If you get nervous when presenting, you’re in good company. For many of us, public speaking brings up all sorts of uncomfortable sensations. Sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, dizziness, shortness of breath. Not to mention an ambush of mental images about forgetting what to say, losing our composure, or worse, being ridiculed in front of an audience.
For some of us, it doesn’t matter whether that audience is big or small, in-person or via videoconference. Public speaking in any form causes us to tremble in fear. I’m one of those people. No one ever believes me because I’m often on stage, or in front of a camera, for my work in communications. Even so, I still get dreadfully nervous when presenting. How then do I manage these nerves? The short answer is, I don’t.
Transform Your Nerves Into Fuel
Years ago, I used to be involved in theatre, both on stage and behind the scenes. While I loved to perform, I also suffered from intense stage fright. During one production, I shared this struggle with my director and she gave me the following advice: instead of trying to control your nerves, use this energy as fuel for your performance.
Until then, I had viewed my stage fright as an inherent flaw—not a relatively common physiological response to stress. (This was long before mindfulness training was omni-present in companies and the public consciousness.) My director’s perspective allowed me to not only accept my nerves, but actually use them to my advantage.
To this day, whenever a leader asks me how to cope with feeling nervous when presenting, I encourage them to make friends with their stress. Here are a few tricks I’ve picked up along the way to deliver with confidence, even when I’m shaking in my boots!
Get The Energy Flowing
One of my favourite prep rituals before any presentation is to get the energy circulating in my body. It’s easy to forget about the importance of warming up physically for a presentation. After all, in a business setting we’re presenting our ideas, not a song and dance. (Although arguably, when you’re pitching for new business or asking for a budget increase, it can sometimes feel like you’re trapped in a Broadway musical.)
Like it or not, our body language speaks volumes to an audience. This doesn’t mean we should force ourselves into unnatural postures or adopt superficial hand gestures according to some old-school manual of effective public speaking. At best, this will come across as a bit awkward. At worst, your audience may feel like you’re trying to hide something.
Your body language will come more naturally if you bring awareness to your whole self—not just your head. One way to do this is mindful movement. Sibylle Zumstein, a strategic communications consultant and founder of Swiss Qigong, taught me a great trick from her Qigong practice to get the energy flowing. You start by taking a few breaths and then shake, shake, shake it up! If Qigong isn’t your thing, try dancing around for a few minutes, or running on the spot. This way, when it’s time to present, you’re ready to go.
Warm Up Your Voice
Another technique you can use to redirect nervous energy before a presentation is to make sounds with your voice. This allows you to connect to your breath, without trying too hard to relax. If you’ve ever seen a child at play, you know the vast range of sounds we can make as humans. Professional performers and speakers usually incorporate a vocal warm-up into their pre-stage routine.
The next time you have an important presentation, take a few minutes beforehand and play around with your breath and sound. Exaggerate your consonants and stretch out your vowels. Make a loud sigh and jiggle your jaw to loosen those tense facial muscles.
Have fun with these exercises. While vocal warm-ups won’t take all the nerves away, they’re an easy way to shift your focus away from fear. Some vocal exercises feel silly to perform. You may be self-conscious at first. But if you can confront these feelings during your warm-up, imagine what is possible when you get on stage?
Besides, being able to laugh at ourselves puts things in perspective. In the end, presentations aren’t brain surgery. Usually, the audience is on our side. They want to see us do well. And even if there are critics in the room, we’re still better off bringing our best self forward.
Vocal Warm-Up Challenge: Here’s a fun vocal workout combining physical movement, breathwork and lots of sparkle.
Everybody Gets Nervous When Presenting
It’s easy to think we’re the only person in the room who gets nervous when presenting. Especially when others appear to be confident. But you’re not alone. The best presenters in the world get nervous. I’ve worked with many leaders over the years and I can assure you that even the most confident, experienced leaders get nervous before giving an important talk.
Your nerves are your little helpers. They can light a fire under your feet and give you energy to share your passion with the audience. Transform your nerves into fuel and use them as your friend, not your foe. And before you know it, you’ll be rocking that stage.