Managing presentation nerves is an essential presentation skill. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t get presentation nerves so here’s a guide to help you control and channel your nervous energy to beneficial effect.
I’m no admirer of his political beliefs but I have to accept that Enoch Powell was one of the greatest public speakers of the 20th century. Whenever he was scheduled to speak MPs packed the House of Commons and apparently the chamber buzzed with excitement hours before he took the floor. Yet Enoch was wracked with nerves, unable to sleep the night before and often threw up just before he started. Later on in his political career he lost those nerves which made him sound slack and complacent, in his view. His solution was to drink loads of water so that by the time he was due to speak he was bursting for a pee and that, he felt, kept him edgy.
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Managing presentation nerves
Whenever I run a presentation skills course I ask everyone what their key objectives are and guess what; conquering nerves wins by a mile every time.
So, the question is, how do we get on top of those nerves so that we present our messages in a fluent and confident manner? Here’s my checklist, hopefully all common sense and easy to implement.
1. Keep things in proportion.
Unless you’re about to address the G20 leaders with a solution to Eurozone crisis, the chances are that you’ll be presenting a useful message to between five and twenty people. What you have to say may be jolly fine but it’s unlikely to change lives so have a healthy sense of perspective, keep things in proportion and your presentation will grounded and all the better for that.
2. Be yourself.
There’s a style of presentation training, usually run by actors, that utilises professional dramatic techniques to improve delivery. I’m no great fan of this approach although it can be great fun. Why? Because we’re not aspiring thespians, the audience aren’t fools and they’ll pick up on phony behavior straight away. The trick is to be natural so that people see you as you really are. Be comfortable being yourself and don’t try to be something you’re not. By the way, is it just me or did Sir Larry Olivier have more ham in him than Parma and Bayonne combined?
3. Know your subject.
A friend of mine is a tenor and he used to get terrible stage fright. His voice coach told him, ‘the reason you are so nervous is because you are guilty, guilty of not practising enough’. So, make sure that you’re completely on top of you subject and practice just enough so that you know the flow of your presentation. But here’s the dichotomy. Practice, but don’t over practice because if you do then you’ll lose the natural approach and come across as either robotic or too slick for comfort. That reminds me. I saw Tony Blair speak in a church hall when he was an unknown MP and he was magnificent; passionate, charismatic, completely natural, very convincing and not one tiny bit slick. Then the spin doctors got to him and knocked out everything that made him special. His nickname morphed to Phony Tony. Such a shame.
4. Experiment with some physical tricks.
I know a number of speakers who swear by yoga as a way of relaxing the mind and body before a major presentation. This is great if you’re speaking at a conference and have the opportunity to go back stage for a while. The trouble is that usually doesn’t happen and you’re going to look pretty odd Saluting the Sun, striking a nifty Warrior pose or treating the boardroom to a Downward Dog. There are some discrete breathing exercises you can do that people won’t usually spot; try slow and deep breathes and keep that going for five minutes or so and you’ll be feeling pretty chilled. My favourite trick is 100% undetectable and works before and even during your presentation. All you have to do is keep your feet flat on the ground and push down as hard as you can as for as long as you can. I’ve no idea why it works but it really does. Try it now.
OK, now you’re keeping your presentation in proportion, you’re comfortable being yourself, you’re confident about your subject and you’re pushing down like crazy, yet you’re still nervous. Here’s the final tip.
5. Make sure that you’ve got your opening minute nailed.
If that first minute or so goes well then you’ll find that you’re in the rhythm of your presentation and everything should rock from then on. I’m not advocating a script that you learn by rote but I am suggesting that you know exactly what you need to say to set yourself, (and your audience), at ease. Try this:
- Introduce yourself
- Thank people for attending
- Define your presentation’s objectives
- Explain the protocol – timings, questions and supporting documents
- Finish off with a quick run through your agenda
You should be able to cover all of these in about a minute.
If you’re still a bit nervous then don’t worry. Nerves are natural and they will give you added energy, frisson and credibility. So I think that having some nerves is actually a good thing and if you find that you are getting too relaxed then why not try drinking a gallon or two of water beforehand? (Just kidding).