How to overcome nerves & present with power

You’re not alone

Let’s be honest here, most of us get at least a little case of the butterflies in our stomachs at the thought of public speaking.  When it comes to taking to the lectern, I believe there are two types of people; those who get some form of nerves, those who are fibbers trying to impress us.

Even Abraham Lincoln, who delivered one of the most powerful speeches of all time used to suffer from nerves. So you’d imagine that the rest of us mere mortals would be inclined to experience them too.

Worse than spiders and death

Did you know that some surveys have ranked public speaking as the number one fear.  Yes, number one, ahead of all other fears such as spiders, intense pain, and even the big one, death! It’s no wonder so many people do whatever they can to avoid it. It can bring on sleepless nights and days of anxious worry for the executive who’s been tasked with stepping up to present his teams quarterly sales figures to the terrifying board of directors.

Doing it doesn’t necessarily equal doing it well

And let’s be honest whilst we’re on the subject of public speaking, just because some people overcome their fear and actually get up and do it doesn’t mean they can do it well.  In fact there’s a boatload of people out there who boldly get up there, and deliver mind-blowingly dull presentations that involve crammed slides, from which every single word is read until you sink deeply into a trance through boredom only praying that the fire alarm will go off to give you some light relief.

Anyway, I digress.  We’re not here to focus on those doing it badly, my aim here is to help those who due to nerves, aren’t doing it at all and those who reluctantly dip their toe in, to summon the inner calm to make that step up.

I’m nervous get me out of here

When we find ourselves confronted with a threatening situation we often trigger our good old ‘fight or flight response’ that was kindly built in to us to help us survive life-threatening situations.  I doubt it was intended to get us away from having to do Powerpoint presentations, but that doesn’t mean they won’t kick it off.

The fight or flight response is the sudden sweating, dilated pupils, tense muscles, dry mouth, fast shallow breathing, poor memory, and inability to think clearly that you may find yourself experiencing as soon as somebody mentions the words ‘presentation’ and ‘you’ in the same sentence.

The past & future are what hold us back

Whether we realise it or not, one of the main reasons we get so nervous at the thought of presenting is because we allow our attention to jump out of the present moment and into the past or future, or both.

Think about the last time you felt fear crawling up your spine when asked to present… I’m going to wager that your mind did one or both of the following:

1. Jumped back in time to your last attempt where things didn’t go well, and kept focusing on that
2. Jumped forward in time to all of the possible things that could go wrong, such as slides not working, forgetting your script, being heckled, etc etc, and focused on those

Both of the above, are possible only if your attention wanders out of the present moment.  But because the human mind can only focus on one thing at a time in any depth, if we can anchor our attention into the present moment, it can’t also simultaneously be in the past or future.  By training our mind to stay present we can pretty much dissolve most of our fear.

Focusing on the present crowds out thoughts of past mistakes and future possible catastrophes that probably won’t happen anyway.  French philosopher Montaigne said, “My life was full of awful events, most of which never happened”.

Only use the past & future when you need them

In your preparatory phase it obviously makes good sense to think back to past mistakes in order to learn from them, and to consider possible future errors, just to make sure we’re fully prepared.  But once that’s done, a presenter has no use for the past and future, and should have their attention focused laser-like into the present moment.

Don’t attack, can’t you see I’m scared?

Have you ever noticed how animals can smell fear?  A pack of wolves, much like sharks can sense fear in other animals.  Humans are the same, and for some reason when we sense fear we often go into attack mode.  It seems highly inappropriate doesn’t it, but that’s the way it is.  What bullies!

So unfortunately, the more terrified we are when we stand in front of that crowd, the more likely they are to attack.  A bit like the nervous comedian who forgets their lines, and get’s heckled by the drunken guys in the audience, versus the calm comedian who owns the room!

By learning to relax, we reduce the severity of the fight or flight response, and move to the ‘blue’ relaxation side of the stress scale, which incidentally means we are able to remember and recall more easily, and have clearer thinking ability.

So anyway, here are my seven tips for reducing presentation nerves and stepping up your game to that of a seasoned pro:

1. Know your material inside-out

This one should be obvious, but it’s amazing how many people get up there and try to wing it, then wonder why it went wrong.  The better you know your script, the more comfortable you feel with it, the less rigid you have to be in following your script, and you give yourself a little freedom to have more fun and play around with it a little.

2. Understand your own personal nervous reactions

Think back to the last time you felt really nervous about this situation.  What happened?  Consider the physical reactions you experienced.  Did you start to tremble?  Did your breathing become rapid and shallow?  Whatever it was, just make a note of it, because this information will be your green light to kickstart the relaxation process

3. Start the calming process early

As soon as your first sign of nerves appears on the radar begin the relaxation process – If you wait until 30 seconds before you speak to begin trying to relax, chances are you’re going to walk up to the front nervous.  That’d be a bit like doing your Christmas shopping on Christmas eve. What I’m advocating here is the equivalent of starting your Christmas shopping as soon as decorations start going up in the shops in October.  Now that’s super-prepared.

4. ‘X’ marks the spot

Let’s say you know your nervous area is the pit of your stomach, what you now need to do is keep your attention fully focused on this area. This will help you on two levels. Firstly, because the mind can only focus on one thing at a time, you can’t be thinking about your nervous patch, and simultaneously worrying about things that might go wrong, or past failures. Simply observe the changing state of your nervous zone. This is your barometer.

5. The breath as a tonic

Imagine your breath to be a relaxation tonic, or a warm soothing nectar, that you inhale into your nervous zone, letting it swish around it calming and relaxing it, before you release it.  This is actually a pain management technique, but it will help you to first reduce your nervous reaction, and secondly to maintain deeper controlled breathing.

6. Sip on some lemon

A dry mouth is the enemy of many a speaker, so it’s something we need to combat in advance.  Have you ever noticed how for some people even the word lemon can make them salivate?  Well those sour little fellas are great for giving our mouths a constant supply of moisture to aid our oratory.  So in the run up to your big moment, sip some water and lemon to keep Captain dry-mouth at bay.

7. Move something

Often speakers find that their hands and bodies feel trembly when they first get to the front, and they feel out of touch with themselves and time can slightly distort.  So a good way to get in touch with the calming present moment, is simply to do something physical.  I always grab something and move it, such as the lectern.  This puts me back in touch with my body, and gives me a few moments to get comfortable up there.

Ok, so there you have seven tips that I think can move you from being a nervous presenter, to being a little more comfortable as you step up to the front and give it your best shot. Try them one at a time and see how they fit.  With practise you’ll be more relaxed than a Zen monk during morning meditation..

Jonathan Pittam
Corporate Resilience & wellbeing coach, Consultant, Writer, Speaker



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