Managing Nerves – Tools of the Presentation Trade – Part One

I have been speaking in front of groups for over 20 years!  I have seen the cold steely eyes of an audience put to sleep by a series of dull PowerPoint presentations.  People nervously reading off a slide, mumbling half audibly into a microphone or pacing like an expectant father.  By the time it’s my turn, the room is cold and I’m facing a deadly silence.  Now here’s my dirty little secret: I STILL get nervous!

I recently had to present a slide deck of new material (not my own) for a major financial institution with very little preparation and limited understanding.  It was great!  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  It was a reminder of the challenges business presenters are faced with every day.  And the truth is – I actually thrive on the nerves!  I’ve made friends with my nerves, never denying they’re around.  I have learned to harness the nerves I feel into energy that I am able to put into the presentation.  I have a set of tools that help me when I get nervous that I can share with you.

Awareness: I know I never look or sound as nervous as I feel.  And here’s a gift – you don’t either!  No matter what is going on inside, a presentation always feels worse then it appears.  Don’t believe me?  I have worked with thousands of presenters all over the world doing detailed analysis video playbacks and the one constant is everyone looks better then they think.  Try it yourself.  Of course there are things to work on but just know that no one knows what’s going on in your head but you.

Breathe: When I’m nervous, my breathing gets shallow and I deprive my brain of much needed oxygen so I make a conscious choice to breathe right before I begin.  I take two or three deep breaths so I can feel my feet on the ground and steady myself.  As I breathe, I take my time.  I look for a friendly face I can connect to for my opening sentence.  So I’m like a pitcher focusing one thought on an individual, like one pitch to a catcher.  I think of my presentations as an opportunity to speak to individuals within the group rather then addressing a whole group at once and not making any deep connection with anyone.  When I connect, I relax.  I get my attention off myself and onto my audience.

Visualize: I say positive things to myself.  I imagine the speech going very well.  Sometimes right before I begin, I think of something I am proud of or the last time I presented well.  This gives me confidence that this too will go well.

Body Language: I find a private space like a bathroom and stand with my hands up in victory for 30 seconds.  A great deal of scientific research has been done on the effects of body language on your state of mind.  Traditionally, body language has been a tool to manage how we would like to be perceived but I would encourage presenters to find a power position as part of their preparation to address how they feel.  Amy Cuddy, a body language expert has done some interesting research on this subject and I encourage you to check out her TED Talk.

This is part one and I will post part two shortly. Feel free to add any techniques you have found helpful in managing nerves!

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