Overcoming fear of presentations with some simple and practical tips from our Managing Director, Belinda Huckle.
Surveys have shown time and time again that public speaking fear is the number one most common phobia amongst adults, so if you suffer from pre-presentation nerves, you are not alone! There’s more good news too – Nerves can actually be a useful tool to harness, as the adrenalin associated with nerves can actually help us stay sharp and focused. However, nerves left unchecked won’t help anyone, and will leave you feeling tired and scattered.
The key to harnessing your nerves successfully involves:
A) Managing your nerves in the lead up to a presentation so they don’t undermine your confidence, and;
B) Harnessing your nervous energy during the presentation to elevate your presentation performance.
Dealing with nerves by understanding their cause
If you do feel nervous in the lead up to a presentation, don’t panic. The fact that you are nervous shows that you care both about yourself and your audience. Indeed if you didn’t have any nerves this could be a sign of complacency or even arrogance.
So when you feel those tell-tale signs such as butterflies flying like crazy in your stomach, step back and try to understand why you are nervous. Three common causes of pre-speech nerves include:
1. Under-preparation. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet solution to this issue. So it’s up to you to firstly think about your audience – And no, that doesn’t mean imagining them naked. In fact that’s probably the worst thing you can do! Instead, get inside their heads and analyse what they want and/or need to hear from you. The more you can deliver on their needs the more interesting, relevant and persuasive your presentation will be. Then, structure your presentation so it tells a compelling story. Finally, rehearse – ideally out loud so you’re 100% comfortable with the messaging, flow, and timing of your presentation. Remember, the time for dress rehearsals is not when you have an audience in front of you.
2. A tendency towards perfectionism. If after having prepared and rehearsed you still feel anxious, it could be that you are a perfectionist, and so are setting impossibly high standards for yourself and putting yourself under excessive self-generated pressure. If you recognise that you are a perfectionist, that’s an important first step. You can then use one of the following four tools to attempt to change your perfectionist thinking – at least for your forthcoming presentation:
- Realistic thinking – Nobody’s perfect, including you, so tell yourself that; or tell yourself that making a mistake does not mean you’re stupid or a failure; Tell yourself all you can do is your best.
- Perspective taking – Try to view situations as other people might see them by asking yourself how might someone else view this situation; or are there other ways to look at this, or what might you tell a friend who is having the same thoughts.
- Look at the big picture – Don’t get bogged down in the detail – don’t sweat the small stuff, ask yourself: “does it really matter?”, “What’s the worst that can happen”, or “Will this matter tomorrow?”
- Compromising – Don’t see things as black and white, try lowering your high standards (this is not suggesting you ditch any standards, just set more realistic ones). Your perfectionism is a little like a phobia of making mistakes, so you can also try changing your behaviour using a technique used to combat phobias, called exposure, to gradually introduce yourself to being just slightly less than perfect, and surviving, in important situations. Finally, you can also try to overcome procrastination which is sometimes associated with perfectionism, by setting realistic schedules and setting priorities.
3. Believing the audience is there only to criticise. Think about it – is that really the case? We don’t think so. In fact, we would like to think that just about every audience wants the speaker to do well. So accept the audience’s support (explicit or tacit) and let it boost your confidence. The more you look like you’re enjoying delivering the presentation, the more the audience will enjoy listening to you.
Photo: Flickr/Freddie Peña
Overcoming fear of presenting with these proven strategies
During the presentation, there are some proven strategies that will help you to harness the excess adrenalin you might have racing around.
We’ve all heard the expression “You don’t get a 2nd chance to create a positive 1st impression.” Well, research backs this up. In fact, a recent study by Science of People found that people watching TED talk videos made decisions about how smart, charismatic and credible the speakers were within just SEVEN seconds.
Here are 7 secrets you can use during the first 7 seconds of your presentation that will help harness your nervous energy whilst also creating a powerful 1st impression.
- Walk into the room like you own it – Tall, confident, in control. Studies show that projecting a positive image on the outside will actually help you feel more positive on the inside. Use your body language to your advantage.
- Smile (a genuine smile) – Because we know that smiling actually releases endorphins – a naturally occurring feel-good drug. What’s not to like about that?
- Connect with your audience – Either by sharing a short story, walking in their shoes, or providing them with a compelling ‘What’s In It For Them (WIIFT)’ i.e. what they are going to get from your presentation.
- Keep your voice tone natural and conversational – There’s nothing worse than someone sounding scripted or worse – reading from notes. Instead use your natural speaking voice with plenty of variation in tone, pitch and volume. Vocal variety has also been shown to correlate with higher charisma and credibility ratings from listeners.
- Use gestures – Big, small, expansive, contained, it doesn’t matter. Any gestures are better than no gestures. They will help add impact to your message as well as to your delivery style.
- Embrace movement – Even just a few steps – perhaps towards the screen to highlight something on a slide; or perhaps a step towards the audience as you introduce yourself; even a small step to the side of the lectern will do. Any movement will grab the audience’s attention as well as break up any build-up of negative energy you may feel. Movement (as long as it’s not fidgeting or rocking) will also make you appear more confident and in control. Not only that, it instantaneously increases your presence.
- Be authentic – Too often we see people try to be someone they’re not when they’re presenting; and people see through this straight away. Be true to your natural style and allow your unique personality to shine through early in the presentation. This will not only help you feel at ease but it will also put the audience at ease.
A few final tips on calming nerves and delivering a great presentation
- Imagine success – Many people significantly benefit from imagining themselves successfully delivering their presentations. This is a tool used by world class athletes, musicians and actors. First, relax; close your eyes and breathe deeply. When you are aware of feeling relaxed, imagine yourself as clearly as you can, successfully presenting, from the beginning to the very end. Imagine walking into the room – tall, confident, calm. Imagine the start of the presentation, focus on the audience and their smiles (and you smiling back); hear your voice, strong and in control. Imagine the smooth transition between slides; the impact of your key messages. Imagine being able to answer questions with confidence; imagine actually enjoying talking with the audience and imagine them actually enjoying listening to you. Imagine your natural personality coming out. Imagine the end; the conviction as you deliver your audience to your final destination; the feeling of pride and satisfaction in your performance. And, remind yourself again and again that the audience wants you to succeed. For full effect, this technique should be done 3-5 times in the days leading up to your presentation.
- Take a pause – If you feel nerves coming on during your presentation – pause. This will help you to regain control; we guarantee the audience won’t even notice, especially if you’re moving at the same time. Another option is to check-in with your audience to buy you time to collect yourself. Of course you can always take a sip of water, to give yourself a few moments to compose yourself again. There’s no rule to say you can’t present and drink at the same time!
- Practice, practice, practice – Finally, learning to present with confidence is like anything – it takes practice, so seize as many presenting opportunities as you possibly can. The more you present, the easier it will get. Consider taking a one-on-one presentation skills coaching course if you feel as though you could benefit with some professional guidance and individual tips on how to use nerves to your advantage, or eliminate them (almost) completely.
- Business Insider: 11 Tips for Calming Your Nerves Before a Big Presentation
- MindTools: Managing Presentation Nerves