Interview with Olivia Mitchell

Nancy Duarte

Written by

Nancy Duarte

Recently I had a chance to sit down with Olivia Mitchell, the sole blogger for Speaking About Presenting, and one half of the presentation coaching team at Effective Speaking, based in Wellington, New Zealand.

I know you struggled as a presenter for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about what that journey has been like to transform yourself?

Olivia: My presenting journey started at least 25 years ago. I was just totally shy, not wanting to even speak up in a meeting. Speaking in front of a group? Forget about it. I just didn’t want to do that stuff. But, I also realized that if I wanted to get ahead in my career—at that point I was a lawyer for a government department—I needed to get better at speaking—just speaking up, not necessarily speaking in front of a group. So, I joined Toastmasters. I had some pretty frightening experiences at first. I would get really freaked out. My legs would feel like noodles, my heart felt like it was going to explode. I would just get through it, sit down again, and wait until the shaking subsided. It was not a pleasant experience. But, Toastmasters was a really supportive environment and I just kept going. Even when I had bad experiences, I would just keep coming back and gradually I built confidence in myself.

Although, now I would say I learned how to build my confidence by repeated exposure—just speaking, and speaking, and speaking. I think there are shortcuts to that. One of the things that we teach on our courses, which I talk about in my blog, is using the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to help people with the fear of public speaking.

How do you implement cognitive behavioral therapy into your speaker coaching?

Olivia: By looking at the self-talk you have about speaking. Before I would get up to speak, I’d think ‘I must not look nervous. I want everyone to really think of me as confident and credible.’ But of course, then I’d be holding onto my notes and my hand would be shaking, and the notes would shake. I’d have a little drama in my head. Luckily I would keep it inside my head. That little drama in my head: Oh my God! They can see I’m nervous. This is just awful. I just want to get through this presentation.

Those thoughts create a vicious cycle that just makes you more and more nervous. What I’ve learned since then—and I wish I knew 20 years ago—is how to monitor my self talk, to be aware of where I’m putting irrational pressure on myself. This can still happen to me now, with a high-stakes presentation, or something I’ve been working on for a really long time and I want to nail. I’d be saying to myself, ‘I’ve really got to get this one right. This is critical if I don’t get this right. It’s going to be a disaster.’

Do you think that negative self talk makes the audience seem more threatening?

Olivia: Yes, by raising the stakes so high, and putting so much pressure on yourself. From a sporting terminology here, I don’t know if you have this here, but in New Zealand we would call that ‘choking.’ You’re putting so much pressure on yourself, you can’t perform. If I realize that I’m getting into that mode, I’ll say, ‘Okay, this is not so useful. What am I really trying to achieve here? What is critical and what is not? I want to do my best, I still have a goal of how I want to perform, but I’m not going to beat myself up if I make some mistakes.’

I think your approach is different than most of the other consultants and coaches out there. How is your methodology different?

Olivia: One of the differences is that I recognize that nervousness is a factor, anxiety is a factor, but I think too many coaches pay lip service to that. They’ll say things to people, which are counter-productive. For instance, it might be, “You’ve got to do it this way, you’ve got to do it that way. If you have a mannerism which makes you look less credible, that’s awful. We’ve got to fix that.” They talk in absolute language and very nit-picky language. They are right in terms of what they want to achieve, but I think their approach is not so useful in helping the client develop a way of managing their anxiety. I try to help them manage their anxiety. If I help them manage their anxiety, a lot of the other stuff will become right as a result.

How do you see the components of a great presentation coming together?

Olivia: The major components I would say are content, delivery, and the visuals. By visuals, I’m talking particularly about slides. I see content as the major leg of the stool. The others are important, and of course either of them can sabotage the content. For instance, if somebody is really monotone in their delivery, or they’ve got a lot of um-ing, or if the slides are really full of bullet points and they’re sending everybody to sleep, and you’re just reading from the slides, it’s not going to work. I see the content as being like the base building block, and the other two can either sabotage it or enhance it. That’s the way I see it coming together.

You work with your husband. How do you make that work?

Olivia: It’s not difficult for us. We have different styles in terms of presenting. The major thing that we do on a weekly basis is run training courses. We’re running one and two day training courses. We’ve never worked out who does how many minutes of what, but it’s roughly equal. We have different styles. He’s the more natural extrovert—the funny guy, the spontaneous one. He’s likely to wing it; sometimes he gets himself into trouble. I’m the more measured one; I like to be quite succinct. I like to keep things on time.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Olivia: For me it is helping the people who are scared, but have got something really useful to say, who’ve got something they want to share with the world. I think you call it “putting a dent in the universe.” It’s sad. I love helping people who have been scared about putting their dent in the universe, so they can speak up and share their message with people. When we run a course, we might have six people come in on the first day—they’re like scared little rabbits, and they don’t want to speak up. Over the two days we gradually build them up. We start things really soft and easy so they get used to us and the other people in the course. Gradually they get stretched and pushed a little bit if they need it, and also they’re given the psychological tools to manage how they feel. By the end of the second day they say, “Yay, I’m looking forward to my next presentation!”

When I hear somebody say “I’m actually looking forward to my next presentation. I never imagined that I’d ever look forward to a presentation!’ I think, Yay!

Thanks to Olivia for taking time to chat with me! Hope you find her story as inspiring as I do.