Your lizard brain on vacation: How environment builds the brain

Have you noticed how certain habits and routines change when you change your surroundings, for example, when you go on vacation? Your environment constantly shapes your brain and your habits whether you are aware of it or not.

In his book “Situations Matter,” Sam Sommers argues that by understanding the powerful influence that context has in our lives and using this knowledge to rethink how we see the world, we can be more effective at work, at home, and in daily interactions with others.

Today, I bring you my observations about the power of environment to change our habits from the beautiful island of Providenciales in Turks and Caicos, where my daughter and I have recently spent a blissful week of vacation.

By | 2017-05-05T15:00:44+00:00 May 5th, 2017|Brain, Peak Performance, Perception|0 Comments

Good vibes only: 3 steps to build your speaking energy

“If your presence doesn’t work, neither will your word.”
~ Gabrielle Bernstein quoting Yogi Bhajan in her book “The Universe Has Your Back”

When we speak, it is not just our words that carry the message forward, it is also our energy, vibes and the state of mind. As speakers who want to create greater impact, we need to align the message with our own presence, as well as the energy of the audience. Craig Valentine, a World Champion of Public Speaking and my mentor, emphasizes that importance of meeting our audience members where they are energetically and then moving them to where we want them to be. This applies to all important conversations, not just public speaking. Even in self-talk, what we say may contradict to how we feel – you can be your own audience. Here is how you can connect with your audience members and influence them on the energetic and emotional level:

Find the calm in the eye of the speaking storm. You may feel nervous and jittery before your presentation. You may find it hard to control the stream of thoughts coming through your mind. You may feel swept away by the whirlpool of events that are happening around you. It is important to find your center – your core. Find a quiet place where you can have a few minutes to yourself and do the following exercise that we often do in our yoga classes. Stand tall, take a deep breath and constrict every muscle in your body. Tighten your stomach, clench your feasts, squeeze everything inward and, as my yoga teacher likes to say, “Make a prune face.” Hold it for a few seconds then release as you exhale. Repeat a few times. I find this exercise helps me release stress and recharge.

Feel your audience’s vibes. Observe your audience, if possible, before your presentation. Are they energetic or low-key? Are they tired? Have they just come back from lunch? Do they appear formal or informal? Imagine yourself somewhere on the beach. You are about to enter the ocean. What does the ocean look like? Do you see calm, turquoise-blue waters? Do you feel the breeze chasing the waves to the shore? Do the waves look fun and playful or big and threatening? The ocean that you are about to enter represents the energy of your audience. You need to adjust your behavior accordingly, whether it is swaying back and forth on gentle waves, diving in, swimming along or staying close to the shore. Let your audience’s presence guide you when you begin so you can match their energetic level and build rapport. If your audience members feel tired and bored, jumping up and down on the stage will only annoy them. Transport them into a story instead, gradually capture their imagination and take it further.

You are the captain of the ship, and your audience are the passengers, so make it a memorable journey. Raise those sails and be ready to cruise along. Once you have connected with your audience and got their attention, make sure you have a toolbox of strategies to bring your audience where it needs to be, no matter if the waters are calm or rough. Compelling stories, reflective questions, clear points and take-aways, memory anchors, statements of benefits, and effective delivery techniques can all help you take your audience on a most amazing journey, both mentally and energetically, so they would want to sail with you again and again.

By | 2017-02-01T13:24:18+00:00 February 1st, 2017|Communication, Perception, Public Speaking, Yoga|0 Comments

Your fear of pubic speaking may be influenced by who you choose to look at when you speak

Our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative clues and threats in the emotions-caricaturesenvironment. This is also true in the context of public speaking, especially for speakers who may experience social anxiety.

In a recent study, participants – some low in social anxiety, some high – were asked to give a three-minute impromptu speech over Skype to an audience shown onscreen. What the participants didn’t know is that the audience was made up of actors who produced facial expressions and body movements on purpose.  In fact, their positive (smiles and nods), negative (frowns and yawns) or neutral expressions had been recorded earlier and  were shown to the participants as they spoke. The researchers tracked the participants’ eye movements as they gave their speeches, recorded their physical anxiety via sweating and heart rate, and asked them to rate how anxious they felt.

