There is no denying that a lot of people get nervous when presenting. Many studies state that speaking in public is the number one personal fear among adults: more than being afraid of spiders, heights, flying, or clowns. Some studies even suggest that people fear public speaking more than death. This means (as the comedian Jerry Seinfeld once observed) that most people, if they had to be at a funeral, would rather be the person in the casket than the one delivering the eulogy.
Deeper analysis shows that there is a biological reason for this. Human beings, like most animals, feel more secure when they are part of a larger pack versus separated from it: or even worse, when we are standing up in front of that pack and under its collective gaze. We not only feel ostracized from the group, we feel threatened by it. We know, logically, that the group is not going to kill or eat us, but we do worry they will judge us, and millions of years of biological history still make us feel like we’re under attack.
When I first started public speaking, I used to get catatonically nervous. Over the years I have learned to control those nerves versus them controlling me, so much so that I now enjoy the experience. Outlined below are ten ways to effectively deal with nerves when public speaking, overcoming fear, and getting you and your presentation off on the right foot.
1. Stop working on content and start rehearsing your delivery
“Not having enough time to rehearse” is the number one challenge my workshop participants site when self-assessing. We know we need to rehearse, and yet in the days leading up to our presentations, we slip back to working on our slides versus our delivery. At some point you need to put the pencil down and do right by your presentation by practicing it, out loud, multiple times. Reading through it helps, thinking through it helps, but nothing helps more than running through it verbally. Doing so will not only cement that presentation in your brain, it will also make you feel more confident and comfortable with it. If the first time your presentation is leaving your lips is when you’re standing in front of your audience, you are not doing yourself any favours.
2. Plan your presentation for 75% of your allotted time
When nerves set in, most of us talk more than less. (I believe “verbal diarrhea” is the technical term for it.) It’s better to understand this is going to happen before your presentation than during it, when you suddenly realize you’re halfway through your allotted time but only a quarter of the way through your slides. As a rule, I plan my presentation for no more than 75% of my allotted time, knowing I’m going to talk more when delivering it than I do when rehearsing it. This helps ensure I won’t have to awkwardly skip over sections of my presentation or anxiously rush through it, giving me one less thing to worry about.
3. Know your opening down pat
Sometimes our mind goes blank when we get nervous, save for the lone thought of, “Dammit, I can’t remember anything I’m supposed to say.” If this happens, we have to slip into auto pilot for the first couple of minutes of our presentation. So, make sure that autopilot is well-programmed by being able to do your opening in your sleep. If I’ve got five extra minutes to practice, I will rehearse my opening to make sure it’s flawless, fluid, and will get my presentation off on the right foot. Some people worry about “over rehearsing” or appearing “too rehearsed.” For what it’s worth, I have never seen this happen: ever.
4. Meet people in your audience beforehand
If you’re presenting to a room full of strangers, make them less strange by meeting as many of them as possible. Walk around the room before your presentation, introduce yourself, let them know it’s nice to meet them and you’re glad to be here. It’s not only a polite thing to do, it’s a smart thing to do, because it will serve as a nice distraction from fretting over your presentation. And if you’re speaking at a conference, and there’s a social gathering before your talk, be social and go to it. After all, it’s always comforting to be able to look out into an audience and see some friendly, familiar faces.
5. Take a deep breath
Whenever I started to meltdown as a kid, my mother used to say, “Take a deep breath.” It annoyed me to no end (“As if that’s going to solve everything!”), but I now see the calming wisdom behind her advice. When we get nervous, our diaphragm often seizes up, and our breathing shallows, depriving our body of oxygen, which can lead to tremors in your voice or, as used to happen to me, your hands and legs. So, before you walk out in front of a room or onto a stage, take some deep, cleansing breaths. It’s remarkable how restorative that simple act can feel. And once you start speaking, if your diaphragm tightens up again and your breathing wanes once more, don’t hesitate to pause, quietly take a deep breath, and dive back in.
6. Have water within reach
As nerves flood your system, moisture often abandons it. We go to speak and find our mouths suddenly as dry as a desert. “Did I eat a handful of sawdust before I came out here?” you wonder, as the very idea of saliva seems like a distant memory. So, have a few sips of water before you start your presentation, and make sure there is lots of water with you during it. Even when your nerves start to dissipate, you will still need to hydrate because the simple act of talking continuously expels a lot of moisture from your mouth.
7. Never let them see you sweat
I sweat when I’m nervous. Then I get nervous about sweating and sweat more, in a self-perpetuating cycle of perspiration (like Al Brooks in that hysterical scene from “Broadcast News”). A great way to avoid sweating is to dress coolly, opting for less layers or lighter clothing. If you’re still going to sweat, try to make sure it won’t show by wearing white or black up top, avoiding light blue or grey, or wearing an undershirt. And if all else fails and sweat starts to collect on your forehead or upper lip, try as much as possible not to wipe it away, which is a dead give-away that you’re perspiring. Just because you feel the sweat doesn’t mean your audience can see it. A year ago I spoke in front of a thousand dieticians and was sweating like a farm animal for the first fifteen minutes of my talk. I was convinced it showed, but was greatly relieved (and surprised), when I saw video afterwards, that it didn’t. Sure, I was a little “shiny”, but I didn’t look like the drowned rat I’d felt like.
8. Make eye contact with your audience
Some people, when they’re feeling judged by an audience, instinctively shy away by not looking at them. They make their whole presentation to the floor or the clock at the back of the room. Don’t do this. Make eye contact with people in your audience. Let them know you see them and make sure they see you. They will all seem less threatening and more inviting if you do.
9. Open with a story
A well-crafted story well told is not only a great way to position the content of your presentation, it’s also an effective way for you to connect with your audience on a personal level. And because the story is yours, it’s hard for you to mess it up or make mistakes with it. A relevant, strategic story at the start of your presentation can help you shape the way you want your audience to think about everything that’s going to follow. Importantly, it can also be used to shape the way they feel about your presentation, enriching the connection you make between it, them and you.
10. Admit you’re nervous
And if everything else fails, you’re still noticeably nervous and nothing seems to be calming your nerves, then just call it, and admit your nervous. To be clear, I only recommend doing this if you’re really nervous, not if you’re just experiencing some butterflies or rough patches. Your audience knows your nervous because they see the signs (e.g. quivering voice, pacing, sweating, hives, staring at the floor). They not only feel for you, but they also feel relieved it’s you up there and not them. So if you start off nervously and get even more nervous as you go, stop, take a deep breath, look right at your audience, smile and say, “I’m sorry, I’m just a bit nervous.” When I’ve seen people do this, it instantly relieves the tension in the room, making you less nervous, your audience less nervous for you, and everyone a bit more relaxed to go on this journey together.