In a recent series, 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 them.
In our modern-day environment, when we feel threatened, we still instinctively react exactly as our early human ancestors did and it’s not so easy to turn off. Because the threat response happens on a subconscious level, driven by the limbic system, the primitive part of our brain.
In our modern society, when people feel threatened, they still react in exactly the same manner as our early human ancestors did. Freeze, Flight, or Fight.
Your Threat Response: Freeze, Flight, or Flight
Presenting on video is not as threatening as being confronted by a lion, but our primitive brain still uses subtle modifications of these primitive responses for lower-level threats.
On-screen in my work with clients, I get to witness individuals new to video presenting exhibit some or all of the “freeze-fight-or-flight” responses the moment we hit “record”.
These responses can be subtle, but appear amplified on-screen and detract from the presenter’s ability to appear confident and persuasive in the delivery of their key messages.
In the context of video presentations, the visual effect of this threat response is like that of a “startled deer in the headlights”. 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 holding or restricting their breathing rate and minimizing body movements in an attempt to avoid predatory detection. It’s why we gasp and freeze when we are startled by something hiding in the bushes.
Some obvious freeze-fight-or-flight physiology states include:
- Defensive, sunken, or compressed body size and posture (to protect the body from attack)
- Changes in breathing patterns (depth/rate)
- A Turtle neck. The shoulders are elevated towards the ears to protect the neck (a vital body part that predators focus on during an attack to silence the prey)
- Minimized body language. Arms and hands are restrained, held close to the body (to protect the limbs)
- Changes in facial muscle tone, reduced facial expressions, and facial animation aka resting-frozen-face
- Tight lips and mouth, clenched jaw, pale skin
- Reduced eye-blink rate and diminished eye-contact with the camera lens.
- Changes in pupil size and movement i.e. eyes can appear shifty, narrow, or wide-eyed
- Common mindset tendencies: wanting to escape, to rush, to speak quickly and get it over and done with
- Speech errors, tripping, slurring with the tongue, dry clicky sounding mouth
- Reduced vocal tonality i.e. monotonous voice, lack-luster resonance, volume, and pitch
As you can imagine, these states don’t convey power and confidence on camera.
Do you use any of these pacifying behaviors in your own video presentations?
Freezing and Pacifying
The freeze-fight-or-flight response will impact your energy levels on video.
Novice presenters deal with the threat response by freezing, i.e. 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, without the person realizing they are doing it.
You can identify pacifying behaviors in your video presentations by muting your video and watching your playback.
- Where in the script or video segment do you display or use any of these mannerisms?
- Pay attention to your messaging. Are you saying something you don’t fully believe, or are unsure of, etc?
- Pay attention to public officials, spokespeople, TV presenters, or interviewers.
- Professional presenters and speakers are trained to avoid such mannerisms so that they don’t undermine their message, credibility, and authority. As a result, they appear more persuasive and in control, and the audience is more likely to trust their message.
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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 body (feet) toward the exit.
The feet are a dead giveaway. If you are hosting video interviews, watch where your interviewee’s feet are pointing, giving you a good idea of where they subconsciously would rather be.
Others attempt to block the threat by placing objects in front of themselves i.e. cups, laptops, desks, cushions, hands, arms, etc.
The “Fight” Response. The Brain’s Last Resort
In our evolution as a species, when confronted by a perceived threat, where we cannot avoid detection by freezing, and cannot save ourselves by fleeing, the only alternative left is to fight.
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 and louder to kill.
A subtle manifestation of the “fight” response is to make ourselves appear more fierce with an aggressive posture, jutting jaw, puffed-out chest, and arms and legs spread wide in an effort to appear bigger and take up more space.
Aggressive communication can also be a manifestation of the “fight” response. People often use argumentative, sarcastic, insults and put-downs, or posturing that leans in to invade someone’s personal space in an attempt to make themselves feel superior.
Some presenters try to compensate for the threat response by over-projecting (an acting terminology referred to as “hamming it up”). Within the confines of the screen, it comes across as pushed, forced, trying too hard, over the top, or inauthentic.
This type of masking behavior often stems from a deep sense of insecurity, inferiority, and fear.
“What you do speaks so loud…I cannot hear what you say”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Present Moment Awareness
As you go about your day, pay attention to your freeze, flight, or fight responses.
Notice anything that triggers fear, anxiety, avoidance, or anger. Pay particular attention to your internal dialogue, especially any mental stories you are telling yourself about a situation, person, or thing.
Often triggering storylines will start with an “I” or “they” and carry on with a should/shouldn’t, right/wrong, good/bad, etc.
Some other unresourceful storylines begin with complaining, criticizing, judging, or blaming someone or something which often fans the flames of your triggered state.
This is good to know. Awareness in this area can help you become more in tune with your habitual default patterns which can affect your physicality, your mannerisms, energy levels, and how you appear and convey yourself on video.
Many times these default patterns and resulting physical mannerisms may go unnoticed by you – but on video, they’ll be highly visible and magnified on-screen.
Stop. Breathe. Notice.
With this awareness technique, we drop any storylines including our opinions or judgments about what is happening in the present moment. It’s an excellent practice during highly charged stressful moments or when you’re feeling triggered over something.
- Stop what you are doing. Physically pausing brings you back to the present moment
- Breathe. Inhale for 2 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and exhale and follow the breath for 4 seconds. Repeat 4 times.
- This breathing cycle creates more space in the mind, eases mental tension, and reduces emotional reactivity
- It also gives the pre-frontal brain time to regain control over an unresourceful emotional state
- Notice. Your mind and body (without clinging to any running commentary or storylines)
- Notice the tone of your internal self-talk i.e. harsh, mean, loud, etc, and the kind of words it uses
- Notice how the body feels and how it’s responding. Where is there tension experienced in the body? I.e. the temples, face, jaw, tongue, throat, chest, shoulders, stomach
- What are your limbs doing? I.e. clenching, gripping, tightening, etc
- Practice breathing into those tight restricted areas, and on the exhale release the tension by telling that body part to let go. Remember you don’t need to keep holding on to stuff.
Whatever Triggers You. Owns You.
Remember it’s not about the trigger, it’s about our propensity to be triggered by it in the first place. When we develop more awareness around our default reactions, behaviors, and mental patterns, they begin to lose their hold on us.
If you have a question or you what me to cover a topic for you let me know. 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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