Presentation nerves

Nine proven routes to calm and confident presenting

by Peter Watts

Beating presentation nerves can seem like a battle; a no-holds-barred FIGHT to overcome your fears. Bosses and colleagues, like drill sergeants, urge us from the trenches and up onto the no-mans land of the stage.

“You’re team needs you. Get out there soldier!”

This approach is completely wrong.

First point to be aware of: Presentation nerves can never be eliminated, and it would not be desirable to do so. Controlled nervous tension can promote excellence.

Second point to be aware of: The tangible bodily sensations that come with presentation nerves, can be easily managed if we understand the mechanics that create them.

That’s what this article will help you to do. I’m not going to tell you how to beat presentation nerves, because I believe that as a natural bodily reaction we should work with our jitters, not against them. When we focus on beating nerves we just drive them deeper into our psyches. Instead, we can understand them, and adopt simple measures that make presenting a significantly easier process.

Do any of the following affect you when presenting?

  • Tightness of breath
  • Rapid heart-rate
  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Cold or clammy hands
  • Trembling
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Nausea
  • Tension headaches
  • Loss of concentration
  • Dry-throat
  • Scratchy voice
  • Low self-esteem

If yes, then within the following articles, you will find practical measures that work with your body to overcome those reactions. Each heading is a link. Simply click on it to review the associated article:

Breathing yourself calm

Sensations associated with presentation nerves are soothed by effective breathing. Find out how controlling your out-breathe lowers your heart rate to control sweating, blushing, trembling, blood-pressure, and nervous tension.

Calming the butterflies

Presentation nerves suppress appetite, so that when we approach a presentation we are more in need of food than we realize. As blood sugars collapse, our concentration collapses with them, and our stomachs develop those familiar butterfly wings.

Find out what to eat, what not to eat, and when to eat, in order to calm presentation butterflies

Dealing with dry mouth

Voice rapidly heading for a croak? Or afraid it might? In this post we solve the dry-mouth issue, and identify the best drinks to keep your voice flowing smoothly.

No sweat

Sweating can be an unpleasant presentation issue, and one we become acutely aware of.  Basic preventative measures help mitigate the problem.

Cold hands

Colds hands are a standard stress response. Find out why this is, and how something as simple as holding a warm cup can be an instant cure.

I think, therefore I am

How to control the messages we give ourselves before a presentation, to ensure we remain calm and in control during the presentation.

Puncturing perfectionism

Preparation is essential for presenting, but when we topple over into perfectionism, we create an impossible mountain to climb. This post discusses how to reduce those mountains back into molehills.

Taking the plunge

The first plunge can be the toughest. The more often you take it though, the easier it becomes. Repetition is the most sure-fire way to becoming a confident presenter.

Coaching yourself after a presentation

What happens after the presentation? How we coach ourselves once the event is finished will set up our confidence for next time. Find out how to be your own personal coach after every presentation.

Fear of public speaking is perfectly natural, and you are not alone in experiencing it. Indeed, some surveys have shown that for many people it isn’t just a fear, but their number one fear, and that’s why becoming a confident and competent public speaker is such a wonderful goal. If you can achieve this goal, then what other goals also become so much more achievable.

I believe public speaking is therefore a gateway activity. Once we prove to ourselves that we can successfully speak in public, we are empowered onwards to achieve so much more.

Enjoy all the articles linked from this blog, and if there are any areas of presentation nerves not dealt with here, that you might like help with, then please do post a comment.

It will be my pleasure to forward you the extra ideas that might help you forward into the highly rewarding world of presenting.

Confidence tricks: The thawed paws pause

A warming NLP recipe for presentation confidence

by Peter Watts

Hold a warm cup of tea. Or coffee. Or hot chocolate. It doesn’t matter. Hold a warm cup, and as you savor the heat radiating into your hands, a wonderful sense of calm comes with it.

