Then his Prompter went out, and that sent him over the edge.
Now, based on my 15-year stint in the corporate meetings and events industry, I’m going to guess that the reason Bay was on TelePrompter to begin with was the Samsung had very specific things they wanted him to say about their product, and that he agreed to do this because it was a chance to build buzz for his new Transformers movie, out in June.
Which is fine. But did Bay feel a personal sense of connection with Samsung’s new product? Was he passionate about being an ambassador for it? I’m guessing not.
Passion for your topic can be empowering for a public speaker, and has helped many speakers overcome fear, and even public speaking panic, because they believed in the message they were delivering. Without that sense of mission, Bay had one less thing to fall back on when his Prompter failed.
3. The Stage Inhibited ANY Connection
A word to the wise: When you’re asked to speak in public, use whatever pull you have to influence how you’re going to be presented. At Michael Bay’s level, that’s plenty; but I’m guessing that no one around him thought about using it in this case.
The Samsung stage at CES is about as dehumanizing as a physical environment can get. It’s gigantic (to showcase the sweep of their product), it’s cold (to send the message that their tech is “futuristic”) and it’s isolating (Bay and the Moderator are standing 105 feet apart!).
Don’t agree to present on a stage like this, folks! What you want, at minimum, is to be:
- Within arm’s length of your moderator (so that you actually feel like you’re talking to each other);
- On a comfortable piece of furniture (high-backed bar stools are best; not those plush sofa things that you sink into and disappear); and
- In a section of the stage that is styled as a conversation area.
No wonder Bay freaked out when he was shoved by his handlers onto a space the size of an airplane hangar, with no other human being within reach and nothing warm, familiar, comfortable, or reassuring to (literally) lean on.
It’s a wonder the moderator didn’t freak out and run off stage with him!
(And yes, I’ve prepared presenters to appear on a 200-foot-wide stage. It can absolutely be done in a way that makes them comfortable!)
Four Presenting Tips that Would Have Helped Michael Bay
In addition to the tips that I (and others) have already suggested,
- Meet and interact with your moderator in advance of the show. After all, you are partners in creating a joint experience.
- Run through your speech several times on TelePrompter, onstage before the event. Don’t step out there for the first time in front of several thousand people.
- Carry a back-up script. If it’s so all-fired important that you say exactly those words in exactly that way, you should have those words on your person. Obviously, tech can go down, even at the nation’s biggest tech show!
- Know what you’re onstage to accomplish. Public speaking is all about reaching your audience with a particular point of view, and if you know what that point of view is, it’s easier to accomplish your larger goal of communicating it.
Of course, none of this will guarantee that you don’t suffer a public speaking panic attack onstage, at a meeting, or even in a networking event. It’s probably happened to most of us.
But one good thing that may come out of Michael Bay’s and Scott Stossel’s experiences is that maybe — just maybe — we can all start to admit that anxiety is almost universal; that the right preparation can get you through even fearful situations; and that the occasional bout of public speaking panic is quintessentially human.