Calming Your Nerves
October 26, 2017 | Alexandra Johnston, Ph.D.
“I get so nervous before I give a presentation! How can I manage my anxiety?” – Program participant, Fundamentals of Communication
It might be your first presentation or your 500th. You get that unsettled feeling in your stomach. Your heart rate speeds up. You’re jittery, maybe even light-headed. Sweat? It happens.
Even experienced presenters face public speaking situations with anxiety or heightened anticipation. The first thing to do is to accept it. Sit with that feeling. Recognize that this is your body’s way of telling you that something matters to you.
A lot of anxiety stems from a sense of being out of control or facing the unexpected. What if I forget what I was going to say? What if someone asks me something I don’t know? What if I just keel over and faint? So focus your energy on controlling, preventing and anticipating what you can and you’ll naturally decrease your stress level.
Before your presentation
Use your anxiety as a motivator to know your presentation inside and out. There is no substitution for proper practice. So carve out time to take these steps and you’ll go a long way towards preventing a potential brain freeze in the moment:
Know your content
- Try to mimic the presentation situation you’ll be in: Sitting, standing, on the phone or using a microphone. Putting your body through the physical motions will give you ‘muscle memory’ that you can rely on in the moment.
- Speak your presentation out loud. Hearing your own voice will help you to remember what to say much more than silently scrolling through your slides and ‘thinking’ your presentation through. Focus especially on what you say during transitions.
- Practice the gestures you’ll use to amplify your points. This is also part of your sensory memory. The more senses you engage in your practice, the more content you will retain.
Know what your audience sees and hears: YOU
- Video your presentation and watch it. All of it. With your eyes open! Yes, this is the most challenging way to prepare for a presentation, but it’s what pays the greatest dividends for your actual performance. Turn your phone on yourself and record a couple minutes. It’s enough time for you to see and hear things that you don’t even know that you do. Maybe you sway back and forth, tuck your hair behind your ears every few seconds, look up at the ceiling, or, like, use a lot of like, uhhhh, filler words. You may not realize that you do these things—but your audience does! Changing those things? Don’t get overwhelmed. Just pick one thing and try to substitute something else—a pause for a filler word, for example.
Know your body
- Are you caffeine sensitive? If you are, don’t drink caffeinated drinks before your presentation. Caffeine speeds your heart rate, which makes you talk faster. This is not a gift to your audience! Many of us talk faster when we’re nervous, as well as when we’re standing up in front of a seated audience. But audiences need you to slooooow down. It helps them to process and retain information. So avoid caffeine if you’re like me and an afternoon espresso keeps you up until 4 a.m.
- Fill your stomach—but not too much. Eat something that your body will digest slowly. Depending on your food sensitivities, pick a hard-boiled egg, whole-grain toast and peanut butter, or oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit. Sugary foods give you a rush of energy and then a sudden crash. Protein will settle your stomach, release energy slowly and calm any jitters.
Know your physical space
- We feel more comfortable on our own turf. Put yourself in the actual space where you’ll be presenting, if you have access. Move around in it. Test the technology. Find the light switches and see how they work. Find the outlets. The more you ‘own’ the space, the more comfortable you’ll feel in the moment.
Know your audience
- As they come into the room, make eye contact and have small talk with as many people as appropriate. If they’re unknown to you, even a quick smile and eye contact will help ‘humanize’ your audience to you—and you to them.
During the first two minutes
You’ll likely feel your nerves diminish and disappear in the first couple minutes of your presentation. So spend time preparing your opening and a good warm-up for your audience. Get them on your side right away.
Engage your audience
- Ask them about their expectations for your talk and call on a couple of people. The breather you get while they speak will ease your nerves and give you good information for tailoring your presentation. Take a poll and ask for a show of hands. Show a photo related to your content and ask for reactions. The back and forth with your audience will create a connection and give you good energy.
- So simple. So necessary. Force yourself to inhale to a count of three and exhale to a count of three or longer. This will keep the oxygen flowing to your brain and muscles, reducing any light-headedness or jitters. Take these full breaths whenever you need to. The amount of time it takes to take a deep breath may feel like an eternity to you, but it will likely be felt by your audience as a strong pause that demonstrates your calm and command of the situation—no matter what you’re feeling inside.
Now go out there and show your poise! Will you try any of these tips, or do you do them already? What are your best ways to calm your nerves?