It turned out that speakers with higher social anxiety showed a preference for looking at negative audience members, which fueled their anxiety even more.  In contrast, people with low social anxiety chose to look at positive, engaged audience members.

To calm your nerves, it may be worthwhile to pick out some friendly faces in the audience and deliberately pause there longer as your eyes scan the room.

Better yet, meet some of your audience members in advance of your speech, perhaps, by greeting them as they enter the room.  You will feel more support from the audience that way.

Virtual platforms and networks offer another way to get to know your audience prior to your presentation.

By | 2016-06-21T16:42:42+00:00 June 21st, 2016|Brain, Communication, Perception, Public Speaking|0 Comments

How to find the right public speaking venue to magnify your message

venueLast week, I went to see a play at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York City.  “The Past is Still Ahead” by Sophia Romma is about Russia’s famous poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who “revisits the tumultuously tragic and sexy events of her life – just before succumbing to ‘suicide’ at the hands of the Soviet Secret Police in 1941 while exiled in Siberia.” It was a dynamic performance that captured the creative power, vivacity and emotional turmoil of the poet as she recalled her visions of life, people, romance with some of the most prominent poets of her time, as well as the social and political devastation of Russia after the revolution.

As I was reflecting on the play, I couldn’t help but notice the influence of the space in which the play was performed.  It was a small theater with just four raised rows of seats with about forty seats in total. The stage was on the same level as the floor and the first row. The walls, the ceiling and the floors were black. The decorations were set to be the house of Marina Tsvetaeva in Elabuga. A large desk where she spent much time writing occupied a prominent spot. The intimate nature of the space with its stark features drew in the audience as if they were in that house too, magnifying the impact of the words and acting.

It made me think about the effect of public speaking venues on the message. Speakers and trainers may not always have a choice since organizers often choose the venue for them. Many events take place in large auditoriums, conference rooms, or seminar rooms of hotels. However, when you create your own event, it may be useful to approach the question of space more carefully and creatively. If you plan an upcoming seminar or workshop and wonder where you should have it, here are some possible criteria to use when choosing a public speaking venue:

  • Size
  • Location
  • Cost
  • Accessibility
  • Proximity to public transportation
  • Acoustics
  • The level of noise outside
  • Internet and wiring for the AV equipment you may need
  • Seating arrangements
  • Possibility of catering and serving food and drinks
  • Temperature control
  • Lighting
  • Overall ambiance and comfort (colors, textures, smells, etc.)
  • Logistics and support.

I have been hosting a book club meetup in a local Barnes & Noble for almost four years now.  While it may not be an ideal spot because it is open and can get noisy, it is also centrally located in a large mall with ample parking space. Because we are visible to other shoppers, people have stopped by to learn more about the club and some of them joined us. Newcomers find the formality of the space welcoming since we don’t look like a closed group. We have a circular arrangement of chairs that promotes good interactions. People don’t feel obligated to buy coffee or food, but they can if they want to because we are right next to a café. It doesn’t cost me anything to host the book club there, and the book store puts us on their printed and online calendar of events.  In addition, we all love books, so it seems a natural place to visit.

The right public speaking venue is likely to be a product of careful research and beneficial collaboration, and it can make it easier for you to market to and attract your ideal audience. Here are some questions to consider when selecting a proper venue:

  • What atmosphere do you want to create for your audience?
  • What type of space is best aligned with your brand and your message?
  • How do you want your audience to feel before, during and after your presentation?
  • How do you want to feel in the space?
  • What can you bring to the venue to make it “your own”?
  • What will your audience members see, touch, and hear when they come in?
  • What will they be doing during your presentation, besides listening: working in groups, writing notes, drawing, watching a video, etc.?
  • What seating arrangement will support your objectives and your audience’s needs best?
  • How do you want your audience to move in the room from the time they arrive till the end when they may want to talk to you or among themselves or place an order?

Keeping your criteria and your needs in mind, here are some venue options to consider:

  • Hotels (conference rooms, seminar rooms, ballrooms, etc.)
  • Libraries
  • Churches
  • Government buildings that may have space available for public use
  • Coworking spaces
  • Restaurants or coffee shops that may have private rooms for meetings
  • Gyms
  • Yoga studios (may be a perfect spot for health & wellness workshops)
  • Stores with a theme that supports your topic (for example, book signing/reading in a book store or a wellness workshop in a health store)
  • Wellness centers
  • Dance studios
  • Art galleries and art studios
  • Theaters

What kind of venue would magnify your message? What are your favorite off-the-beaten-path spaces?

