Delivering successful presentations is an important skill for many of us to be effective at our jobs. Most of the people who come to me for help with improving their presentation skills confess that one of their biggest problems is nervousness (presentation anxiety). Symptoms of presentation anxiety include:
Profusely sweating, first noticed as sweaty palms
Increased heart rate
Shortness of breath
For some people, the state of anxiety is so bad it goes the next step further into a panic attack. Being nervous in advance of an important presentation is actually a good thing – the extra adrenaline is what you need to stay sharp and focused. In fact, if anyone said to me that they have never been nervous as a public speaker, I would suggesting they are being untruthful. Mark Twain said “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.” So, nerves are good… but only if you remain in control.
What is nervousness ? It has it’s roots in one of our core emotions, fear. What are nervous presenters fearful of ?
Fear of the unknown
Fear of loss of control
Fear of being powerless in front of powerful people
Fear of embarrassment
Fear of failure
Fear of “what will they think of me ?”
Fear of being nervous and it showing
A note on irrational fear – when the fear is disproportional to the actual threat. For example, I experienced an irrational fear the last time I went hiking in the Drakensburg mountains in South Africa… I was walking along the path mindful of snakes because we were warned that this was the time of year that snakes are out sunning themselves on the paths. As I was walking I looked up to marvel at the scenery and when I next looked down I saw a snake! I froze and the world became a blur. Every muscle in my body tensed up. When I took a deep breath and looked again, I am embarrassed to say, the “snake” was actually a stick. Very often we are so scared of something and fully believe that it will manifest, we believe it into our reality. Think about this: 95% of the things we fear the most never manifest.
We all have a built-in flight or flight response. This was most useful back in the days when we were cavemen and had to protect ourselves from the environment. If a sabre tooth tiger approached, our fight-or-flight response would kick in… stand dead still and prepare to fight if necessary or run for the cave. Although we have evolved over the years, our fight-or-flight response has remained embedded in our psyche. Sometimes it serves us well, sometimes not. For example, if it was a snake in the path, my conditioned fight-or-flight response would have served me well. If I am in an argument and decide to “run away” that is most likely not to serve me well.
Presentation nervousness is largely an irrational fear. The fear (e.g. of not being able to answer their questions) is disproportional to the threat. So, if I wasn’t able to answer all their questions, would they hold a gun to my head ? Most likely not, so why am I shaking and sweating ? I have an irrational fear.
Here are some tips to help you get back in control and manage presentation anxiety:
1. Accept that you are nervous
The best way to take your attention away from your nervousness is to accept you are nervous. Most people are aware of their nervousness, but they then become so concerned that they are nervous and what others might think of it, that it gets their full attention. The more the concentrate on not sweating, the more they sweat. The more they concentrate on not blushing, the more they blush. The more the concentrate on not shaking, the more they shake. Why does this happen? Simple rule… where attention goes, energy flows. The more you give attention to something, the more powerful its manifestation.
The best is t accept that you are nervous and not give it more attention. Change your self-talk from
“Oh my goodness, I am so nervous, this is terrible, what will they think of me ? Oh no I am blushing and sweating, I bet they can see, this is soooo embarrassing!”
“OK, so I’m nervous. Loads of people get nervous, and probably most of the people in my audience probably get nervous too. Now, what are the top 5 points I want them to remember from my presentation ?”
2. Practice deep breathing
Most often when we get nervous our breathing becomes more and more shallow. This essentially means that we’re getting less oxygen to our brain, which in turn means we cannot think straight and may even start feeling feint. Deep breathing before and during your presentation is essential – not only to control your nervousness but also to remain centered, grounded in control and to give you time to think of the next point you want to make.
Before the presentation, go somewhere private and take a deep, slow breath through your nose, imagining the breath is coming in through your nose all the way down into your belly. Then breath out slowly through your mouth. Then take a deep breath and cough it out. Do the breathe in-breath-out-breath-ing-cough routine three times.
