How to Overcome Presentation Angst

It might sound silly when we think about how many of us get nervous giving a presentation. But when it's you that has to get up and give a speech it probably doesn't seem silly at all. Public speaking is serious business. It's how we make an impression and convey information. Even though making a high-quality, high-impact presentation can make us positively memorable in the eyes of our colleagues, public speaking doesn't have to feel as overwhelming, nerve-wracking or daunting as many of us make it out to be.

Everyone gets nervous at one time or another, even the most experienced speakers. Whether it's presenting a new topic, presenting to a new audience, or presenting to an audience who knows you well, (and who will see you again tomorrow, like it or not) we all have scenarios that make us feel uncomfortable and less confident. But why do we get nervous?


There are a number of reasons why even thinking about public speaking could lead to anxiety.


First of all, we often fear the unknown. The unknown could be the first day at a new job, trying a new exercise, or yes, speaking to a new audience about a new topic. This is an adaptive response. Our brains are smart enough to protect us from entering into possible enemy territory without thinking through the consequences. But often our brain takes this response too far and starts creating consequences that are bigger and far worse than anything that could reasonably happen.


Secondly, in addition to our fear of the unknown, there is our anxiety about the known. For example, you may have given a recent presentation that didn't turn out as successfully as you would have hoped. So, this time when you're getting ready to make a presentation your mind recalls what didn't work last time and replays the bad experience over and over and over again. When we start to believe that our past performance predicts the next one, we feel doomed before we've even begun.


However, when we choose to be proactive rather than reactive, by analysing what went wrong and what went well, (even if all that went well was you not bursting into tears until you were safely in the elevator), we have the tools we need to make a thoughtful gameplan for the next time.


Here are some other common fears that people have:


The fear that you haven't practised enough and will sound like you don't know your stuff. The fear you have practised too much and will sound stiff and stilted. The fear that you don't know who your audience is and what they expect from you. The fear that your mind will go blank and you'll stumble over your words. The list goes on.


What does presentation anxiety look and feel like?


It can be a pounding heart, shaking hands and legs, sweaty palms and foreheads, facial tics and twitches, a quivering voice and a flushed or pale face. Private displays of presentation angst include nausea, dry mouth, and racing thoughts. That's a pretty gruesome package of symptoms.


So, how can we overcome presentation angst?


Close your eyes and imagine you have just won the lottery. Big time. Imagine how you would feel the very moment you realise your ticket numbers match, and how your body would react. Chances are your heart would be pounding so hard you'd think you could see it through your shirt. You'd start to sweat. Your knees would grow weak, and you'd worry you might collapse.


Sounds an awful lot like presentation anxiety, right? That's because our bodies have similar physiological responses to excitement and fear.  The only real difference is how we choose to name them.


This heart-pounding, dry mouth, weak knee feeling we associate with winning the lottery, getting married, or riding a roller coaster, we label as 'excitement.' Yet when we get up to give a presentation, we call those very same feelings 'fear.'


One technique that can help you overcome the fear of public speaking is to take the label maker we all have in our heads and put the new label 'excited' over the old label 'scared'. Keep telling yourself that you're enthusiastic, excited, even thrilled to be speaking to this group of people. The goal isn't to hide your symptoms; it's to make that adrenaline rush work in your favour before, during and after your presentation.


Here are some other tips and techniques that can help stop thinking of your audience as your judges and start thinking of them as your allies:


You are the holder of valuable information that your audience wants and needs and they are enthusiastic, excited, and thrilled to have the chance to get it all from you. When you focus less on what this audience can do to you, (which is probably nothing at all), and focus more on what you can do for them, you are much more likely to adopt a positive tone and attitude that will help you relax and connect.


Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. But don't over prepare.


Prepare yourself enough that you know your content well, know what your audience will want to hear most, and speak with some degree of interest and passion. Don't think that you will know the answer to every single question that could come up; you won't. Don't think that you should memorise your presentation word-for-word; you shouldn't. Get moving if you have nervous energy. Do some physical activity to harness that energy. Walk briskly around the building, find a corner and do some squats, give enthusiastic handshakes with some big smiles.


Don't forget to breathe slowly and consistently.


Adequate oxygen sends signals to your body that everything is okay. Play up your weaknesses in private practice and overemphasise any physical reactions you tend to have when you're nervous. For example, if you tend to blink a lot when you experience anxiety, practice your speech in front of a mirror blinking as much as possible. Once you have heightened your nervous reaction you are better able to control and eliminate it.


Finally, make yourself laugh whether you feel like it or not. Laughing reduces stress, and when you are relaxed and happy, you are more likely to think clearly and connect better with your audience.

Leave a Reply