Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Andrew Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.
There’s a lot I could say about nerves. Nerves are a source of shame – we all feel like we shouldn’t be feeling nervous like those ‘confident’ people we see around us.
But, let me tell you, I’ve coached thousands of presentations from people from 22 countries at all levels of seniority and everyone gets nervous sometimes.
I ran a workshop on presentation nerves a couple of weeks ago. Hippy that I am, I like to start by getting everyone to answer a simple question, so that everyone has heard all the voices in the room. My question this time was: What type of presentation makes you the most nervous?
~ All of them!
~ Small groups is fine, but bigger than 20 is awful.
~ I’m fine with presentations to colleagues, but strangers is terrible.
~ I’m fine with any number of strangers – give me a room of a thousand strangers, no problem – but people who know me? Yuck.
~ Pitching. Pitching ideas when there’s a lot at stake.
~ My team is fine, but senior people or customers – that’s when I get nervous.
Two things to notice:
1. Pretty much everyone gets nervous at some point. Generally people who don’t get nervous have practiced some serious strategies.
2. Different things make different people nervous. It’s not the situation itself, it’s the things we think about it that make it hard.
There are various reasons for nerves – physical, mental, generic and specific – and getting to zero nerves is a bit of a long-term job.
But. There are some things that you can do which will at least let you take the edge off your nerves, if not bring them down to a manageable level.
1. Practice unclenching.
Between now and your talk, practice unclenching. Relax the muscles around your eyes. Relax your jaw and your nostrils. Become aware of your peripheral vision. If you can soften your neck and your shoulders, so much the better.
You’ll probably find that within seconds, the tension is back again.
That’s kind of the point.
We have built tension habits, nervous pathways (hah!) which have been reinforced again and again.
If you want to feel more relaxed, then you have to practice it, again and again.
Set a reminder on your phone to go off at various points in the day. Or look for a random reminder app (look for them in your app store) and set one up for 10 times a day, or whatever.
Or put a dot on your laptop screen, or tie a piece of cotton to your finger, or paint a nail a different colour, anything that will remind you to practice unclenching.
As any of you who follow me on Twitter will know, I’m a bit of a Twitter junkie. And I check it more than I tweet, so, well, I’m on it a lot. What I did was take Twitter off my phone’s main screen, so I had to go and look for it. That tiny action was enough to remind me that when I was looking for Twitter, that was time to unclench. I had a ready-made 50-times-a-day habit, so I harnessed it. It worked, for a while anyway.
You’re trying to create a bit of momentum, a new habit.
So that when you want to unclench and relax, your body is more used to it.
You can extend this too. If you can practice relaxing more thoroughly, then find a way. Download some relaxation self-hypnosis audio. Try a couple of simple yoga postures. Look up a stretching routine.
The more you can get your body used to being relaxed, the more you’re able to have it available to you when you need it.
2. Lower your expectations.
This is a weird one but I think it’s worth saying. You’re not changing the world, here. You’re doing a talk. If you, consciously or unconsciously, think you’re going to change the world with your talk, you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself. The more risk you pile on, the more nerves you’re going to feel. (And the more disappointed you’re going to feel afterwards, by the way.)
What’s a realistic outcome to this presentation? Let’s start with: surviving. Getting through it, talking about most of the points you were planning on, answering some of the questions in an okay manner. Survival.
Then, what? Part of the purpose of a presentation is to lead to discussion, both immediately after and in the coming days. Keep in mind that your presentation is just the start of something (and a 30-minute/45-minute start at that), and you’ll stop thinking you’re going to solve big problems in the world. Keep focused on the actions you’re aimed at, and make those actions probable and doable and you’ll keep things more in perspective.
3. Do a Find Five.
Find Five is something I use when I’ve got a situation coming up that is causing me anxiety. Fear comes from a part of you thinking something bad is going to happen. The anxiety often comes from being overly certain of that ‘bad’ outcome.
In order to counteract that uncertainty, I do what I call a Find Five, which is finding five possible outcomes to the situation.
