Managing Your Nerves Before A Presentation
If you have trouble managing your nerves before a presentation, you’re in great company. Legendary TED talker Brene Brown has admitted feeling nervous about public speaking, despite the fact she does it for a living. Mark Zuckerberg’s nerves were said to be so bad his team would have to fan his armpits to help counteract his sweating before a big speech.
It’s not the nerves themselves that are the problem, however: a certain amount of adrenalin can help to get you “pumped” for the task. Being nervous also demonstrates you care about what you’re doing. Being so anxious that your nerves overpower you on the other hand? That’s a problem.
But it doesn’t have to stay one. The following techniques will help you in managing your nerves before a presentation, so that you can channel that energy into what’s really important: your message and your audience.
Before the Presentation
1. Stop Striving for Perfection
Perfect presentations are boring. Watch some of the highest rated TED talks and you’ll notice that the presenters are often a bit wonky or offbeat – sometimes they trip over a word or momentarily lose their way. So what? As Ella Fitzgerald once said, ‘God doesn’t mind a bum note’. Neither does your audience.
So, making mistakes is not a problem – worrying you’re going to make them, on the other hand, is. It inhibits your spontaneity and can cause you to make more mistakes (see below). You’re not striving for a perfect performance – you’re striving for realness.
2. Accept You’ll Get Nervous
Believe it or not, simply accepting your nerves will make them more manageable. As Sian Beilock explains in her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, the more mental energy you use trying to stop yourself from being nervous the more nervous you’re likely to become.
Focusing all your attention on what you don’t want to be (nervous) magnifies its importance in your brain and makes the problem worse. Accepting your nerves will free up your working memory to focus on something more important – like your message.
3. Prepare for Success
Preparation breeds confidence, so spend some time working out the structural building blocks of your presentation, clarifying the key points you want to make, arranging them into a story and working out how to link from one slide to the next. In particular, think of how you want to open, as a strong start will give you greater confidence.
Finally, consider any potential questions you might be asked and prepare your answers. Knowing you have a well-prepared presentation will boost your confidence and help reduce your nerves.
See our blog on Ten Tips for Presentation Success for more information on how to prepare effectively.
Rehearse your presentation at least three times. This doesn’t mean simply ‘going over it’ in your head. Rehearse it – out loud – exactly as you would like to do it on the day. If possible, go through it once in front of colleagues, family or friends and seek feedback. (Tip: Don’t rehearse in front of a mirror – it will make you feel self-conscious and awkward.)
If possible, visit the presentation room or venue before the event to check the layout. This will allow you to place yourself within the space. Being able to ‘see’ your presentation ahead of time can help it run more smoothly on the day.
5. Visualise Success
This is one of the best techniques for managing your nerves before a presentation (I use it all the time). Before the event, visualise yourself doing your pitch/presentation exactly as you have planned it. See and hear yourself speaking clearly, confidently and passionately. This will create a picture in your mind of what success looks and sounds like.
A study of basketball players who visualised throwing the ball into the hoop showed they improved up to 80% more than those who physically practised the throws*.
The Day Of The Presentation
6. Reframe Negative Thoughts
While nerves and excitement are clearly not the same thing, their physical effect (increased heartbeat, changes to breathing, etc.) can feel remarkably similar. A simple yet very effect technique to managing nerves, therefore, is to ‘reframe’ them.
Tell yourself: ‘I’m excited about this presentation’, rather than: ‘I’m nervous’ whenever you start to feel the physical effects of adrenaline kicking in. The key is to channel your energy into communicating enthusiastically and passionately.
7. Drink Water, Not Coffee
Adrenalin on its own can cause a dry mouth. Avoid caffeine – it excites your system and dehydrates your body and voice. Rather, keep a glass or bottle of water close to hand before and during your presentation and take small sips when needed.
(Tip: If you can’t sip water – because you’re on stage or in an environment that won’t allow it – running your tongue around your upper and lower teeth a few times; it helps stimulate the production of saliva.)
8. Loosen Up
Tension in the body is the enemy of performance. Before your presentation, go for a brisk walk if you can (this will not only decrease nerves but also use up some of the adrenaline you are producing).
If you can’t get out to move about, go somewhere private and shake out your hands and feet briskly. Roll and shrug the shoulders; stretch out the neck and jaw. Remember that presenting is a ‘full body experience’, loosening up beforehand is key to success.
9. Practice Rhythmical Breathing
Adrenalin causes our breathing to become shallower and focused in the upper chest. By deliberately breathing deeply, your brain will get the oxygen it needs and the slower pace will trick your body into believing you are calmer. This also helps with voice quivers, which can occur when your breathing is shallow and irregular.
See our article on Relaxation Exercises for more information on how to physiologically and psychologically improve your focus.
Before You Start Presenting
10. Focus Out
Although it might not always feel that way when you’re nervous, remember that the audience is on your side. If you think of yourself as a guide or mentor to the audience rather than the “star of the show” it will help you to place your focus out, rather than in. As Nancy Duarte puts it in her TED Talk: ‘You’re not Luke Skywalker, you’re Yoda’. In other words: focus on what you’re offering rather than how you feel. Which brings me neatly to my next point…
11. Remember Your Purpose
You’re here because you have something the audience needs. The information you have will help them to make a decision, do their job better, improve their lives – whatever it may be. Give yourself a strong point of view (to challenge, warn, excite, etc) and keep in mind throughout that your job in this moment is to put that information across to them as effectively as you can.
During the Presentation
12. Connect with the audience
Before you start talking, take a moment to pause. Make eye contact with everyone in the room if you can (do a sweep of the audience if it’s a big crowd) and smile. Smiling is a natural relaxant that sends positive chemical messages through your body.
It sounds obvious of course, but while these are two of the simplest, most effective ways to establish and maintain rapport with your audience, they’re easily forgotten, especially at the beginning when nerves are often at their most acute.
13. Slow Down
If the earliest part of a presentation establishes rapport and helps set its tone, nerves mean it’s also is the point at which we’re more likely to rush.
Most people find they relax naturally into speaking once they’re into their stride, which usually happens after first minute or two. But remember, those crucial first minutes are time the audience needs too.
Reminding yourself to take it slow from the start won’t just help you connect; it will give them time to check you out, get used to your voice and accent, and generally settle down to listen.
And When You’re Done?
Tempting as it might be to breathe a sigh of relief that it’s over and push all thoughts of it from your head, a little follow-up can go a long way to make presenting feel less daunting in future.
14. Reflect on Your Success
Focus on what you did well. We tend to remember negative experiences and emotions far more easily than positive ones, so take a moment to consider and reinforce what you did well. Think about the positives and what went well and learn from any mistakes or elements that you feel unhappy with. Write them down if it helps: reflective practice can go a long way to help to minimise feelings of nervousness for future presentations.
15. Get Feedback
Where possible, ask a trusted colleague or manager for constructive feedback. Evaluate what they say against your own experience. Chances are, others haven’t noticed any of the perceived clangers you thought you’d made. If there are areas that need improvement, make a plan to work on them before the next presentation happens. The best times to practise are not during the next presentation, but before it.
And remember: the single most effective way to overcome nerves and deliver better presentations is experience. So keep at it – you might just surprise yourself.
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