A field of scientific study tumbled upon me this week like a bunch of books falling from the top of a tall bookcase. It came up in a public speaking course that I was teaching. Later that day, I ran into my neighbor and he brought up the science and told me he was using it in his field of leadership training. On Friday night, I forgot to reset my alarm radio and woke up to the tail end of an overnight documentary on the same topic.
The science is neurology as applied to leadership or NeuroLeadership which looks at how the brain influences our talents, skills and our ability to interact socially. It addresses the question of how the way we think about something affects our ability to perform. Not without their critics, the studies try to link leadership with brain functions.
In my course, I was working with a woman who was nervous about the assignment I’d given her. “I’m not a natural story teller,” she told me. Well, if you believe you’re not, you won’t be, I responded.
Then I gently took her notes and asked her to just talk to me. The truth was she could tell a pretty good story. But presenting, in her mind, was something that she was convinced she didn’t have the skills to do.
Research has shown that when our brain enters that “flight or fight” mode, we actually do lose some abilities. Once we recognize a perceived threat, all of our resources are diverted to physically dealing with it. Blood flow to the brain is restricted; reducing the amount of oxygen which then reduces our ability to think.
Although NeuroLeadership uses a silly acronym (SCARF) to outline the social triggers that affect our performance, the first one – Status – does come into play when we speak in public. One of the fears that most of my students identify with is the fear of looking foolish which would obviously affect their sense of status. Under threat, the brain diverts blood from itself to other muscles to prepare for a fight or to run away. Ironically that makes speaking even more difficult and a greater threat to status.
On the other side of the coin, good public speaking skills can enhance status and the brain is wired to approach things that have a tangible reward. The trick is to get the brain to see the potential reward, rather than the threat. This means focusing on the positive, rather than the negative so that you are physiologically ready to give a great performance.
A positive mental attitude then prepares you to do well. If you want to give a great speech, it’s all in your head.