Do this shortly before a presentation and you’ll get exactly the same reaction. Stress seems to mysteriously drain out of you.

There is a whole lexicon of words such as “toasty” that evoke the pleasure of warm hands and feet, and there is a physiological reason why we’ve developed them.

When we become nervous about something, presenting for example, one of the first physical symptoms is cold hands. As we enter fight or flight, our body diverts blood flow away from extremities such as the hands, and redirects it to the vital organs of the core. Because of this we develop the cold clammy hand sensation associated with presentation nerves.

This sets off a chain reaction. Our subconscious mind says to itself “Hello. I appear to have cold hands right now. I get cold hands when I’m nervous. Therefore I must be nervous, and being aware of that fact, am going to become even more nervous.”

If cold hands represent a state of nervous tension, then warm hands represent the exact opposite: relaxation. When we have warm hands, the mind associates this with a state of calm and safety, hence all the snuggle type language we have referring to the pleasantness of warm paws.

Knowing this, we can use a simple technique that I call “The Thawed Paws Pause” to trick our mental wiring into calmness pre-presentation.

Next time you are going to present, accept the offer of a hot drink. The contents of the cup are of secondary importance, but if you have a choice, then my recommendation would be something that is caffeine-free.

As you await your time to present, hold the cup and concentrate your mind on that lovely warmth entering your hands. Your mind is about to get a surprise, in that your internal dialogue is going to go something like this:

“I’m about to make a presentation. I get stressed when I make presentations, and when I get stressed I have cold hands, but hang on a moment! I have warm hands! When I get stressed I have cold hands, but right now I appear to have warm hands! Ah, I therefore can’t be stressed.”

As your subconscious plays with this concept, the body starts to stand down some of the reactions we associate with presentation nerves, and a degree of those stage-fright jitters slip away.

It’s a simple trick, and one of the earliest I was taught when I first started presenting.

Next time you feel stressed or nervous, check the temperature of your hands. Icy? Take a moment to hold a warm cup. Feel tension melt into your thawed paws pause.

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

Presentation body language: Eye contact

by Peter Watts

Staring at the ceiling, the back wall, or our notes while presenting can sometimes feel more comfortable than looking at the audience. By concentrating on something other than the people in front of us, we effectively find a handy blindfold. Like poor unfortunates before a firing squad, we spare ourselves the view of the guns!

This is why it can be so hard to maintain eye contact while presenting. We avoid looking at our audience because we are afraid of what we might see; the blank expressions staring back at us. We are afraid we are going to see bored people, and to believe it is we who have bored them. Rather than risk such negative feedback, it’s easier not to look!

People listen in different ways depending on their learning style. For many, the more they focus on your message, the more their facial expression can become the blank mask misinterpreted as boredom. Frequently, the blanker someone may look during a presentation, the more focussed they are on what you’re saying!

The rewards of maintaining eye contact with an audience are great:

  • Stronger connection to those in the room
  • Greater concentration from those listening to you
  • Visual feedback on how well the audience is reacting to your message
  • A tremendous statement of your own confidence and control

The structure of your presentation, and how you use notes can help you in maintaining eye contact. Keep your presentation and any slides you are using as simple as possible. The more complicated your slides, the more you are forced to look at the screen behind you, and turning your back on the audience while speaking is one of the cardinal sins of presenting.

For presentation notes, use bullet points to help you remember the flow of your presentation. Avoid long-hand scripts; they compel you to look at the script and not at the audience. Effective bullet-point notes allow you to pause, glance at the notes, and then bring your eyes back to the audience before continuing.

Audience eye contact becomes easier as you overcome your initial discomfort. Discover how it increases your power as a presenter. You will soon find that you would no more give a presentation without eye-contact than you would drive a car wearing a blindfold.

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:

Beating Back Butterflies – Part of “Presentation Nerves”

Lepidoptera Stomachus

Lepidoptera Stomachus

by Peter Watts

Lepidoptera Stomachus, or “Butterflies in the Tummy” can invest our stomachs with a fluttering, pulsing, almost electrical life of their own.

