Less worrying, more practice

One of the things that really worries people about presenting is their anxiety. 

How do you know you’re anxious? If you have any of these: an elevated heart rate, clammy or trembling hands, upset stomach, pale face, sweaty underarms, unsteady voice, confusion, a feeling as if you might faint. Even many professional performers, motivational speakers, and company CEOs feel apprehensive before going on stage. Some talk openly about it in interviews and in their biographies. A few people never get nervous, but they’re very uncommon. Being anxious is the norm, not the exception.

Early in my own career, I was a terrible presenter. Once I got so scared, I froze up and forgot everything I wanted to say. Another time, I developed a nervous giggle and wasn’t able to speak at all, simply because I couldn’t stop laughing. Now I’ve been presenting for almost 30 years. Other than my (very simple) slides, I don’t use notes anymore. Sometimes, I don’t even use slides. I still get butterflies in my stomach just before I speak, but that’s my adrenaline, getting me active and ready to speak. I’m not nervous while I’m talking to the audience.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to present for three decades to become a confident presenter. If you apply a few simple principles, you’d be surprised how quickly you can improve – even as soon as in your next presentation.

Here’s my three-step process to reducing anxiety:

1. Preparation

2. Just before

3. Delivery

Preparation happens long before you step onto the stage. You must prepare both your mind and your material.

To prepare your mind, let’s consider why people get anxious before they speak in public. It’s what we call the “fight or flight” response. Your body is telling you to run away because your brain sees the audience as threatening. You know that all those people will be watching you and judging you and you worry about looking foolish if you fail.

But why do you assume that you’re likely to make a bad presentation? Perhaps your last presentation didn’t go so well. Who cares? Look back on it to see what you did wrong and learn so that this time, you’re going to impress everybody.

When professional athletes practise, they’re not thinking: “I can’t do this, I’m no good, I’m going to fail” – not even if their last game, or their last season, was awful. What they’re thinking is: “I’m going to make the shot, I’m going to win the race, I’m going to score the point!” It puts them in a success mindset, which makes them far more likely to succeed.

If you think you’ll do badly, you’re coaching yourself to fail. Why not take it the other way? What if your presentation was as successful as it could be? You don’t have to be perfect, but you could still amaze the audience. Instead of expecting failure, believe that you will give an excellent presentation. There’s every reason to expect that you’ll be great – especially if you put in the effort beforehand. 

That effort is to prepare your material well. Many nervous presenters are anxious because they know their slides are not good and they don’t really know what they want to say. Good preparation will reduce your anxiety by at least half. This means:

  • make an outline with a clear structure
  • write notes (not for speaking, but to organize your thoughts)
  • create quality slides well before the event (not the night before)
  • do lots of practice 

The more you present, the less you need to practise every single presentation. Your previous public speaking counts as practice and adds to your overall experience. For example, I still need to rehearse a little, to put everything in order in my mind. However, I don’t need to take nearly as long to get ready, because I have many years of accumulated preparation. 

Unfortunately, a novice presenter doesn’t have a lot of experience to draw on. I suppose that’s why you’re reading this – to get some tips from somebody who’s done it already, so you can improve faster, without taking years to do it.

Yet even when you prepare as much as you possibly can, if you’re new to presenting, you might still feel panic rising when you’re at your event and your turn is coming up. You see the crowd and realise it’s no longer a rehearsal: this is the real deal.

So, in the next blog, we’ll look at steps 2 and 3 to reducing your anxiety: what you can do to calm yourself just before going on stage, and how to keep cool during your presentation.