If you’re like most people, you get nervous before a presentation. It’s okay. Even professional speakers occasionally experience presentation anxiety.
The difference is in how it’s managed. You can let the anxiety drive you crazy and even affect your performance, or you can meet it head-on and at least subdue it, if not quite conquer it.
Billions of words have been written about overcoming presentation anxiety. Beyond the usual menu of tactics, I’m going to offer a way to reframe your thinking, with a healthy dose of tough love.
But first, let’s clear the air on an important issue.
Busting a Popular Myth
One little factoid we hear all the time is that people fear public speaking even more than death. Death!
But while that’s the premise of a memorable Seinfeld bit — “this means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy” — nobody has found an actual study to support this claim.
Now I may be biased because I speak for a living, but I personally would rather be up there doing the eulogy.
And while some people suffer truly debilitating anxiety that might require a deeper level of intervention, most people’s fear can be managed with a handful of simple tools.
And, like I said, some tough love.
Check Your Ego at the Podium
When you explore the source of people’s presentation anxiety, it often comes down to the fear of making mistakes and looking dumb in front of colleagues or other people they need to impress.
And some are self-conscious about their appearance or the sound of their voice.
For this group, I would say get over it!
Yes, get over it. That’s your ego talking. Your presentation is not about you, it’s about them — your audience.
Your only job is to provide useful information that will help them in some way large or small. Information that will lead them to change their thinking or even their behavior on a particular issue.
So set aside the notion of dazzling or impressing them. Turn the tables on your anxiety. Ask yourself, “How can I help today?” Show up to serve.
Manage Your Expectations
And take note of the language I’m using here. It’s modest. Your impact may be small, but nevertheless useful. You will probably not rock their world and spark a 180-degree turnaround in their viewpoints or actions.
But if you can plant some seeds, give them some food for thought, prompt them to do some further exploration on an issue, then that’s a win.
While it’s true that a speech can change the world, most don’t. And they rarely, if ever, make that kind of impact entirely on their own.
So take the pressure off yourself and be modest in your ambitions.
Stop Undermining Your Credibility
We’ve all seen people visibly work themselves into a near-frenzy in the hours and days before a presentation, telling anyone and everyone how nervous they are. Maybe we’ve done it ourselves.
That’s a natural instinct — we’re talking things out and perhaps seeking reassurance that everything will be okay.
But beyond creating a self-perpetuating doom cycle of anxiety, this behavior seriously undermines your credibility as a professional.
Stop for a minute and think about the impression you’re making on the people around you — those who look up to you and those who have a role in your future advancement.
This is about how we show up every day as professionals and as leaders.
Act Like the Leader You Are
When this issue comes up in my speeches and workshops, I often ask about that person’s regular, daily responsibilities. They walk through a few of the important things they do — managing budgets, counseling teammates, moving projects along.
Then I ask how they handle those duties. Do they conduct themselves with calm assurance, or do they run down the hallway like their hair is on fire?
Of course it’s the former. The point is to treat a presentation like a normal part of your responsibilities. Communication is the heart of everyone’s job, whether you’re managing a team, enlisting support for plans and initiatives, seeking compliance with policy or procedures, cultivating customer relationships or reassuring investors.
So put yourself in the mindset that speaking in front of groups is simply one more of your normal duties and carry yourself accordingly. You’re cool, comfortable and contained.
In other words, you’re a leader.
Tactics for Managing Presentation Anxiety
Those steps involve a major shift in thinking. Now let’s look at a few simple tactics that may be easier to implement:
- Understand your audience. What are their interests, needs, mood and objections? Use that insight to create truly relevant content and a stronger connection.
- Practice and prepare. There really is no substitute for doing your homework and taking the time to practice. The better you know your material, the more poised and confident you will be.
- Warm up. Before you go on, do some stretches to burn off excess energy, get your blood flowing and get your body into the game. Take three deep breaths to calm yourself.
- Mingle (or don’t). Some speakers get energy by working the room beforehand, introducing themselves, getting to know audience members, asking them questions. If you’re not wired that way, that’s okay. Move on to the next step.
- Focus. In the moments before, put down your phone and think. Remind yourself of what you’re trying to accomplish and run through your intro in your head. That way you’re more likely to hit the ground running and feel confident from the start.
- Psych yourself up. Turn your nervousness into excitement. Convince yourself that you can’t wait to get out there, connect with people, share valuable information and make a difference, large or small, in people’s lives.
- Ignore your mistakes. If you flub something, keep going. The less you call attention to it, the less likely the audience will care or even notice. And silence your inner critic. Be cool.
Keep Working at It
Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. Many people have found Toastmasters a great way to get comfortable in front of groups. There are also plenty of books, training and coaching options to check out.
Put in the time to get better. Make it a priority. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But isn’t the benefit of relieving all that anxiety worth it?
[A version of this post originally appeared in PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics]