Picture this: you’re standing in front of an audience. Everyone is staring at you, the presenter. Your knees are shaking, your mouth is dry, and you can’t seem to catch your breath. Everything you were planning to say flies out of your head. Dizzy and nauseous, you excuse yourself to go to the bathroom where you grip the sink, look yourself in the eye, and try to get it together. “I can do this,” you tell yourself, even as your voice trembles. “It’s just a presentation.” Sound familiar?
For most people, having to deliver a work presentation in front of their boss and a room full of colleagues is nerve-wracking. For others, it can be downright paralysing. Performance anxiety, or ‘stage fright’, is more common than you might think, with over 70% of people estimated to have a fear of public speaking. Stage fright can trigger our ‘fight-or-flight’ response, leading to a host of stress-induced responses including nausea, rapid breathing, a dry mouth, and uncontrolled trembling of your hands, knees, or voice.
So how can we manage our anxiety when it comes to public speaking, and make it a more positive experience? From shifting your mindset to flexible scriptwriting, here are some tips to help you become a more confident presenter:
PRESENTER TIP 1) PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Presenting is one of those things that only gets easier with practice. Trying to avoid public speaking or obsessively preparing for a presentation can make us feel better in the short term, but both of these strategies reinforce presenting as something to dread.
In her TED talk on managing stage fright, neuroscientist Dr. Anwesha Banerjee suggests that public speaking seems frightening only because we tell ourselves (and others) that it is, engaging our brains in a process of negative reinforcement. To break out of this cycle, we need to make stage fright a habit. The first time you take the role of presenter might be terrifying, but by the twentieth time your brain has become habituated to the stimulus, and what was once unimaginably scary becomes just another task.
PRESENTER TIP 2) LET GO OF ANY LOFTY EXPECTATIONS
For perfectionists, presenting can be a nightmare. There’s only so much you can do as a presenter to prepare ahead of time, with issues like tech failure, left-of-field questions, and other interruptions having to be dealt with in the moment.
The desire for your presentation to go perfectly is understandable, but also very difficult to achieve. Shifting your expectations from trying to impress everyone in the room or not make any mistakes, to a more manageable goal like effectively communicating your information or teaching your audience something new, can help relieve the pressure to perform.
PRESENTER TIP 3) WRITE A MORE FLEXIBLE SCRIPT
Whether you write out a complete presentation script or compile a list of notes to refer to, presentations can sometimes feel like a spoken performance. There’s nothing worse than getting your script pages out of order, or losing your place on the page. Not only does it interrupt your flow and mess up your timing, but your stress levels are also sure to skyrocket.
Interestingly, having a less rigid script outline could be to your advantage. A recent study on improvisation and its effect on reducing social stress showed that a group of student teachers who participated in a seven-week improv workshop prior to an impromptu spoken examination were more relaxed and confident on the test day. Participants with low interpersonal confidence showed the most significant reduction in stress levels, which researchers attributed to the emphasis of improv on accepting mistakes.
PRESENTER TIP 4) PERSONALISE WITH STORYTELLING
Frequent readers of our blog will already know how much emphasis we put on the importance of storytelling. That’s because as a species, we humans just can’t get enough of them. Not only does a strong narrative draw us in as an audience, but it can also help us relax as presenters. We’re always telling stories – to our family, to our friends, to strangers and loved ones alike. Stories are how we make sense of the world, so why not use this innate skill in your presentation?
Narratives are immersive, allowing your audience to connect with the content. They can generate interest, empathy, tension, levity, and credibility. Stories are powerful creative forces, so use them!
PRESENTER TIP 5) CONCENTRATE ON YOUR AUDIENCE
If for you, presentations are a blur of self-consciousness and nerves, then it might help to take some cues from professional actors. Acting is about both being prepared and being in the moment, with actors making deliberate choices in speech and movement (called ‘actions’) to affect their scene partner or audience, while trying to live authentically in the moment and reality they are creating.
By putting the metaphorical spotlight on your audience instead of yourself, you can concentrate on informing, persuading, or otherwise affecting them with your presentation. The best thing about this technique is that you can switch fluidly between actions depending on the response of your audience. As long as you achieve your objective of communicating the content, there are myriad paths you can choose to get there.
Interested in learning more useful presentation skills? Check out our blog (updated weekly!) or download our free eBook The Ultimate Guide to Presentation Preparation to build your next presentation on a rock-solid foundation.