Most speakers get to know their adrenaline fight-or-flight response very, very well. To be sure, I’ve met a few speakers who remain as cool as ice in January and never experience the sweaty palms, the rapidly beating heart, the racing thoughts, and the unmitigated wish to be sitting in a bar somewhere nursing a gin and tonic – but not very many.
The vast majority sweat it out with their hormonal responses going crazy and their minds working overtime. Some learn to re-define all that hyperactivity as a good thing – the rush of speaking – and some just tough it out. But very few either acknowledge or even recognize that the worst part of what happens to them can’t really be redefined or explained away as a good thing. The dark side of the adrenaline response is tunnel vision.
What happens when you’re under stress and your body responds with an “OK, I’m either going to punch someone or run,” is that your brain focuses on a very narrow field – just what’s in front of it and getting in the way of escape or victory.
Most speakers, if they think about it, will acknowledge that they’ve worked through something like this and seen the deleterious effects when they’ve been asked a question, say, and had a hard time answering it. And yet, a few minutes after the speech is over the answer is obvious to them. Perhaps the question came from an unexpected direction or was just a bit unfamiliar, or perhaps there was something about the questioner that threw the speaker off. Whatever the provocation, the mental flexibility of the speaker under adrenaline is roughly nil, and so anything that looks unusual will require a lot of brain time and space to process – time and space not readily available at the moment.
The result is a blank look or a fluffed answer. Or worse – the speaker gets completely derailed and has a hard time getting back on track to finish the speech in the usual style.
All of this is bad enough. But regular readers of this blog will be aware that the strong feelings of the speaker leak to the audience, infecting it with the enthusiasm (a good thing) or terror (a bad thing) that the speaker is feeling herself.
And so the speaker shares her adrenaline with the audience – and her tunnel vision. As a result, the audience’s receptivity to new ideas, unusual thinking, and demands for mental flexibility, will be abnormally low.
If you’re living in a state of prolonged fear or agitation, you’ll be victim to the same mental limitations all the time. You’ll ignore evidence that’s contrary to your beliefs. You’ll eagerly believe the worst about your enemies. You’ll quickly reject any opportunity to meet an opponent halfway. Each of these mental demands is simply too much to handle for someone who’s intent upon fight or flight.
Does any of this thinking – or lack thereof – begin to sound familiar? It should; it’s the state of mind of partisan political enthusiasts. Thus one way of understanding the otherwise apparently incomprehensible spectacle of all those people on the other failing to acknowledge the brilliant evidence you keep waving under their noses is to realize that they are consumed with adrenaline. Their worldview involves fear of the Other, or at least what would happen if the other side wins.
Unless you can address those fears, you’re not going to have a hope of changing their minds. They’ll go on refusing to acknowledge the inconvenient facts of truth as long as they are adrenalized. It’s the effect of the tribal nature of our politics and the state of fear we’re all living in today. In effect, we’ve been rendered incapable of advanced reasoning because of our tunnel vision.
Fear has made us all narrow-minded.
Learn how to conquer fear and open minds at our one-day Powerful Public Speaking conference in Boston in October. Details here.