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Anxious about your police oral board interview? One expert gives tips on how to stop the sweat

An organizational behavior lecturer breaks down ways officers can become more comfortable and be confident when speaking in front of an interview panel

You’ve prepared for all the potential questions you may be asked during your police oral board interview, and you’ve done your research on the department you’re either hoping to join, transfer to or earn a promotion within the organization.

But what about when you actually get in front of the interview panel? Are you prepared not only to answer their questions, but also do so with ease and confidence? Calming your nerves can be difficult even for the most seasoned veteran – let alone someone who’s just starting their policing career.

In a recent LinkedIn Learning course, Matt Abrahams, an organizational behavior lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, a book that focuses on how to reduce anxiety while speaking in public, breaks down ways you can become more comfortable and confident when speaking in front of others.

Police1: How can officers manage physical anxiety symptoms while presenting in front of a panel?

Abrahams: The first thing you need to do is greet your anxiety. For most of us, when we begin to feel nervous, that nervousness makes us feel even more nervous. A great way to manage that is simply to accept the anxiety. Give yourself permission to be nervous when you’re in front of others. And, in so doing, you acknowledge the fact that this is normal. It’s something that most people would experience. Being in front of others is challenging, but because you’re committed to what you’re saying and you feel passionate, it’s OK to feel the anxiety. In greeting this anxiety, you give yourself a little bit of space, so it doesn’t feel like you’re swept away. And, in that space, you can do things to manage your symptoms.

Can you provide a few anxiety symptom examples and how officers can lessen those physical symptoms?

First, if you feel that heart pounding, take some deep belly breaths. This slows down your autonomic nervous system and helps your heart return to a normal rate. For those who experience a dry mouth, drinking water (cold or warm) will reactivate your salivary glands and eradicate that dry mouth.

If you find yourself speaking quickly, that’s a result of shallow breathing. That shallow breathing often leads us to speak very quickly. A good way to slow down your rate is to gesture more broadly. These broad gestures will slow down your rate of speaking.

Finally, if you’re somebody who sways and rocks when you get nervous, it probably has something to do with your feet position. When we present, many of us stand like a penguin or a duck – with our feet facing to the side. This allows our hips to be open and swaying becomes very natural. We can eradicate that by turning our feet so they’re parallel underneath our shoulders. This locks our hips in and makes it much more difficult to sway.

Taken together, these symptomatic relief techniques, paired with greeting your anxiety, can help you feel more confident and comfortable – and will help your panel see you as more confident.

What techniques can officers use if they become overwhelmed and lose their train of thought while presenting?

The first thing to do is to remember what happens when you lose your keys. When you lose your keys, you retrace your steps. The same thing is true when speaking.

If you lose your place, simply go back to go forward. Restate what you just said and it should get you back on track. Most of us can remember what just came before even if we can’t remember what comes next, and the audience actually enjoys the repetition.

Second, have a back pocket question. This is a question that you’ve thought of in advance, so that if you blank out, you can ask your audience a question, and while they’re thinking of their answer, it gives you time to collect your thoughts.

Many of us fear public speaking. As a result, we often tend to memorize our responses to potential questions. Is this the right thing to do?

Many nervous speakers memorize their content, because they feel if they have every word down, then they’ll feel less anxious. Unfortunately, memorizing doesn’t reduce anxiety – it only increases it.

When you have every word scripted, you’re putting a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself. You’re investing very valuable cognitive resources on focusing on evaluating, “Am I saying it exactly the way I wrote it?” Those precious resources could be – and should be – invested in other ways like connecting with your audience and making sure you’re being engaging.

A trick that really helps is to record yourself. Listen to it. So, when you’re practicing, you don’t have to think about what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it. What are you doing with your body? What about your movement? By separating those two, you can feel more confident when you deliver your responses.

Officers tend to strive for perfectionism when presenting during a high-stake, career-changing interview. How can they stay grounded and focused?

Many of us want our communication to be just right, but there is no right way to communicate. There are better and worse, but there is no one right way.

We need to break this habit of striving for perfectionism. A way to do that is to change your focus. Instead of focusing on everything you’re doing, put that energy toward your audience. Having an audience-centric approach to your communication reduces this perfectionism need and makes your communication more engaging and relevant to your audience.

Finally, what is the best way for officers to manage their anxiety before and during the oral board interview?

One of the best ways to manage anxiety is to create an anxiety management plan. An anxiety management plan is a mantra or acronym to remind you of the tools you use to manage your anxiety. Each of us is different and our plans will be different as well. For example, let’s take the anxiety management plan BRAVE, which stands for:

  • Breathe: Take deep breaths before you start.
  • Rationalize: Think through your fears: are they rational and what’s the worst thing that would happen if your fear occurred?
  • Audience-focused: It’s not about you, it’s about your audience. Putting attention on your audience can help you feel less nervous.
  • Visualization: Visualize success before you ever get in front of your panel.
  • Enjoy and engage in the present moment: By being present-oriented, you don’t worry about the future consequences.

Prior to presenting, I might think about and go through the steps of my anxiety management plan and this will help me feel more comfortable and confident. And ultimately, it will help me be more connected and engaging with my audience.

Top resources for promotion interview and testing success
Watch these on-demand webinars and check out these books to level up your interview skills and review board preparation

This article, originally published April 13, 2022, has been updated.

Sarah Calams, who previously served as associate editor of FireRescue1.com and EMS1.com, is the senior editor of Police1.com and Corrections1.com. In addition to her regular editing duties, Sarah delves deep into the people and issues that make up the public safety industry to bring insights and lessons learned to first responders everywhere.

Sarah graduated with a bachelor’s degree in news/editorial journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Have a story idea you’d like to discuss? Send Sarah an email or reach out on LinkedIn.
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