“A recent survey stated that the average person’s greatest fear is having to give a speech in public. This ranked even higher than death, which was third on the list. So, you’re telling me that at a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than the guy giving the eulogy?” –Jerry Seinfeld
We all get stage fright. Even the most seasoned presenters experience performance anxiety to some degree, although this lessens over time and with experience. From a behaviour modification perspective, the most effective long-term antidote to an acute and severe case of nerves is repeated exposure to the triggering stimuli. In other words, the more you force yourself on that stage, the more confident you will become.
“Of course”, you might be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but what can I do to deal with stage fright in the meantime?” Read on….
Here are my favorite five tried-and-true strategies for combating presentation jitters:
1. Sip juice instead of water
People often don’t eat much (if at all) before a talk because anxiety diminishes appetite. You probably don’t want a five-course meal before going onstage, but you need something! That shaky, sick feeling just might be low blood sugar, so pack a small bottle of orange juice in your brief case.
2. Talk to people in the audience ahead of time
It’s good to get a feel for who is attending and what brought them there. This shifts the focus away from yourself (and how you’re feeling) to the group (and how they’re feeling). This is right and good. You are there for them. Bonus points for learning and remembering peoples’ names and incorporating an important insight or contribution that an individual has shared into your onstage remarks.
3. Challenge cognitive distortions
What are your beliefs about the talk you are going to deliver? “I must succeed, and it will be catastrophic if I fail” is a message designed to evoke fear in anyone. Challenging these beliefs and replacing them with a more reasonable and realistic appraisal will lessen negative emotions (because emotions follow from how we interpret things). “It would be nice if I did well, and I really want to do well, but my life won’t end if I mess this up.”
4. Breathe…and smile
When anxious, our breathing tends to be shallow. Take a couple of deep, calming breaths as you’re being introduced. And smile too. Even fake smiling makes you feel better. Plus, people are looking over at you during your introduction, so best to look happy to be there even if – in that moment – you are anything but.
5. Slow down
Nerves make us talk fast, and fast talking doesn’t create the most compelling/positive first impression. When you get to the podium…pause. Collect your thoughts. Look right at the audience and make eye contact.
And one “don’t”: Please oh please don’t start things off with “I’m nervous”. We already know that most people are nervous about public speaking. Plus, once you get started you’ll be fine, so why handicap yourself? It’s so much better to start graciously and gracefully with a “thank you and pleased to be here”.
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