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Your Anti-Anxiety, Fear-Busting, Butterfly-Taming, Pre-Presentation Guide

(posted: July 27th, 2017)

Your boss has selected you to present your department's latest developments at the annual all-hands meeting this year. It's an honor and a privilege, and you are utterly freaked out. You know that you have some really exciting news to share, but...public speaking? Ugh.

Download your printable checklist, here!

That's a common reaction to speaking in public, whether it's on stage in front of hundreds or standing at the whiteboard at a team meeting. Even a one-on-one with our boss or in a job interview can leave us biting our nails in anxiety.

At the same time, it's vitally important to our teams, our companies and firms, our charities and communities, our professional development and our leadership journey that we step up to the podium and speak with conviction and confidence. Your ability to present in any situation influences your ability to be successful.

So how do we reconcile the need to present effectively with the fear, anxiety and nerves that go along with it?

The good news is that there are several strategies we can use to minimize, redirect or even eliminate our fears.

You are the Expert, so Know Your Material

Long before you step onto the stage you can start to reduce your fear through preparation.

Focus. Craft your presentation with your end goal in mind. What do you want your audience to take away? What is the one thing that they need to leave your talk knowing? As Brad Phillips, aka Mr. Media Training, likes to say, what is your audience-focused, bright, shiny object? The clarity and focus that comes from answering this question will give your presentation a through-line, plus it will help you with the next point.

PPPPP - Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. The best communicators, including lauded speakers like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, got there by practicing relentlessly. TED starts working with their speakers six to nine months before they take the stage! The more you practice, the better you know your talk, the more relaxed and comfortable you will be on stage. It also increases your confidence.

Memorize Open & Close. The first 30 seconds or so of your talk are critical to know by heart, so that you can deliver that much through the adrenaline without even thinking. If you can deliver your first few sentences in your sleep, it gives you time to adjust to the situation, get a feel for your audience, and relax into your talk. Memorizing your close ensures that you will end strong, even if you run into some trouble in the middle of your talk.

Questions. A subset of practicing, anticipating possible questions does several things: Asking and answering them helps to cement your knowledge of your topic, can help you refine your script to stay focused on your bright, shiny object, and prepares you for the questions that audience members may throw at you.

Use the Fear. Fear can be a good motivator. Use your fear of your upcoming appearance as a nudge to practice regularly.

Shift Your Point of View. Shifting your thoughts from negative or defeating to positive can make a big difference in how you present. Instead of thinking, "I am so dreading this, I know I'm going to stumble and look silly," tell yourself, "Everything will be fine. I can do this!"

Before You Take the Stage

The night before...

Final Prep. You may well start to feel a bit nervous as early as the night before your talk. Use this heightened state of awareness as a reminder to prep and pack what you need that night, review your directions, charge your devices, etc. Being ready to go and organized will give you another boost of confidence.

The day of...

Eat. It may feel wrong, but an empty stomach can make anxiety worse, so make sure you've eaten lightly an hour or so before your stage time.

Pre-game Routine. Some athletes wear lucky socks, or carry a lucky nickel. The most effective routines involve visualizing the coming experience and what a positive outcome looks like. Create your own pre-game routine that combines small, repeated actions that you find comforting with a visualization of you on stage connecting with your audience, and go through it on the way to the venue.

Nervous? Or Excited? Try telling yourself that the energy you are feeling from nerves is also excitement. You are the expert, you have come to enlighten and inspire the audience, so reframe that nervous energy as excitement about sharing your ideas.

Take Up Space. Amy Cuddy's "Power Pose" is one example of how expanding your physical space or using a "high status" stance helps to decrease cortisol, the stress hormone and allows you to release some of your anxiety.

Breathe Deeply. This is a great technique for calming nerves in almost any situation, and you can do it even if you are seated in the audience or mixing with guests ahead of time. Focus on your breathing, and take a deep breath, inhaling all the way into your stomach. Hold it briefly, then exhale slowly and completely. Do this three or four times, then breathe normally. If you don't feel some calm returning, repeat the process again.

Get Physical. If the adrenaline is still overwhelming you, find some space to do something physical, like brisk walking, jumping jacks, a little bit of jogging in place. This will help to burn off the adrenaline, which is preparing your body for "flight".

Drink Water. So that you don't find your tongue glued to the roof of your mouth when you first take the stage, start drinking water about 15 minutes before your start time.

On Stage

Be Open & Vulnerable. The audience is on your side, no matter what it may feel like in this moment. Acknowledge your nervousness, let the audience in, use it to connect with them.

It's Not About You. Remember that you are there to share something important with your audience. Shift your thoughts from your fears to them: What do they need from you? How will your information make their lives better?

Scrunch. If you still have butterflies, try scrunching your toes in your shoes, or squeeze your thumb and forefinger together while your hand is down at your side. This will get rid of some more nervous energy.

Find a Friend. Scan the audience and choose a friendly face or two to focus on. Or ask a friend or coach to attend, and seek them out as a touchstone.

Move. But don't pace, rock or fidget. Use your movement to heighten a moment or to make a point. Approach your audience with a step forward to embrace or include them.

Audience Participation. It doesn't have to be much, even just a question with a request for a show of hands is a great way to make your audience feel like they are part of your talk. Or ask them to "remember a time when..." or "imagine what it would be like if..."

The Unexpected. If an audience member asks a question you can't answer, or challenges your expertise or knowledge, don't slip into negative thinking, "Oh no, I can't answer that, they're going to think I'm an idiot." Instead turn it around and say, "I'm glad you brought that up. I imagine other people here are wondering that too." This has a rather amazing way of preventing you from getting confused and allowing you either calmly address the question, or let them know you don't have the answer off the top of your head but that you'll find out and get back to them.

Backup Plan. Things outside your control will often go wrong. What will you do if the tech team can't get your slides to run? Are you confident enough to give your talk without them? If you practiced enough, you should be able to gather your thoughts, make a joke at your own expense, and proceed with your talk anyway.

Competence, Confidence, Credibility and Courage

Remember, you have ideas and knowledge that can inspire the audience, enhance their lives or improve their day. Your communication skills are your secret to holding their attention, making a persuasive point, being remembered, and appearing smart and confident.

Practicing your talks relentlessly will give you the competence and confidence. Practicing the techniques above will give you the courage to step onto that stage. And when you channel that nervous energy into excitement and start influencing and engaging your audience, your credibility will soar.

You may even start to find that you are looking forward to your presentations an opportunity to inform, influence and inspire.

We are here to help. Contact us if you'd like to work on your presentation skills!

Challenge Yourself
  • Which one or two strategies for reducing fear and nerves do you plan to try?
  • Do you practice your presentations out loud? Why or why not?
  • What is your experience with presenting, nerves and fear?
  • Which technique did you find surprising or counter-intuitive?

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