How to calm your nerves before a presentation
Do you beat yourself up about being afraid of public speaking? I say this with all love and respect: stop it! Give yourself a break.
Virtually everyone gets nervous before presenting or performing in front of an audience. Everyone. Professional actors still get stage fright, and I say that as someone who has been performing on stage since childhood and who has a degree in Theater.
It’s not your fault. It’s part of the human condition. The National Social Anxiety Center reports that fear of public speaking is more prevalent than the fear of heights, spiders—even death.
The good news is that although you probably can never totally get rid of pre-presentation jitters, there are steps you can make to mitigate their effects on yourself. That’s what this post is about—how to calm your nerves before a presentation. When you’re done reading this post you should have some actionable ideas to handle a case of presentation nerves.
Ready? Let’s go.
Realize where your fears come from
Let’s remind ourselves where our fears come from. Throughout our lives, we want to remain safe. And when we’re standing in front of an audience, we feel the exact opposite—we feel vulnerable and unsafe. We are all alone—and everyone’s watching! These kinds of experiences engage ancient instincts in our bodies. Our heart races. Our breathing quickens. Our mouths go dry.
It's Fight or Flight, also known as The Stress Response. It’s part of being human.
Our caveman forebears were vulnerable to large animals and harsh elements. Living in a tribe was a basic survival skill. Rejection from the group led to death. Speaking to an audience brings this ancient anxiety—fear of rejection—to the surface. It happens automatically and unfortunately, at usually the worst possible moment. We can overcome these fears by changing how we think about ourselves and the situation.
Set reasonable expectations
The perfect presentation is not possible. Give yourself some grace. Just do your best. Making a mistake does not mean you’re a failure or stupid or unprofessional. When you learn to set healthy, realistic expectations and learn how to be open to the various outcomes that the universe might bring, you also open yourself to a happier and more positive outlook on life (and your presentation!).
Always strive for improvement, but don’t expect perfection. It’s going to impede your progress. It will paralyze you. The perfectionist scores a 98 and brands himself/herself a failure.
Practice self-compassion. If you were watching a friend present and he/she made one or two mistakes, would you berate them afterword? Of course not. Treat yourself like your best friend.
So much of what happens during a presentation is out of your control. You may prepare diligently but the audience is exhausted from last night’s late-night networking event at the conference you’re speaking at and can’t focus on what you’re saying. You can see them yawning as you speak. But that has nothing to do with you! Remember, just do your best.
Practice—but don’t over-practice
We’ve all heard the cliché. Practice makes perfect. Ignore that advice. As I said, don’t shoot for perfection in your presentation. Rather, aim for excellence—and know that excellence is a journey. A journey is a process, not a destination. Every time you present you can get better.
However, do not over-practice. That’s a great way to burn out. The time will come for the presentation and you’ll be depleted of all energy and spontaneity.
Here are some tips on how to practice your presentation:
Spread out your practice over three or four days, two or three times each day. Aim to practice your presentation at least 10 times. This way, you won’t panic if your early practice deliveries have some rough edges. You have time! You’ll work out the kinks! When you practice like this, an amazing thing happens. Your brain works on your presentation as you’re going about your day. You’ll be doing the laundry or something and you’ll receive an ah-ha! moment: the perfect change to your presentation!
Focus on one or two improvement areas each time you practice. Maybe on your first time through, you focus on eye contact. Then gestures next, perhaps. If you try to improve everything all at once, you’ll get paralyzed.
Practice with some distractions. Don’t worry about having a perfect setting. I can guarantee you that something is going to disrupt your presentation. Someone getting up to go to the bathroom. Someone using a lawnmower on the company grounds outside the window. So, add distractions on purpose when you practice—maybe some music or leave the television on.
When you practice, practice out loud. Don’t just read your notes to yourself or look through your slides. Thinking about giving your presentation is like thinking about starting a diet. You need to do the work! Get the reps in.
Record yourself on video. Critique the recording, pausing and rewinding, and reviewing. Watching a recording of your practice presentations will often provide instant insight into where you may struggle with ideas or transitions, where you may miss points, and how well you hold your narrative thread from start to close. In other words, it helps you see your performance the way your audience will.
Don’t try to memorize your presentation. It’s going to make you sound rehearsed. Robotic. Instead, distill your presentation down to keywords or phrases—signposts along the way. Glance at the notes when you need to when you’re practicing. You’ll seem more natural and at ease when the actual presentation comes. And don’t be worried if you use different words each time your practice. You want that. There’s no one right way to give your presentation!
If you’re feeling overcome with nerves before your presentation—it’s known as performance anxiety—take a moment to center yourself. What does that mean, centering yourself? To put it simply, staying centered or grounded means you’re focusing on the present moment. The more you practice centering techniques, the more you’ll experience positive changes in your mindset.
Close your eyes.
If you're standing, feel your feet on the ground. Really notice the sensations at the point of contact between your feet and the earth beneath. If you're sitting, feel how the chair is holding up your body, supporting you. Feel the ground supporting your feet.
Breathe deeply. First, breathe in slowly through your nose, counting four. Next, hold your breath for four seconds. Finally, exhale through your mouth for five seconds. If you repeat the process three or four times, you'll notice your heart rate begin to slow and your entire body starting to relax.
In your head, list things you’re grateful for—things you have right now—anything and anyone who comes to mind. You might be surprised by how long the list can get!
The center is a dynamic point of equilibrium within us all. When you access your center, it brings you to the present. With practice, you’ll be able to center yourself at will.
A study was conducted where people were shown TED Talks. The study found that most people make snap judgments about the speaker. Within the first seven seconds, we make decisions on how smart, charismatic and credible the speaker is. Seven seconds!
That means you need to start right. Here's how to do it:
Just before you walk out, use affirmations about the audience in your head. “They’re here to learn from me,” for example, or “They want to hear my recommendation.”
Walk into the room like you own it—standing tall, confident, and in control.
Smile at the audience. They will probably smile back. This will initiate a subconscious and powerful connection. Smiling’s contagious. Also smiling increases endorphins, replacing anxiety with calm and making you feel good about your presentation.
Be grateful you’ve been given this opportunity to connect with these people.
Thank them to inviting you to speak, making a point of looking people’s eyes around the room.
De-catastrophize brain freeze
You’ve been introduced. You’ve walked up to the lectern, cleared your throat and suddenly . . . your mind goes utterly blank. You can’t remember . . . any . . . of . . . your . . . presentation.
Welcome to Brain Freeze. Here’s what’s happening. Our pre-frontal lobes manage our memories. If you are overly nervous, your stress hormones can rise. This shuts down the frontal lobe and disconnects it from the rest of the brain. Blankness ensues.
It happens to the best of us.
Relax. It’s not the end of the world, should this happen. People are forgiving and they’ll forget about it quickly. Instead, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Don’t worry about what the audience will think. Open your eyes. Glance at your notes, take another deep breath—or two—and your presentation should come back to you.
I have to give a Big Presentation. The thought sends shudders up our spine. The stakes are high. That’s what makes it Big. As the date approaches, you get more and more nervous. Fortunately, there are steps you can take now to manage presentation nerves including practicing, setting reasonable expectations, and centering yourself (especially when your mind goes blank).
Also, you may benefit from our The Art of Skilled Presentations training. During dynamic and interactive sessions, we look at these crucial areas: Mind, Body, and Engagement. Workshop participants try out these new skills and make a prepared presentation to the group and receive one-on-one coaching from me, where I use my training in theater and corporate training to show you how to engage with your audience with ease and confidence. Your presentations will never be the same!
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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at Marie@NobleEdgeConsulting.com.