1. A terrible outcome. eg: losing your job and all credibility.
2. A mildly bad outcome. eg: You forget a bit of what you were going to say, and maybe you fluff some answers to questions.
3. A mildly positive outcome. eg: You get through all your points, the reaction is positive, the energy in the room is good.
4. A wildly positive outcome. eg: You are on fire. New things occur to you that you follow, you make people laugh at the right points, and as a result you get a promotion or a new client.
5. A surprising, life-changing (and positive) outcome. This is a bit difficult to predict, because, er, it’s a surprise. What I tend to think is that I’ll look back on this talk as a turning point in my life. Maybe I meet someone who becomes a great friend, or I learn something that changes my thinking on a topic, or someone recommends a book that I love, or one of the people attending my session changes the direction of my future somehow.
All of the outcomes have to be possible but not necessarily probable.
Look at each one of these five outcomes and see that they are all possible, and really you have no idea what the outcome of your presentation will be.
I find this reassuring, as it helps me to undermine my false certainty that disaster is coming…
4. Rather than ‘performance’ think ‘conversation’.
You know those TED talks that do the rounds? I’ve referred to a lot of them in the past, and they can be pretty inspirational.
There is a downside to them, though. TED talks are specific to the TED event. They are a platform for people to talk about a surprising or ‘inspirational’ aspect of their work or life. Only the really ‘good’ ones get shared and watched, by and large.
And, from a certain perspective, that can be intimidating. We end up thinking that our conference talk needs to be ‘inspirational’ and life-changing and remarkable.
That’s (a) a tall order, (b) largely out of your control, and (c) most often inappropriate, all rolled into one.
The concept of ‘performance’ contains within it many unhelpful ramifications, including the requirement to be entertaining, the idea that you’re the main event, and, also, nerves!
Just think for a minute. If you were one-on-one with one of the people attending your session, could you have a conversation about your topic?
If so, then you can do a presentation.
What topics would that person be interested in? What recommendations would you make? What kind of words/level of detail would you go into?
Go with that. It’s just a conversation – admittedly a slightly strange mainly one-way conversation – that you know how to do.
Yes, this doesn’t mean all nerves go away, but thought about in the right way, it can help you to be a bit more pragmatic about what you’re setting out to do.
5. Set parameters.
As we discussed in the article on how to be an interesting presenter, one of the habits of interesting presenters is to set limits at the beginning of the session, and, indeed, in the title and blurb of the talk itself.
If you clearly say, “What I’m not going to be able to do in 45 minutes today is… What I am going to aim for is…” you’re more able to set limits as to what people are expecting, and which questions you’ll be willing and able to answer.
This helps with your nerves because you’ve been really clear with your listeners about what you’re setting out to achieve, and that that is achievable for you.
Disappointment comes from when real-life doesn’t match our expectations. If you set people’s expectations at the right level, well, then there’s no disappointment.
This also gives you a way of dealing with questions that are outside the scope of the talk. You can just say ‘That’s a little outside the scope of what we’re covering today…’ and handle it however you want to handle it, including but not limited to just moving on to the next question!
So you can stop scaring yourself with Q&A horror movies…
6. Work out how not to die.
There is a part of us that thinks that giving this talk is actually going to kill us, that somehow everything is leading up to this presentation and then that’s it. If you look beyond the talk, there is just the grey fog of nothingness.
Unsurprisingly, this creates some distress.
One of the best things you can do in this situation is to imagine what you’re going to do straight after the talk. Where will you be, what will you do?
Then what will you do later that day? That evening?
What is happening the next day?
What about the day after that?
The next week? What do you have planned?
What are you going to do with friends or family?
Reassure the scared part of you that life will continue, populate your future with full-colour plans. It’s okay – you will survive.
Andrew Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Andrew wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where he gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out andrewlightheart.com. Andrew is also an unrepentant overtweeter: he’s @alightheart.
Check out all the articles in this series: