Here's How to Overcome Presentation Anxiety

July-August 2020
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If you’re like most people, then you get nervous or anxious before a presentation. It’s OK. Even professional speakers go through this.

The difference is in how you manage it. You can let the anxiety drive you crazy and even affect your performance, or you can meet it head-on and at least subdue it, if not conquer it.

Billions of words have been written about overcoming stage fright. Beyond the usual menu of tactics, I’m going to offer a way to reframe your thinking, with a healthy dose of tough love.

But first, let’s clear the air on an important issue.

Bust a popular myth.

One little factoid that we hear all the time is that people fear public speaking even more than death. Death! 

But while that’s the premise of a memorable Jerry Seinfeld bit — “Now this means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy” — nobody has found an actual study to support this claim.

I may be biased because I speak for a living but, personally, I would rather be up there doing the eulogy.

While some people suffer from truly debilitating anxiety that might require a deeper level of intervention, most people’s fear can be managed with a handful of simple tools. 

And, like I said, some tough love.

Check your ego at the podium.

When you explore the source of people’s speaking anxiety, it often comes down to the fear of making mistakes or looking dumb in front of colleagues or other people they need to impress. 

And some are self-conscious about their appearance or the sound of their voice.

For this group, I would say, “Get over it!”

Yes, get over it. That’s your ego talking. Your presentation is not about you, it’s about them — your audience.

Your only job is to provide useful information that will help them in some way, large or small — information that will lead them to change their thinking or even their behavior on a particular issue.

So set aside the notion of dazzling or impressing them. Turn the tables on your anxiety. Ask yourself, “How can I help today?” Show up to serve.

Manage your expectations.

Take note of the language I’m using here. It’s modest. Your impact may be small, but it’s useful. You will probably not rock their world and spark a 180-degree turnaround in their viewpoints or actions.

But if you can plant some seeds, give them some food for thought and prompt them to do some further exploration on an issue, then that’s a win.

While it’s true that a speech can change the world, most of them don’t. And they rarely, if ever, make that kind of impact entirely on their own.

So take the pressure off yourself and be modest in your ambitions.

Stop undermining your credibility.

We’ve all seen people visibly work themselves into a near-frenzy in the hours and days before a presentation, telling anyone and everyone how nervous they are. Maybe we’ve done it ourselves.

That’s a natural instinct — we’re talking things out and perhaps seeking reassurance that everything will be OK.

But beyond creating a self-perpetuating doom cycle of anxiety, this behavior seriously undermines your credibility as a professional.

Stop for a minute and think about the impression that you’re making on the people around you — those who look up to you and those who have a role in your future advancement.

This is about how we show up every day as professionals and as leaders.

Act like the leader you are.

When this issue comes up in my speeches and workshops, I often ask about that person’s regular, daily responsibilities. They walk through a few of the important things they do — managing budgets, counseling teammates, moving projects along.

Then I ask how they handle those duties. Do they conduct themselves with calm assurance, or do they run down the hallway like their hair is on fire?

Of course, it’s the former. The point is to treat a presentation like a normal part of your responsibilities. For PR pros, of course, communication is our job. But communication is the heart of everyone’s job, whether they’re managing teams, enlisting support for plans and initiatives, seeking compliance with policy or procedures, cultivating customer relationships or reassuring investors. 

So put yourself in the mindset that speaking in front of groups is simply one more of your normal duties and carry yourself accordingly. You’re cool, comfortable and contained.

In other words, you’re a leader.

Use the tactics for managing anxiety.

Those steps involve a major shift in thinking. Now let’s look at a few simple tactics that may be easier to implement:

• Understand your audience. What are their interests, needs, moods and objections? Use that insight to create truly relevant content and to forge a stronger connection.

• Practice and prepare. There really isn’t a substitute for doing your homework and taking the time to practice. The better you know your material, the more poised and confident you will be.

• Warm up. Before you go on, do some stretches to burn off excess energy, get your blood flowing and prepare your body. Take three deep breaths to calm yourself.

• Mingle (or don’t). Some speakers become energized by working the room beforehand — introducing themselves, getting to know audience members and asking questions. If you’re not wired that way, then that’s OK. Move on to the next step. 

• Focus. In the moments before you speak, put down your phone and think. Remind yourself of what you’re trying to accomplish and go through your intro in your head. That way, you’re more likely to hit the ground running and feel confident from the start. 

• Psych yourself up. Turn your nervousness into excitement. Convince yourself that you can’t wait to get out there, connect with people, share valuable information and make a difference — large or small — in people’s lives.

• Ignore your mistakes. If you flub something, then keep going. The less you call attention to it, the less likely the audience will care or even notice. And silence your inner critic. Be cool.

Keep working at it.

Like anything else, the more you do it, the more you will improve. Many people have found Toastmasters to be a great way to get comfortable in front of groups. There are also plenty of books, training and coaching options to check out.

Put in the time to get better. Make it a priority. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But isn’t the benefit of relieving all of that anxiety worth it?

photo credit: digitalvision vectors

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