During the presentation, get into the habit of taking a deep breath whenever you have an opportunity. Example opportunities: (i) just before you start your introduction, (ii) when someone asks you a question, (iii) when creating a purposeful 2 second silent pause in your presentation.
3. Get your physiology right
There is a direct link between our physiology and our psychology. If I’m not feeling that great, I’m mostly likely to have a stooped-over posture and closed body body language. Try this: sit down and bend all the way forward so that your head is on your knees. Think of something unpleasant or sad and feel the feelings that go with that thought. When you feel you have captured that feeling, stand up as straight as you can, shoulders back, take a deep breath and put a broad smile on your face. Try and feel that sad feeling whilst your physiology is in this posture. Can’t do it! Brain says “My body language is looking and feeling good, I can’t access that thought until I am allowed my to change my body language to drop.”
Another way to do is to think about the last time you felt really great. Access that feeling and magnify it. Hear your favourite up-beat tune and further magnify the great feeling inside. Walk tall and smile!
Caution: If you cannot feel the smile coming from the inside (ie authentic) then rather do not do it. There is nothing worse than someone faking a smile that they really do not mean. It is a distraction for the audience and will detract from your authenticity and credibility.
4. Structure your presentation so that you can build rapport early
A good way to get over your nervousness is to ask a question of the audience relatively early in your presentation. For example, if I give a presentation to a prospective client to sell our in-company training solutions, once I have introduced myself and what the presentation is about, I could ask “In percentage terms, how much do you think participants at a 2-day public course typically retain one month after the training ?” Whilst they get involved in answering, I have time to take a sip of water, take a deep breath and take a checkpoint on their level of engagement in my presentation. We will then have a 1-2 minute dialogue about this before I switch back into formal presentation mode. It’s a great way to build rapport (people do like to get involved generally) and to take attention away from being nervous in a presentation to facilitating a dialogue.
5. Have something to hold on to
Rather than not knowing what to do with your hands, use one hand to gesture and have something else in the other. This could be your remote slide changer, a pen or anything small that you can feel in your hand. In a formal setting, hold onto the podium. Having something to hold on to keeps you grounded as you go about presenting and staying one step ahead in terms of the next thing you’re going to say.
6. Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared
So many times I have seen people get nervous at presentations purely because they have not prepared sufficiently and then start feeling out of control and concerned that they will not stay on top of their game. Whether your presentation is 10 minutes or 1 hour, alwaysprepare. If you can, go to the room beforehand so that you become familiar with the layout. Find out who is going to be in your audience and consider the various reactions and potential questions. Have answers ready for all those potential questions. Know your material well so that you’re not focusing on trying to remember what to say next but rather on reading the audience and staying one step ahead.
I made a huge mistake recently in giving a presentation to a prospective client. I anticipated the questions they would ask and left it at that. I did not rehearse my answers. One of those questions did come up, and I wasn’t surprise since I anticipated it. What did surprise me though is that my answer was completely inadequate and since this was a key issue for them, I lost the sale.
No matter how experienced you are, always prepare fully.
7. Visualise your success
Positive visualisation is key to a successful presentation. What many people do without even realising it is Negative Visualisation. They imagine all the disasters that could happen: tripping over a cable, not having the answers and, of course, being terribly nervous. They visualise this so much that they bring it into their reality and very often experience a negative outcome. Then what do they do ? They play the horror film over and over again in their heads, further re-enforcing their limiting beliefs.
Positive Visualisation entails you creating a movie in your mind of exactly how you want the presentation to go, from beginning to end. The more detail you can visualise, the better. Make it a full sensory experience: sight, sound, feeling, smell and even taste. If you play this positive movie over and over again in your mind, you start to create a template of positive self-belief that has powerful effects.
8. Take on every opportunity to give a presentation
Don’t shy away from giving presentations. The more you do it, the less nerve-wracking it becomes. Instead of being nervous, you will then focus on polishing your performance. Practice leads to experience. Experience leads to confidence. When you are confident, you are less likely to be anxious.