Presentations are petrifying. Well, at least, most of us would rather avoid a situation where we’d have to stand and speak in front of a crowd, even if that meant sacrificed opportunities or double the amount of work.
I had to hold two valedictorian speeches in my life (notice that I said “had to”, which means I perceived it as a total pain). I did everything wrong during the one at the end of middle school; even my parents said so. At the end of college, however, I did many things right, despite ditching the speech I’ve been preparing the whole week before, right when I walked up front.
Looking back now, I can say with certainty that the difference was caused by the way I felt and that the majority of my shortcomings were due to nervousness.
Nervousness gets in the way even if you’ve prepared a rock-solid presentation. It’s crippling. It makes you mess up, especially your opening, and then it just seems to go downhill from there without any chance of recovery.
The problem is that there are so many things you need to keep track of while presenting, things like body language, time constraints, your audience’s reaction, your actual speech… Things like these end up adding pressure on the already nervous speaker and they’re not really helping if you don’t manage to solve the root-problem.
There are a ton of tips, tricks and solutions for public speaking anxiety out there, but I want to share with you what has worked for me over the years in decreasing speech anxiety and reaping the benefits of delivering a presentation with more confidence. Call them mantras if you want. Take it as advice or rules to follow. But, if you manage to convince yourself with these, I promise you will walk into that presentation feeling a lot better. So, without further ado…
1. Your audience is genuinely interested in what you have to say
This is essential for you to believe! When panic strikes, you end up thinking things like how trivial or boring the content you want to share is, or how the audience has probably heard many similar things before, or that they’re annoyed with being there and having to listen to you…
Don’t go there. This pathway will only lead to you feeling more nervous, downright pessimistic, and making mistakes. You’ll have an apologetic attitude (for “wasting their time”), which will damage your credibility, make you rush through your presentation and even skip some parts. Your lack of enthusiasm in your own presentation’s content will show and generate the same kind of reaction from your audience.
Instead, you have to believe that what you want to share with your audience is interesting, useful and even super cool. They want to hear it and, if they didn’t feel that way from the start, they will be glad they heard it at the end. Have faith in your content and be enthusiastic about it.
Maybe you’re an expert in your field, maybe you’re a seasoned veteran, maybe you’ve come across the same information over and over while doing your research and that’s why some things seem trivial and boring to you. But, most of the time, people don’t know everything or they may just want their own beliefs confirmed. They wouldn’t be there otherwise.
So, imagine your audience as highly receptive instead of hostile and criticizing. Think of your presentation as a source of awesome information for your audience. Believe you are going to share wisdom. If you just can’t feel this way about your presentation, then you should redo it ASAP, with content you find to be more appropriate.
2. It’s not the end of the world if you mess up
When experiencing anxiety, our brains react to these (real or imaginary) potential dangers by getting our bodies ready for a physical fight: heavy breathing (to get more oxygen in), cold hands and feet (the blood goes to the main parts of your body, like your heart or brain), tensed up muscles and other such things.
The only thing you can do in these cases is to analyze, as objectively as possible: what the “dangers” or consequences you fear are, how much do they matter, how likely is it for them to become reality if you mess up a little, mess up moderately or mess up on a catastrophic level. Most of the time, this will take some of the anxiety away because many such dangers are in our heads and/or we unnecessarily augment their relevance.
Let me go back to the weird system that is our brain. This organ works for and against us, sometimes in very strange ways. We fear failure. But failure is a very broad term. Chickening out because of fear is also considered failure and, although many people find convenient excuses and justifications, our brains will often make us feel like losers more when we chicken out than when we give it a shot despite it ending badly.
People intuitively know this, even if not on a conscious level. That’s why there are sayings like “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all” or “Better to regret something you did than something you didn’t” or why horror movie characters go into that dark forest or basement, despite it being crystal clear that it’s going to end badly.
To sum up: objectively analyze what is it your fear, why and what relevance do these potential outcomes have for you. Come up with strategies on handling the outcomes you fear. Relax, go for it, and be glad you are not actually in a horror movie.
3. You are awesome and this is your time to shine
Well, doesn’t that sound corny? Look at it this way – confident people don’t seem to get that nervous, do they? “Believe in yourself” is so ubiquitous, it’s almost hollow of any meaning. But the fact is, if you don’t believe in yourself, then why would your audience?
Use any strategy that works for you to boost your confidence and maintain that feeling. It helps if you’re well prepared if you have faith in your content (like I’ve mentioned above) if you dress comfortably, but also appropriately. Confidence will reflect in your body language (good posture, open gestures and looking your audience in the eye) and will add credibility to what you are saying.
Tell yourself you are not only worthy of being there but also meant to. View each presentation as an opportunity instead of a drag, as a stage instead of a courtroom. It’s easier said than done, but such a positive frame of mind will help you tremendously, and not just to shake the presentation jitters.
4. You must walk through the fire and allow it to forge you
Everyone feels at least a little nervous when doing something for the first time. In the case of presentations, even the 100th one can feel like a first time because it’s never the completely same experience. You have a new audience, a new subject matter, a new context almost every time, so it’s normal to feel a little nervous.
However, nothing beats your first presentation in terms of intensity. Push yourself through it. Even if it’s not the actual first presentation of your life, but a sales pitch for a new product to a different target, for example, the fact that there is something unfamiliar about it might cause you nervousness. Push yourself through it and let its elements become familiar to you. This will be a valuable experience and help you along the way.
In my first semester of college, I went to a public speaking course where we received the assignment of speaking about any topic to a middle-sized group of strangers, in a place where this would be unexpected. So I chose a bus. When the doors closed, I raised my hand, called out for everyone’s attention and started talking. It was mortifying. I barely remember anything I said. But, at the end, I received some applause and, more importantly, nothing after that seemed so scary anymore.
It’s a good exercise for managing nervousness for future presentations and speeches. Students have the luxury of doing outrageous things that others might want to avoid, but the lesson here is that you have to face your fear when it’s at its highest point and embrace the feeling of accomplishment that follows.
On that (positive) note, I wish you good luck with all of your presentations, speeches, and public speaking experiences and invite you to share your opinions, suggestions and stories about overcoming speech anxiety and nervousness in the comments below.