The story goes that when George Soros, the hedge fund bazillionaire, was still a fund manager, he would monitor his backaches and use them as a sign that there was something wrong with his portfolio.

What are gut feelings? Are they real or imagined? And for public speakers – should gut feelings guide your performance as a speaker?

A recent study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that high-frequency traders who paid attention to their gut feelings made more profitable trades and lasted longer in the business – a tough one, to be sure.

So your gut can help you make money. Can it help you deliver better speeches?

Some speakers swear by their gut feelings, and others routinely ignore them. Which group has it right?

It’s important to delve a little more deeply into the issue in order to understand what’s going on – and how you might possibly use those gut feelings you have to become more charismatic, or smarter, or at least more able to respond in the moment.

First, let’s understand what gut feelings are. Let’s start with the good news: you have three brains. You’ve got a conscious mind, brain number one, the one that lets you know that you are here, in charge, and firing on all cylinders. At least, that’s the hope. Then, you’ve got an unconscious mind, brain number two. That’s the one that actually does all the work.

For comparison purposes, your conscious mind can handle something like 40 bits of information per second, while your unconscious mind handles 11 million. That’s why I say it does all the work – it’s vastly more powerful than your conscious mind and performs all the necessary chores involved in keeping you alive – heart beating, lungs breathing, brain plotting your next move.

It also makes decisions for you.

Brain number three sits in your gut. You have more neurons there than a cat does in its cute little head. So there’s that.

What brain number three does is basically send information about the state of your gut – is it feeling good? Does it have a sick feeling? Does it want to bet everything on red? – to the brains in your head and back again in a beautiful feedback loop.

By now, you’re wondering what the bad news is. The bad news is that your biology was hard-wired eons ago when the job was to keep you alive in a dangerous world full of woolly mammoths and other humanoids waving clubs.

So, to get specific about public speaking, two of your three brains immediately go into a defensive crouch when they see a crowd of other humans. They’re probably going to kill me, is your basic thought.

There are useful aspects to this response, because your brain starts working faster, and other handy superman/woman effects. But unfortunately there are also negative aspects. If you’re in a defensive crouch, then, instead of greeting the audience like the wonderful people that they are, you tend to go into fight or flight mode and (with two-thirds of your brain power) see them as threats.

That means that the heightened awareness your brains bestow on you is useful, but the fear is not. Hence the enormous amount of work that speakers (with coaches in tow) go through to beef up the confidence and comfort levels they experience in front of an audience.

If you can do that, you can experience most of the benefits of your gut feelings without quite so many of the deleterious aspects. My guess is that, for stock traders, having negative warning systems – so that they close out a position quickly when their guts shout danger – are more important than having their guts tell them about opportunities.

But that’s just my gut feeling.

So, to optimize your public speaking, pay attention to your gut in order to learn to control it and manage it. Ignore it when it tells you to flee from the room; instead, turned your heightened awareness on the audience, anticipating their waxing and waning attention, and shifting gears when the situation seems to warrant change.

Use your gut feelings, in short, to read the audience, not to enhance your feelings of panic.

Join us at our one-day workshop on Powerful Public Speaking in Boston, October 28th, and your gut feelings will thank you.  More information here. 

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