Overcoming presentation nerves

Why it’s OK to be nervous when you have to give a big presentation.

Nerves can get to you
Credit: Thinkstock

Asked to identify three concerns they have when called upon to deliver a business presentation, the tech managers I survey most often identify “nerves” as one of their top concern. Whether they call it nerves, anxiety, stage fright, or fear, the experience they describe is one of physical discomfort. It is an experience many of us associate with giving a presentation and it is an experience most would rather not have. Certainly, it is an experience we want to keep hidden from the audience.

What is remarkable about so managers identifying nerves specifically, as a top concern, is that it means a significant % of respondents are experiencing a fear of fear itself.We know from our nation’s history that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, so this fear needs to be addressed.

What are these “nerves”?

The nervousness that presenters feel is excitement. Excitement that requires energy to sustain it. It is perfectly natural to feel excited when called upon to stand up in front of a group of peers or superiors to present important information. But energy-consuming excitement can have a negative spin as well as a positive spin.

The negative spin leads to fear and withdrawing:

  • “Nerves” may result from a primal flight-or-fight rush of adrenalin, unnecessarily triggered by the prospect of standing before an audience. Note: as far as I know, no one has ever died from giving a business presentation or only narrowly avoided death by running away from an audience.
  • Others may experience a more existential fear-of-the-unknown. Note: a second major cause for concern among those surveyed is being asked questions to which they will not know the answer, or even being asked any questions at all.
  • Still others simply fear screwing up. They fear the self-annihilation of failure.

Nerves like these can feel like the bellwether for something much more ominous: a rising and potentially devastating physiological storm that the presenter desperately wants to avoid. In other words, panic.

But a presentation is physical. A presentation requires energy. There is by definition going to be physical sensation. Excitement cannot and should not be avoided. But that excitement, and the energy that supports it, can be given a positive spin and put to productive use. A positive spin leads to audience engagement and ultimately even charisma.

It is important to remember that the same energy that excites ruinous nerves is actually good and necessary to a successful presentation. Seasoned performing artists experience nerves, adrenalin rushes and excitement before a big show and often rely on the underlying energy boost it provides to carry them through the physical demands of the performance. It is commonly said that the time to start worrying is when you do not feel nervous before the show.

It is not only OK to feel nervous, it's good to feel a little nervous.

Focusing your excitement

You should feel excited, because you have something important to share with the audience.

If you are not excited about the material you are presenting, it is not reasonable to expect your audience to be excited about it either. It is not only good to let your audience see that you are excited, it can be necessary. Excitement can be infectious and is often the essential catalyst for moving your audience to action. Please, feel free to be excited.

If your material is not exciting to you, find something to be excited about and a way to make it exciting for the audience.

Charisma

Most of us would settle for simply holding an audience’s attention for 15 minutes, but many presenters covet charisma. Energy is the final and most important component of charisma. Love (of your subject matter) + engagement (with the audience) + ENERGY = charisma.So having and harnessing a positive spin on energy is essential to cultivating and possessing charisma. Take your nervousness and channel it into the sharing of your information and discoveries with the audience, with undiminished enthusiasm, and charisma will follow you into the room.    

Courage

Finally, don’t let nervousness cause you embarrassment. Remember that courage is born in fear. Overcoming fear and nervousness is a small act of courage that you should be proud of. Don’t be afraid to admit and talk about your excitement (nervousness) to friends and colleagues before the presentation. But do not tell the audience how nervous you are during the presentation. It is one thing for a commercial airline pilot to tell passengers how excited he or she is to be flying them over to Chicago on such a beautiful morning, but passengers do not want to hear about how nervous the pilot feels.

Getting things under control

So name your fear. Admit to it. And embrace the energy and excitement that you feel. Then concentrate on what a privilege it is to be able to present important information to your audience and what it is that you are most excited about sharing with them.

The intensity of physical excitement can be regulated with breathing. Take deep, regular, cleansing breaths and exhale a slow and steady stream. As long as you keep breathing you are going to be OK.

The nerves you feel are excitement and that excitement calls up a reserve of energy that is going to carry you through a successful presentation.

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