Managing Presentation Nerves
How to Calm Your Stage Fright
Your stomach is queasy, your palms are sweaty, and your mind has gone blank about your opening lines. What will you be like when you've been introduced and the room goes quiet?
Are you doomed to presentation panic or paralysis, or can you overcome that debilitating nervousness and deliver a speech that wows the audience? (Or at least leaves them feeling satisfied?)
If you're like most people, then public speaking or presenting is one of your major fears (it's known as "glossophobia"). Yet these skills are often called upon. It might not be to an audience of hundreds, but giving presentations to staff or even team members is a common enough occurrence. You owe it to yourself to develop some strategies and techniques to manage your nerves so that you can concentrate on delivering an effective and engaging presentation.
A positive mindset is vital to delivering a good presentation.
How Nervous Do You Feel Before a Speech?
Notice that we didn't say to get rid of your nervousness. This is because presenting is not a natural activity, and even the most practiced presenters get a bit nervous. The point is this: your nervous energy can be used to your advantage.
When you're in a heightened state from the adrenaline that's being pumped into your body, you can use that energy to communicate enthusiastically, convincingly and passionately. The key is to decrease your level of nervousness so that you can use your energy on these positive activities, not on trying to control your nerves.
So, to harness your nervousness and bring it under control, there are six key tips to remember. These tips are all designed to help you focus on your audience and their needs rather than on yourself and how you are feeling. They all stem from one truism:
The more uncertain you are, the more nervous you will be.
The more you can control the uncertainty, the less nervousness you'll experience, and the more residual energy you'll have to devote to the presentation itself.
Six Steps to Conquering Your Presentation Nerves
1. Know Your Audience
Consult your audience before your presentation. The more confident you are that you're presenting them with useful and interesting material, the less nervous you'll be overall. You really don't want your presentation to be a surprise. If it is, you lose complete control over the audience's reaction, and that's a large factor in nervousness. So:
- Define your target audience.
- Ask people who are representative of the audience what they expect from the presentation.
- Run your agenda by a few people to see if they think something is missing or is overkill.
- Consider contacting participants by email beforehand and asking them a few questions about what they expect.
- Greet audience members at the door and do a quick survey of why they're there and what they expect.
2. Know Your Material
Nothing is worse for nerves than trying to give a presentation on a topic that you're not well prepared for. This doesn't mean you have to be an expert beforehand, but you'd better know it backward on presentation day. And making sure that you've understood your audience and their needs properly will help you to ensure that your material is on target to meet their needs.
Another important point to remember is that you can't possibly cover everything you know in your presentation. That would likely be long and boring. So select the most pertinent points, and supplement them with other material if time allows.
To make your material interesting and memorable, include occasional questions to encourage audience participation. This enhances the learning experience and gives you a break from presenting. It also allows you to deliver your information in a more conversational manner which is often more believable.
3. Structure Your Presentation
A common technique for trying to calm nervousness is memorizing what you intend to say. But all this does is make your delivery sound like it's coming from a robot. If you miss a word or draw a blank, your whole presentation is thrown off, and then your nervousness compounds itself with every remaining second. It's far better to structure your presentation so that you give yourself clues to what's coming next.
Here are some tips for doing that:
- Have a set of key phrases listed on a cue card.
- Refer to these phrases to trigger your mind as to what's coming up next.
- If you're using slides, use these key phrases in your transitions.
This approach helps you to control your own uncertainty about whether you'll remember your presentation – both what you want to say and the order in which you want to say it.
A simple, widely used and highly effective structure is to tell the audience what you're going to say, then say it, and then recap what you've said. Our article on How to Structure a Presentation covers this in detail.
4. Practice, Practice, Practice
Although you should avoid memorizing your presentation, you do want to be very comfortable with your delivery. Familiarity brings confidence, and practice helps you to deliver the words naturally. This means that they will be coming more from your heart and mind, rather than from a piece of paper.
Here's what to do when you're rehearsing:
- Learn the organization and order of your presentation.
- If you do feel the need to memorize, limit it to your opening. This will help you get off to a smooth start.
- Try filming yourself. You'll discover what you look and sound like to others, and then you can make a plan to change the things that need changing.
- Prepare for large speaking events by practicing with a smaller audience first; for example, by inviting colleagues to listen to a "dry run" during their lunch hour.
5. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Once you know what you're going to say, you need to prepare yourself for the actual delivery.
- Decide what you're going to wear – make it comfortable and appropriate.
- Arrive early and get your equipment set up.
- Anticipate problems and have backups and contingencies in place in case something doesn't work, you forget something, etc.
- If possible, give everything one last run-through in the real environment.
- Prepare responses to anticipated questions. Try to think like that one person in the front row who always tries to trip the presenter up.
6. Calm Yourself From the Inside
Nervousness causes physiological reactions which are mostly attributed to the increase in adrenaline in your system. You can counteract these effects with a few simple techniques:
- Practice deep breathing. Adrenaline causes you to breathe shallowly. By breathing deeply your brain will get the oxygen it needs, and the slower pace will trick your body into believing that you're calmer. It also helps with voice quivers, which can occur when your breathing is irregular.
- Drink water. Adrenaline can cause a dry mouth, which in turn leads to getting tongue-tied. Have a glass of water handy. Take sips occasionally, especially when you want to emphasize a point.
- Smile. This is a natural relaxant that sends positive chemicals through your body.
- Use visualization techniques. Imagine that you're delivering your presentation to an audience that's interested, enthused, smiling, and reacting positively. Cement this positive image in your mind, and recall it right before you're ready to go on.
- Press and massage your forehead to energize the front of the brain and speech center.
- Just before you start talking, pause, make eye contact, and smile. This last moment of peace is very relaxing and gives you time to adjust to being the center of attention.
- Speak more slowly than you would in a conversation, and leave longer pauses between sentences. This slower pace will calm you down, and it will also make you easier to hear, especially at the back of a large room.
- Move around during your presentation. This will expend some of your nervous energy.
- Stop thinking about yourself. Remember that the audience is there to get some information – and it's your job to put it across to them.
To take this to the next level, listen to our "Performing Under Pressure" Expert Interview with Dr Don Greene. This gives you many more tips and techniques for managing performance stress.
When it comes to presenting, nerves are inevitable. Letting them get the better of you is not. You need to develop a strategy for taking the focus off your nervousness and putting that energy to positive use.
By controlling as much of the uncertainty as you can, you'll increase your confidence in your ability to deliver an excellent presentation. This confidence then counteracts your nerves, and you create a positive cycle for yourself.
For your next presentation, be knowledgeable, be well-practiced and prepared, and try out some physical relaxation techniques. Amaze yourself and impress your audience with your calm and cool delivery of a great presentation.
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