In a previous article, I explained that the way humans react to danger occurs in the following order: Freeze > Flight > Fight.
As documented in former FBI agent Joe Navarro’s book, “What every BODY is saying”, our human ancestors developed these threat responses to avoid being detected and eaten by large carnivores that preyed on us.
In our modern society, when people feel threatened, they still react in exactly the same manner our early human ancestors did. The threat response happens at a subconscious level, driven by the limbic system, the primitive part of our brains.
In our modern society, when people feel threatened, they still react in exactly the same manner
as our early human ancestors did
Enhance Your On-camera Presence
Presenting on video is obviously not as threatening as being confronted by a lion, but our brains still use subtle modifications of these primitive responses for lower-level threats.
In my work with clients, I see first-hand how people new to on-camera presenting exhibit some or all of the “Freeze > Flight > Fight” responses. These responses can be subtle, like a default low-level hum, below their level of conscious awareness.
Unfortunately, these threat responses become amplified on-screen and detract from the presenter’s ability to appear confident and persuasive.
The external behaviors we see in others act as signposts for what might be going on internally. A person’s thoughts and emotions are reflected in their:
- Movements and gestures,
- Posture and alignment
- Body language or lack thereof
- Breathing patterns (depth/rate),
- Facial muscle tone, skin coloration, lower lip mass, and pupil size.
A subtle manifestation of the desire to protect ourselves is “freezing”. It’s exhibited when people try to make themselves look smaller by taking up as little space as possible, often restricting their breathing and minimizing body movements in an attempt to avoid predatory detection.
Do you use any of these pacifying behaviors in your own video presentations?
In the context of video presentations, the visual effect of this threat response is like that of a “startled deer in the headlights”.
Some obvious freeze-fight-or-flight physiology states include:
- Defensive, sunken, or compressed body size and posture (to protect the body from attack)
- Minimized body language. Arms and hands are restrained, held close to the body (to protect the limbs)
- Reduced eye-blink rate and diminished eye-contact with the camera. Eyes can appear shifty, narrow, or wide-eyed
- Common mindset tendencies: wanting to escape, to rush, to speak quickly
- Speech errors, tripping, slurring with the tongue, dry clicky sounding mouth
- Reduced facial expressions and facial animation aka resting-frozen-face. Tight lips and mouth, clenched jaw, and pale skin
- Turtle neck and elevated shoulders (to protect the neck – a vital body part that predators focus on when attacking)
- Reduced vocal tonality i.e. monotonous voice, lack-luster resonance, volume, and pitch
As you can imagine, this is not the best way to give a powerful video presentation.
Shrinking Violet Energy Levels
The freeze-fight-or-flight can also impact your energy levels on-screen. Some presenters try to compensate by over-projecting (actors refer to it as “hamming it up”). On-screen it comes across as pushed, forced, trying too hard, and inauthentic.
Others deal with the threat response by projecting very little social energy. They seem unsure of themselves and come across as “flat” or “wooden” in their delivery.
As an FBI investigator, Navarro writes that people being questioned about a crime will often keep very still, hold onto armrests, interlock their feet behind the chair legs, and “freeze” that position for an inordinate period of time while being interrogated.
Then from time to time, they will use their hands to touch, rub, or stroke themselves in an effort to reassure themselves. These “pacifying behaviors” are subtle manifestations of the threat response, and usually, happen at a subconscious level without the person realizing they are doing it.
Identify any of these pacifying behaviors in your own video presentations
- Mute your video and watch your playback. Where in the script or video segment do you display or use any of these pacifying mannerisms?
- Pay attention to public officials, spokespeople, TV presenters, or interviewers. You rarely see these professionals use pacifying mannerisms on-camera.
Professional presenters and speakers have been trained to avoid such mannerisms so that they don’t undermine their message and authority. As a result, they appear more persuasive and in control. And the audience is more likely to be responsive to the presenter and their message.
Flight? Fight? Lean-to or Away?
The threat response also manifests itself in subtle ways. A person will subconsciously signal their desire to “flee” without even realizing that they are doing it. They will try to “distance” themselves from the threat (in this case the threat is the video camera), by leaning away or turning their feet toward the exit.
Or, they try to block the threat by placing objects in front of themselves i.e. cups, laptops, desks, etc. The feet are a dead giveaway. If you are hosting video interviews, watch where your interviewee’s feet are pointing, and it will give you a good idea of where they subconsciously would rather be.
The “fight” response is the brain’s last resort. When a person is confronted by a perceived threat, and they cannot avoid detection by freezing, and cannot save themselves by fleeing, the only alternative left is to fight. In our evolution as a species, we along with other mammals developed the strategy of turning our fear into rage. We scream, kick, and punch in an effort to ward off predators and make ourselves harder to kill.
A subtle manifestation of the “fight” response is to make ourselves appear more fierce with an aggressive posture, jaw jutting forward, chest puffed out, and arms and legs spread wide in an effort to appear bigger.
Aggressive communication can also be a manifestation of the “fight” response. Being argumentative, sarcastic, or using insults and put-downs, and leaning in to invade someone’s personal space is often used by people in an effort to make themselves feel superior. This type of masking behavior stems from a deep sense of insecurity and fear.
“What you do speaks so loud…I cannot hear what you say”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Stop. Breathe. Watch
Pay attention to your own freeze, flight, or fight responses in your everyday life. Doing so will help you to develop a deeper understanding of your habitual avoidance strategies. The default mannerisms may go unnoticed by you but are visible on-screen.
Throughout the day, pay attention to anything that triggers fear, anxiety, and anger. Common symptoms are dropping into “storytelling” (i.e. should/shouldn’t, right/wrong), resistance, procrastination, blaming, complaining, criticizing, or avoiding behaviors like binge-watching, shopping, eating, etc.
Drop the storyline (your opinions about what is happening), and practice my awareness technique:
- Stop. Pausing physically brings you back to the present moment
- Breathe. Inhale for 2 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat 4 times.
- This creates space in the mind so that you become less emotionally reactive
- It gives your pre-frontal brain time to regain control over your emotional state
- Watch. What your mind and body are doing
- Notice what the mind does, the kind of thoughts that rise up, the tone of your internal self-talk, harsh, mean, etc, the kind of words it uses,
- Notice how the body feels, where is the tension felt in the body? In the temples, face, jaw, tongue, throat, chest, shoulders, stomach
- What are your limbs doing?
- How are you breathing?
The point of this exercise is to not beat yourself up or make yourself wrong. Doing so is a form of subtle self-aggression. Rather, it’s a practice in self-awareness, without having any form of judgment or opinion about it.
When you feel yourself being triggered and develop more awareness about your default behaviors and patterns, they begin to lose their hold and power.
If you have a question or you what me to cover a topic for you let me know. I’m always listening! And, you can always book a time with me to get the tailored support and guidance you need on any of the performance areas covered in this post. See below for details or learn more about my services here.
Established in 2006 Bianca Te Rito, founder of STEBIAN.com provides an exclusive, consulting service helping business thought leaders, speakers, award-winning authors & VIPs productize their thought leadership and present themselves, their products, services, or brand message to their target audience in the most effective way possible on video. Get the tailored expertise from a real-world operator with over 20 years of TV/Film industry experience working in front of and behind the camera. Learn more about our custom offers here.
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