I have lost count of the number of presentations I have delivered over the years but, whether I am presenting to a small group of people or a full auditorium, I have never forgotten how it felt in those early days; the racing heart, the clammy palms, hands shaking too much to hold notes…
And, if I have delivered a hundred presentations, I have watched many times that number and I have seen anxiety threaten to overwhelm people on more than one occasion. It is such a shame because, if you have been asked to present at an event it is because you have something of value to offer the audience. Overcoming your nerves allows you to share your views/information/wisdom and to add value to the knowledge economy.
On that basis, and because audiences really want to hear what you have to say, here are my eight top tips for reducing the stress of presenting:
- Do not expect to deliver a stress-free presentation. A certain amount of stress is necessary to optimise performance. If you deliver from too far inside your comfort zone then you risk complacency and complacent presenters often go hand in hand with a bored audience. Some stress is good.
- Ask yourself why you are stressed in the first place. You are simply talking to people who want to hear what you have to say; the situation should not be inherently stressful. Performance anxiety is often related to some past event; perhaps you forgot your lines in a school play, or were laughed at when asked to sing in front of the class. I once coached a woman who had successfully refused to present for about twelve years due to her extreme anxiety. It eventually transpired that most of her stress came from colleagues/friends telling her that presenting is stressful – that belief alone was causing her an excess of anxiety. When she finally presented to an audience of strangers she found that the reality was nowhere near as bad as she had imagined.
- Work out what aspect of presenting causes you the most stress then try to plan it out. If you are afraid that you will forget what you are saying; try using prompts. If you are concerned that you don’t have enough/have too much material then rehearse but also, work out in advance what you can add in / take out if your timing is off. If you are afraid you won’t be heard work with a voice coach to improve your projection. I have turned up to present on a number of occasions only to find that the projector isn’t working or the laptop doesn’t like my memory stick. Rather than be stressed by this I now take along my own equipment – just in case… Basically plan and rehearse but don’t obsess.
- Think about why you are presenting. It’s true that presenting often offers a marketing opportunity but try to take the ego out of it. A lot of stress is invested in trying to be clever or brilliant: Focus instead on what you have to offer the audience. Think of the presentation as a service rather than an audition, if your audience get something useful from you then they will remember you – job done.
- Try some relaxing, deep breathing exercises before you present and remember to breathe all the way through the event. If you get stuck or overwhelmed; stop and breathe. There is an abundance of research out there that shows why breathing helps (just Google “breathing research” if you want more information) but it is enough to know that deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange (i.e. the trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide). This can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure thus reducing some of the physiological effects of stress.
- Learn some state management techniques. Before presenting I always trigger my “presenting anchor”: This allows me to quickly and easily access the right state to optimise my presentation. In my case that state is a mixture of calmness, alertness and confidence. Try working with an NLP coach to learn a variety of techniques for state management – including the setting (and removal) of anchors.
- During the presentation try to engage with your audience; don’t just talk at them. Ask questions or give them short, collaborative tasks to complete. People will enjoy being involved if their involvement is relevant to the subject and useful to them. Keep these tasks short and the feedback brief and, whilst they are busy collaborating you can take a deep breath and prepare for the next part of your presentation.
- When it is all over, reflect objectively. What went well? What can you learn for next time? Give yourself a huge pat on the back for being brave and facing your fears. Before you know it, you will be looking forward to presenting and, dare I say it? You may even enjoy it.