Frequent presenting is a great way to lose weight. The person scheduled to speak after lunch can be easily spotted – they’re the one not eating at the buffet as their blood sugars, essential for concentration, plummet down to their socks.

In a previous blog we discussed the importance of oxygen to the presenter. In this one, we’ll consider the role of calories.

During Fight or Flight our appetite is suppressed. After all, if you’re nose-to-nose with a predator, then now isn’t the time for a light snack; not unless you want to be the light snack! If you’ve been stressed about presenting for the past few hours (days?) then you haven’t been eating.

Our bodies and brains need calories to function. Even if we’d like to lose weight and are tempted to regard loss of interest in food as a good thing, not eating will sap energy, reduce concentration, and contribute to tension headaches and trembling limbs.

Eat within two hours of your presentation. You may not feel hungry, but you must maintain the body’s fuel supply. If it’s only 30 minutes till show-time then the emergency food of choice is the banana. Bananas, as any athlete will tell you, are power food. High in natural sugars, they quickly digest for an ideal pre-presentation snack.

Avoid the following:

  • Dairy products (They stimulate mucus and congest the voice)

  • Red meat (Hard to digest and energy sapping)

  • Citrus (Acidity when you’re stressed upsets the stomach)

  • Beans (You figure it out!)

While it would be a mistake to eat a heavy meal immediately before a presentation, it’s equally wrong to starve yourself. When stressed, your body’s natural hunger signals are shut-down. Maintaining calorie intake therefore becomes a rational process, consciously taking care of your physical need for sustenance.

“Have I eaten today?” If the answer is no, then ensure that you do. You’ll find that miraculously, you feel better prepared for the challenge ahead.

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


Breathe Yourself Calm – Part of “Presentation Nerves”

by Peter Watts

Presentation nerves are a form of panic attack known as “Fight or Flight”. Evolved to keep our ancestors safe in their prehistoric world, it now generates the unpleasant sensations we suffer when faced not with predators, but presentations.

People report a standard palette of reactions, some of which you will share:

  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Shallow breathing
  • Cold, clammy hands
  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Light-headedness
  • Trembling and loss of concentration
To manage nerves, it helps to understand their mechanics. Click on this link for an explanation of Fight or Flight on StressStop.com.

We can control nerves rather than be controlled by them. The most effective way to do this is through managing our breathing so that we help the heart to maintain its normal speed rather than hurtling off in a presentation rush.

During Fight or Flight, the heart accelerates to pump more oxygen around the body. Breathing meanwhile moves from stomach based, to chest based, becoming shallower in the process. So, just as the heart races to pump more oxygen, the lungs bring in less, making the heart beat faster to oxygenate vital muscles. As the heart’s oxygen demand outpaces supply, blood pressure increases. Sweating and looking flushed are common responses.

Slow the heart and those other reactions slow down with it; sweating stops and tell-tale blushing reduces. Cool the demand for oxygen and you cool overheating. The solution therefore; take a big deep breath.

Focus attention onto breathing out, completely emptying your lungs of stale air and creating capacity for deeper breaths in response.

Here is the process:

  • Slowly breath out for as long as you can
  • When you can breath out no more, push out three extra puffs, totally emptying the lungs
  • Roll back your shoulders, opening the chest cavity as wide as possible

…and…

  • Relax! Let your body naturally pull in the deepest breathe you’ve inhaled in weeks!

Two more like this, and you will be fully oxygenated. You might even notice a mild dizziness. Our brains burn oxygen, and you’ve hit yours with more oxygen than it’s had in months. Net result, head-rush!

Your heart meanwhile slows down, and as the heart relaxes, you relax.

You are back in control. This is how professional presenters remain calm in front of the biggest audiences.

Control your breathing, and presenting becomes significantly easier.

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

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