By Jeff Leshay
How do you feel when you’re asked to give a presentation? Does this fill you with positive energy, or does it spark a tense, uneasy feeling in your gut?
If the thought of presenting gives you the jitters, you can count yourself among the majority of people who fear public speaking, a condition known as glossophobia. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health and other experts estimate that as much as 77 percent of the population experiences some degree of anxiety when it comes to public speaking. That’s more prevalent than the fears of death, spiders and heights!
I’m personally more anxious about heights, but even after delivering thousands of presentations – from the live reporting of TV news stories, to keynote addresses at conferences, to presentation- and media-training seminars, I still get a little nervous before taking the stage. In fact, many of the CEOs, CFOs and celebrity spokespeople I’ve coached over the years have had to learn to channel nervous energy in positive ways – on stage and in front of the media.
So, it’s perfectly natural to get nervous before presentations – especially if you really care about the information you’ll be sharing, its impact on the audience, and yes, their perceptions of you.
What follows are various techniques I’ve shared with clients – and used myself – to ease the adrenaline-induced racing of the heart and other symptoms associated with nervousness, build comfort and confidence, maximize the impact of presentations, and even – dare I say – embrace those engagements as exciting, career-advancing opportunities!
Recognize and replace negative thoughts
The first thing I do, even in the early stages of developing content for a presentation, is pause to identify any fears or other negative thoughts that come to mind as just that – thoughts, not reality. Then, I gently replace those anxiety inducers with focus on the benefits my presentation will provide for the audience – how the information I’ll be sharing will help them succeed. This takes some intentionality, but this positive shift of focus becomes easier with practice.
Embrace the opportunities to build trust and drive action
Secondly, I remind myself to embrace the opportunities my presentation provides to demonstrate my own strategic thinking, earn the trust, support and advocacy of the audience, and build my own personal brand of leadership. I often tell clients that leadership is best measured by influence, and great leaders win the hearts, minds and actions of audiences through persuasive storytelling.
There are few, if any, better ways of building comfort and confidence than by practicing the delivery of your content aloud. This serves two critical functions: in the editing process, it helps to ensure the words you’ve chosen reflect your authentic, conversational demeanor and roll off your tongue smoothly; and when it comes time to give your presentation, the familiarity with the content that comes from practicing aloud will free you up to make more meaningful eye contact with your audience, confidently emphasize key words and phrases, and demonstrate positive body language.
People often ask me whether they should memorize content. I almost always tell them, “No,” and here’s why: when we memorize, we marry our brains to lengthy strings of specific words, rather than delivering from our minds and hearts, and our tone tends to be monotonous and less inspiring. The idea is to practice enough aloud so that just a glance at a note or slide will trigger a knowledgeable and conversational delivery.
In addition to replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, and just a few minutes before in-person or virtual speaking engagements, I take a few physical steps to manage my nerves. I like to stretch and move around, which drives oxygen to the brain, and share with someone a little lighthearted conversation or laughter, which helps me relax.
Hydrate, though judiciously
I also make sure to hydrate in the last couple of hours before a presentation. In addition to ensuring vocal clarity, the links between water and stress management are well-documented, though I’m careful not to over-hydrate if I’ll be on stage or on camera for quite a while!
At the risk of sharing too much information, I also avoid carbonated beverages, which can cause burping, and dairy products, which can thicken the mucus in one’s throat. I find that still water at room temperature – and ideally with a touch of lemon – helps keep my mouth and throat moist and clear.
Take a deep breath or two
With about a minute to go before presentations, I take a deep breath or two, inhaling slowly through my nose and letting my abdomen expand, and then exhaling slowly through my mouth.
You may have seen athletes, actors and singers do this right before their performances. The scientific name for this is abdominal, or diaphragmatic, breathing, but all I care about is that it increases the flow of oxygen to my brain, takes the edge off, and brings a smile to my face.
The last thing I do before stepping onto a stage or entering a virtual platform for a speaking engagement is close my eyes for a few seconds and picture myself engaging the audience with a warm smile, positive body language, meaningful eye contact, and a passionate voice to help nail those first few remarks.
This helps me build comfort, confidence, and a sense of momentum so that I hit the ground running.
Because opening remarks are critical for capturing the attention of your audience right away, I also make sure I know exactly what I’m going to say and do right at the beginning of a presentation. But again, I’m not talking about memorizing and reciting remarks verbatim.
I’ve heard some experts recommend knowing those first few lines “cold” to alleviate nervousness – in other words, memorizing those lines. If you can memorize your opening remarks and deliver them in an authentically conversational way, great. However, my preference is having clarity on the essence of the first few points I’m going to make, but without memorizing them so as to come across more naturally.
Plan a seemingly impromptu approach
Whenever I have the opportunity to interact with the audience at the beginning of my presentation, I look for impromptu ways to adapt my opening remarks to any reaction they may have to attention-grabbing questions, quotes, surprising facts, or news items I share right from the get-go.
During a recent presentation to a group of pharmaceutical executives, I started by asking if anyone in the audience actually enjoys presenting. A couple of people raised their hands and I asked them what they like most about the process. Their answers focused on the opportunity to educate and influence their audiences, which in turn set me up for a conversational segue into my central theme of persuasive storytelling.
Are you wondering now what I would have done had no one in the audience raised a hand when I asked that first question? I would have told them I’m not surprised, given that many people fail to take full advantage of presentation opportunities – sometimes because of anxiety, but more often because they don’t recognize the power they have to build trust, spark action, and enhance their own personal brand of leadership.
So fear not! Step outside your comfort zone, channel those nerves into positive, engaging energy, and embrace the numerous career-enhancing opportunities presentations provide.
If you want to learn more about how to get your presentations off to a compelling, audience-engaging start, download my free ebook here: 5 Presentation Tips for Wowing and Wooing Your Audience in 30 Seconds or Less. If you want to hone all your storytelling skills, the ebook also provides a link to my new online master class, Presenting with Persuasion: The Premier Fast Track to Powerful Storytelling.