By | 2013-08-02T15:21:15+00:00 August 1st, 2013|Communication, Perception, Public Speaking|0 Comments

Body language: 5 expressions your brain can’t resist

Whenever we speak to someone face to face, a lot of information is communicated brain to brain even without our conscious awareness.  To keep us safe and thriving, our brains have evolved to pick up on body language and subtle cues during social interactions that could signal our standing in a group or warn us of any potential threats.  Here are five body language expressions that our brains can’t resist.  You can notice and use them to convey persuasive messages:

1.  Mimic me subtly.  Mimicry helps to establish rapport and social bonding.  If people click, they tend to reciprocate gestures, postures and expressions, increasing trust and likability.  Similarly, we unconsciously adopt accents of people we speak to. However, a complete lack of mimicry or too much of it can backfire.  Parroting others or exaggerating their gestures sends a message that social cues are off, which makes people feel uncomfortable and can quite literally give them chills. Don’t be a copycat. Our brains are also quick to notice incongruence of the words and body language.  Balance is the key when it comes to mimicry.

2.  Point that finger. You may have heard the phrase, “Never point a finger at someone because there will always be three pointing back at you.”  While pointing with your finger is considered impolite in many countries, it is very effective in directing people’s attention.  The good news is you can use images of an outstretched index finger to the same effect. They grab attention better than pointed arrows or written words even when the images are irrelevant to the task at hand.  A pointing finger is a biological cue that is hard to ignore.

3.  Look me in the eyes.  The eyes are sometimes called “the windows to the soul” because they express our feelings and reveal intentions.  It is not surprising that we tend to follow other people’s eye gaze.  A directional eye gaze establishes the shared attention field. A recent study of politicians and their voters suggests that people may tend to follow the gaze of leaders they respect and accept as an authority.  Direct eye contact helps not only to gain a person’s attention, but also to create an emotional connection and make an impression.  A direct eye gaze rapidly activates brain areas that are important for emotion and attention, such as the fusiform and amygdala.  At the same time, a prolonged eye contact may appear threatening and uncomfortable.  Some cultures consider looking directly in the eyes aggressive and disrespectful.

4.  People who yawn together, work better together. Yawning gets a bad rap because some believe if you yawn, you must be bored.  It turns out that yawning serves an important neurological function.  It improves alertness and concentration, regulates brain temperature, lowers stress, brings more oxygen into our bodies, among other things. If you ever watched Olympic speedskater Apolo Ohno before a race, you probably noticed a yawn or two.  I doubt the Olympian yawned because he was bored or didn’t get enough sleep.  In fact, when asked about it in an interview, he explained with a smile that his yawning was akin to the yawning lions do in the wild: “I want to be a lion.”  You can yawn strategically too.  Do it right now. Take a deep breath and get yourself into the yawning mood.  Just look at the images above.  If you have people around, that’s even better because yawning is contagious, and it activates a region of the brain thought to be involved in empathy. Fifty-five percent people yawn within five minutes if one person in a group yawns. Yawning can improve group cohesiveness because it helps people synchronize their behavior with others.

5.  Smile. “Peace begins with a smile,” Mother Teresa was right. If we all smiled more, the world would be a more peaceful and cheerful place.  Smiles are contagious. When we smile, people tend to smile back. Smiling signals friendliness and social acknowledgment.  People who are acknowledged by a stranger feel more connected to others immediately after the experience than people who are deliberately ignored. People who smile in their Facebook profile photos tend to have more friends and be at the center of their social network.  We even tend to judge smiling faces as brighter than frowning faces. Smiles are effective in lifting our own mood as well.  Try smiling even if you don’t feel like it.  A genuine smile engages not just the mouth, but also the eyes and the cheeks. The face muscles involved in the smile serve as a feedback mechanism to your brain that things may not be as bad as they appear at the moment. Smile and the world will smile back at you!

How much attention do you pay to body language when you communicate with others?

By | 2012-06-27T15:55:32+00:00 June 27th, 2012|Communication, Perception, Public Speaking|1 Comment