Beating presentation nerves: Make it happen

by Peter Watts

“Apprenticeship should not be put off, for fear grows upon us day by day. What we must attempt appears continually more alarming, and while we are deliberating when we will begin, we find that the time for beginning is past.”

These words were written 2000 years ago as guidance for young Romans starting out on their careers as public speakers. They remain true for us today. Whether your challenge is to speak to a more senior audience, or is simply to speak at all, the time for doing it is now!

Public speaking is often like jumping into the sea during that first day at the beach. You have to nerve yourself for the shock of the cold, but once in the water, you find it’s not as freezing as you feared. The quotation reminds us that the longer we hesitate, the harder it becomes to make that plunge. We must break the shock barrier, and enter the water.

The entry is sometimes forced upon us. For example, the boss may tell us we have to make a presentation next week. If no such catalyst occurs, we have to find that starting point for ourselves and create our own opportunity:

  • offer to make a presentation to your colleagues or team
  • present new products or services to an existing customer
  • offer to take part in a presentation to a new customer
  • give a talk in a social, political, or church group to which you belong
  • join the Toastmasters organization which develops speakers around the world

The cultures of the world offer maxims such as “a journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single foot-step”. These all tell us the same thing; “take the plunge, make it happen”.

You are a confident presenter. You need to give yourself the chance to find that out!

Come on in, the water’s lovely!

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:

Coaching yourself after a presentation

by Peter Watts

When I train presenters, I sometimes start by offering each participant a whip and a five minute break; if anyone’s in the mood they can pop outside and give themselves a good thrashing. “Go ahead, have fun!”

Of course, participants greet this suggestion as ludicrous. So why then do so many of us insist on giving ourselves the most monumental thrashing after every presentation?

I messed that up” <Thwack>

I did it all wrong” <Thwack>

It was dreadful, I did nothing right” <Thwack, Thwack, Thwack>

While it’s important post-presentation, to reflect on how we can improve our skills, many of us undertake this with a harsh, cruel judgement.

As you finish one presentation, you mentally set yourself up for the next. Reflect on what you did well, and you build confidence; internalize failure and you build a barrier against ever presenting again.

Professional coaching helps you to focus on success, followed by reflection on areas for improvement. The coach’s role is to encourage you forward by ensuring improvement points are noted while confidence is built.

Often though, professional coaching isn’t available post-presentation. No-one offers feedback except ourselves, through the filter of our own judgement, which is a severe critic; “I botched that up, I messed up this, I should have done that….”

What gets neglected is “What did I do well? What am I proud of?”

Have the discipline after each presentation to reflect on what was GREAT! Be generous to yourself and focus on what you are proud of. You made an investment of time, energy, and courage to stand up and make that presentation. Now give yourself return on investment. It’s not only fair, it’s essential!

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:

Pace, precision, and practice

by Peter Watts

Astro frowned. “What’s a time and speed trap?”

“Usually begins with a single step,” West said. “Your first step sets off the trap. Then you have to get in and out before the trap completes its sequence. You need accuracy and speed to get through it. I imagine that as soon as one of us steps on the first stepping-stone, the sequence is set.” 

Matthew Reilly

“The Six Sacred Stones”

A team of treasure hunters face a death maze of trap-activating stepping stones. There is no turning back. All die if but one of them places a foot wrong. What’s more, it’s against the clock; take too long, and those traps activate anyway. Their leader, Jack West, observes “You need accuracy and speed to get through it”.

Standing at the edge of a presentation we have an advantage denied to West and his team – we can practice our moves before we enter. As my colleague Gareth Williams comments in his response to “Puncturing Perfectionism”, pre-presentation practice is an essential.

The secret to successful presentation rehearsal is to run through your presentation out loud, from beginning to end, pausing only to note down the things that work well, and the things that don’t!

In the real world, when something doesn’t work during a presentation delivery, you can’t stop and make repairs mid-journey. You have to keep going. The same discipline is applied to practice sessions. Note down where it was that the road became pot-holed, and then exactly as if the dry-run were a real presentation, keep going!

