Chapter 4

Presentation Anxiety

If you feel uneasy about speaking in front of others, you are not alone. For many, public speaking ranks among life’s most stressful challenges. Even the best speakers can feel butterflies as they take the stage — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t confident.

Nervousness is energy. Embrace it. Use it to fuel your presentation.

Nervousness is natural. When you are performing an activity that has the potential to, say, land a major new client for your firm, inspire your sales force at a crucial time of year, or simply affect your reputation, the stakes are high. Feeling pressure on such occasions is normal and healthy. How well you moderate and manage your anxiety, however, can have a dramatic impact on the outcome of a presentation.

If listeners sense that you are tense or unsure, they may have less confidence in you and be less receptive to your message. If you want the audience to believe in you, you must believe in yourself and show it by carrying yourself with confidence.

4.1

Preparation

Preparation is perhaps the single most powerful antidote to presentation anxiety. The more prepared you are, the less nervous you will be and the more confidence you will have.

As you start to prepare, give careful thought to both your audience and your content. Who are your listeners? What will you be communicating to them and why? By considering these questions thoroughly, you will be able to anticipate how you and your message are likely to be received.

While preparation is critical, avoid memorizing your entire talk or writing out every word of a speech and reading it to your audience. Focusing too much on the specific order of your words as you speak, rather than on the flow of your ideas, can prevent you from having a spontaneous and genuine connection to your content.

However, you should memorize the opening words — perhaps the first sentence or so — of your presentation and practice this beginning segment repeatedly. You can raise your confidence level by minimizing any worry you may have about bungling your first words.

When you know that your beginning will go well, you can direct your energy outward, toward the audience, connecting with them instead of focusing inward. A strong opening to your presentation will establish a confident tone and launch you powerfully into the rest of your talk.

To help keep your talk on track, you may wish to have some brief notes with you to remind you of your key points. These notes should be spare and very legible so that with a quick glance, you can get what you need and return your focus to your listeners.

In addition to evaluating your audience and content, consider the setting for your talk. Will you be in a colleague’s office? A boardroom or conference room? A banquet hall? Experienced presenters sometimes visit the space where they will be speaking in order to familiarize themselves with it in advance of a talk. (Many athletes, too, will visit the site of an upcoming competition so that they can walk the court or field and get a sense of the venue before competing there.) If your surroundings are familiar, you will feel more comfortable.

4.2

Relaxation Strategies

If you are feeling excessively nervous, try to identify specifically why you feel that way. Are you afraid of certain potential outcomes? What are they, and why do they worry you? Once you have identified and clarified your concerns, they become targets for solutions.

Nervousness manifests itself not only in your mind, but also in your body. Therefore, use your body as well as your brain to dispel nervousness. Try the physical warm-up exercises outlined in Section 3.1. And do not leave them totally behind when you begin presenting; stay aware of your body and your breathing as you speak so that you can avoid tensing up.

In addition, by focusing your thoughts and energy in a productive way before you give your talk, you can control your nerves and bolster your confidence. Remind yourself how well you understand the material and how carefully you have prepared. Think about how fortunate the audience will be to see and hear you.

Generally, the audience wants you to do well. They are not anxious about your performance and will most likely not be able to tell if you are feeling nervous. They are there to hear your message, not to criticize you. Tap into that calming perspective.

Try visualization, a technique often used by athletes, actors, and musicians in advance of competition or performance. Visualize the perfect version of your presentation from beginning to end. Start with the instant you walk into the room or onto the stage, and think through every moment until you leave the room or return to your seat after your talk. Be specific. See the room and your listeners’ faces; think about what you are saying and how it is received. Notice your confident posture, strong and flexible voice, and consistent eye contact. Breathe deeply and calmly as you see yourself deliver the best presentation you can possibly imagine.

Immediately before you give your presentation, clear your mind. Your preparation is over. You are ready. Take a deep breath, and be yourself.

4.3

Imperfection

No matter how well you prepare, you will not escape the fact that you and all other human beings are imperfect. Sometime, somewhere, you will make a mistake.

Spoken language is naturally flawed for most people. We stop in the middle of sentences and backtrack, we choose words that may not fit perfectly in a particular context, and our syntax can be convoluted. Unless you read your speech or recite it word for word from memory (avoid either approach in almost all cases), chances are you will say something that might have been said better with some other words. You must accept this fact — embrace your imperfection.

The good news is that a lively, spontaneous speech with some mistakes will engage listeners far more than an error-free but flat delivery. Perfection is not the measure of effectiveness. Some people like to read their presentations because they feel that doing so ensures they will not make a major verbal gaffe. Unfortunately, this approach also usually ensures a lack of eye contact, a lack of spontaneity, and ultimately, a lack of meaningful connection with the audience.

Although you may not avoid mistakes altogether, you can control how you respond to them. When you make a mistake, don’t compound it by fretting. Just correct it, if necessary, and move on. If it was funny, feel free to laugh.