Last Sunday I had an audience of three who knew nothing about Covid-19, the right way to wear a mask or social distancing. However, they did know exactly how I felt as I approached them. That was normal. I had signed up for an equi-coaching day with Communessence at la domaine de la contie in the Dordogne region of France. My audience were three horses which could read my emotions better than myself. During the day, I noticed parallels between working with horses to overcome fears and personal blocks and the work I do coaching public speaking.
Here’s what my day with horses reminded me about public speaking.
1 Be aware of your emotions and energy.
Our instuctor, Aude, gave us the key insight that an emotion is information that can lead to a reaction e.g. the emotion of fear will prompt a horse to run. Humans are no different as we can feel energy and emotions just like a horse can. Social conventions keep us from running away, but the feeling provoked by the wrong emotions or energy is usually enough to lose your audience. They might not physically run away, but you can be sure their mind runs away from you.
So use your emotions to influence your audience to move towards you. Share positive and welcoming ones at the start of your speech. You can lead them to deeper emotional content once you have tapped their empathy for you.
One participant said she imagined a rainbow between herself and a horse to make a positive emotional connection. This apparently helped the horse feel a need to move towards her. I loved her idea as it connected with my Speak the Rainbow concept. I congratulated her on reminding me that I could use my own method with horses.
2 Master your breathing.
To be aware of your emotions and energy, check in with your breathing. The way you breathe is an indicator of where you are at. If you are breathing too fast or in a constricted way, it will emit information that you are uncomfortable with your audience. Horses are particularly sensitive to this, but that does not mean humans are not. We can sense it too. And we can hear it in your voice when you speak.
One participant had no horses approach him until Aude told him to lower his rate of breathing. When he did, one of the horses came directly to him and they spent a long moment in communion together. Taking deep long breaths will give your voice more power and relax your shoulders and muscles. Your audience will notice that you are relaxed speaking with them and feel better too.
3 Be grounded and know your limits.
A horse will find your weak spot and test your limits. The horses I approached all had an interest in my feet as I had stupidly walked into their paddock barefoot. They would have bitten my toes, if I had not imposed a limit. Your audience is the same. If you don’t know how far you wish them to go with you, they may feel it possible to heckle you or badger you with embarrassing questions. Be grounded so that your audience feels there is a limit to how far they can go with you.
Before we met with the horses, Aude invited us to find a tree to spend time with. We first described it by taking notes from a distance. After a short debrief with Aude, we then approached it, felt its bark and explored it with all our senses. The final stage was connection and tree hugging. This process of engaging with a tree centered the energy of all the participants and grounded us. Without this prepatory work, our connection with the horses would not have been as successful or deep.
You may not have a tree backstage or in your office to hug before you talk, but you can visualize one standing in front of you and connect with it in youor imagination. Or you can visualize yourself as one. Use your imagination to sprout roots from the soles of your feet that stretch deep into the earth. Then let all the earth’s energy flow up those roots into your legs, torso and upper body. You will feel as strong as an oak and your audience will sense this powerful force inside you just as a horse can sense a grounded person or one who is not.
4 Let your audience take what it needs from you.
The horses came to me, connected, and moved on. They were looking for fresh grass and leaves. I felt a certain jealousy that the horses stayed with other participants longer and could have felt rejected or let down. But I just assumed that the horses had found no information that interested them and let it go at that. I would have looked silly chasing them or making it all about me. The horses would have moved off anyways if my emotion was wrong.
The following morning, I found myself holding a baby. The mother was struggling and needed a break. The baby cried a lot, and I let it do so thinking that it was tired and showing crankiness. I used what I had learnt the day before to keep my body and breathing under control. I grounded myself and let a soothing low song emerge from my belly. Soon enough the baby was sleeping soundly in my arms.
As I stood there watching the horses in their field, holding and rocking gently that baby, one of the cats on the property began rubbing itself against my legs, as if to say that my energy was perfectly aligned with nature in that moment. This reminded me that some audiences will love you and others will just take what they need and move on. Do your best to be present for your audience, but let your audience decide.
My audience of three also reminded me how nice it is to make colorful connections in nature. Sign up for a day of equi-coaching, pet a bunny, or swim with dolphins if you can. Keep an eye out for how interacting with animals can make us better equipped to recognize the emotions we are sending and receiving from others. And remember an emotional response from our audience is information we can use to adjust our emotions, breathing, and energy to improve our connection and performance.