  • By continuing to your conclusion before making corrections you see the presentation in the big picture and solutions appear naturally

  • You ensure equal practice time is dedicated to the whole presentation and you don’t become bogged down in one section

  • By not over-focussing on one spot, you avoid your wheel digging down into the presentation mud, to leave you frustrated and struck

Run through the presentation twice; once to correct and once to validate the corrections. The more important the presentation, the more times you might want to rehearse it, but do avoid falling into the trap of perfectionism.

Confident presenters show precision and pace

and precision and pace show practice.

I think, therefore I am: Part of “Presentation Nerves”

Cogito Ergo sum

by Peter Watts

The philosopher Rene Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”. For presenters, this line of wisdom is extended to:

“I am what I think”

Start a presentation thinking “I’m confident and I’m prepared”, and your session unfolds in accordance with that thought. Nerves diminish, and you move easily from point to point. Go into a presentation thinking “I don’t want to do this and I can’t remember what I’m meant to be talking about”, and you’ll find that this too will come to pass!

What we tell ourselves is our reality before a presentation, all too easily becomes our reality during the presentation.

This is the same world as that inhabited by professional athletes. What words go through the mind of an athlete as they line-up at the start of a race?Words that focus on victory, or words that focus on defeat?

If an athlete focussed on the message “I’m going to come out of these blocks, surge forward ten steps, and then trip over my own feet and go flat on my face” this self-destructive mantra would become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Professional sports people visualise success and maintain a continuous inner-dialogue that supports that vision. As presenters we have that same inner dialogue.

What is yours telling you about presenting? Is it positive or negative? Passionate or pessimistic?

Be aware of what your inner voice is telling you. Challenge negatives and praise positives. If the voice predicts doom, then challenge back with success. If the voice says “You’re going to fail”, then say back “I’m going to succeed!”

Remember pro-athletes and what works for them. The same sports psychology techniques also work for us!

“I think therefore I am”

I am therefore, what I think

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:

No Sweat: Part of “Presentation Nerves”

by Peter Watts

The visual opposite of confidence, is sweat. As dark rings blossom beneath the armpits, a statement of “Nervous” telegraphs to the audience. Simple steps can prevent this happening.

Nervousness isn’t the only reason we sweat when presenting; the explanation can be as simple as the temperature of the room we find ourselves standing in. We have come from one temperature zone outside the building, passed through another in the lobby, and then hit a third as we entered the conference room. These temperature fluctuations conspire with our heightened nervous state to make us perspire.

Sweating is something that as presenters we should anticipate and manage.  

Wear a light t-shirt against your skin to act as a blotter. V-necks are best, and they must be short sleeved so the armpit is completely covered. The classic round-necked, no sleeve variety will fail in the sweat-test by not offering all-over blotter protection. Choose the lightest, thinnest fabric available so heat escapes, while sweat remains hidden.

What about the face and forehead? For these areas, keep three things in mind:

  • Rushing to your presentation will literally make you hot, flushed, and sweaty. Be in the room at least 15 minutes ahead of time so you can acclimatise and cool down.
  • Your grandmother was right when she told you to always carry a clean handkerchief! Even though your forehead is not nearly as sweaty as you might think (a single bead of sweat can feel like a gushing torrent), it will help your confidence if you can give your brow a quick dab just to make sure. Why a handkerchief and not a tissue? Because tissues can disintegrate and it has been known for presenters to go through a whole presentation with fragments of tissue stuck to their foreheads!
  • Facial sweating stops once we start speaking. If you become aware of perspiration then keep going, it will pass.

Breaking into a sweat is a natural, if slightly unpleasant aspect of presenting that needs to be managed rather than cured.

Dress for sweat! Choose clothes that are comfortable, cool, and concealing. Place a blotter layer against your skin. Have a handkerchief to hand just in case.

Finally, allow yourself plenty of time. The calmer you are, the cooler you’ll be.

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:

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