If stage fright before a presentation is the number one fear of Americans, as we so often hear, what is a person to do about it? Plenty! Here are fifteen ways you might conquer your fears and feel more confident about your ability to present successfully. Note that some of these focus on the mental thoughts and habits that can help combat nervousness, while others focus on the physical aspects of nervousness. Choose one or two that appeal to you and give them an honest try. If you still need more help, come back to the list and try another. You are sure to find a few things that make an enormous difference for you, transforming anxiety to confidence, and fear to power.
- Recognize it. How do you experience nervousness? Simply take note of what is going on inside your brain and in your body. Do you feel it as butterflies in the pit of your stomach? Or as thoughts racing around frantically? Or as tightness in your chest? Or negative thoughts and self-doubt? Note these thoughts and feelings without judgment. They are what they are. Often it is the judgment itself that makes us feel so bad. You might be able to acknowledge the feelings without judgment by thinking, “oh, there you are again. I am doing well, thank you.”
- Accept it. If fear of public speaking is universal, what’s the point of fighting it? The adrenaline is there for a good reason; to sharpen your wits and prepare you for the battle. Since it really isn’t a battle, usually, the adrenaline feels like nervousness. You could just accept the gift of adrenaline (and skip the extra cup of coffee) for what it is, your body pumping you up for success.
- Visualize success. Most of us are masters of visualization, capable of envisioning any number of disasters happening during our presentation. Turn that ability to good by imagining wonderful things happening; your audience loves you, they laugh at your jokes and applaud you spontaneously. They throw flowers on the stage when you speak. They line up to congratulate you. You are awesome! OK, that may not all happen, but instead of imagining disaster, why not imagine success? Enjoy the feeling and forget about fear.
- Use positive self-talk. The little voice inside your head may keep whispering about how unprepared you are, how nervous you feel, or how bored your audience will be. If you notice this negative self-talk, refuse to listen. Instead, nourish yourself with positive self-talk. “I am prepared, I am excited, and I can't wait to meet my audience.” Don’t worry if you don’t believe it at first, or it feels contrived and phony, just keep repeating the positive self-talk until it drowns out the negative.
- Have realistic expectations. Your presentation may not be perfect, it may not go exactly as you had hoped, but it can still be a success. Sometimes it helps to think about how you will measure success; if you know what you are trying to accomplish you can set a goal. For example, if I want my audience to be engaged, my goal might be to have them volunteer three comments or ask three questions in the first ten minutes of my presentation. That way I can be successful without expecting perfection, a common source of worry.
- Level the playing field. Have you ever heard, “imagine your audience in their underwear?” What on earth does that mean? I think it means removing as many barriers as you can between you and your audience. I think it also means, don’t let your audience intimidate you; engage with them person to person. How? You might move away from a lectern to get physically closer. You might ask them a few questions to engage them in dialog. You might select examples and stories that relate to their industry or work. You might even get them on their feet, doing a skit or role-play. Get the idea? Get closer to them in every way you can.
- Turn it to POWER. “I feel nervous” is a low-power belief. Just thinking it can make you feel uncomfortable, scared, or vulnerable. If the nervousness you feel is caused by adrenaline, you might as well call it what it is: power. Saying to yourself, “I have the power I need today” feels different and leads to different thoughts. I’m serous; try it yourself. You might very well begin to feel the power.
- B-r-e-a-t-h-e. When we are under attack, or feel we are, our breathing tends to become rapid and shallow. Or we hold our breath. When we feel the anxiety associated with presenting, neither of these helps us feel more confident or perform better. In fact, remembering to breathe, and then slowing our breathing might be the best thing we can do to alleviate nerves. Focus on your breathing calms you, takes your mind off your worry, and brings oxygen to your brain. What could be better? So next time you start to stress out over a presentation, slow down your breathing, and focus on each breath.
- Walk it off. If you have tons of physical energy, and you have trouble standing still during your presentations, consider burning up some of that physical energy ahead of time. Have a quick workout, take a swim, or walk down the halls (or outside if possible) for a few minutes before your presentation. Swing your arms, breathe deeply, and enjoy the sensation of moving. Hopefully that easy feeling will remain with you as you begin your presentation.
- Shake it out. If you feel tight and tense, especially in your arms, shoulders, or face, take a few moments to loosen up before your presentation. Flap your arms, shrug your shoulders, or just shake out your arms and hands. Be silly while you are at it; loosen the mood as well as your body.
- Use progressive relaxation. This is helpful if you feel tightness in your shoulders, arms, or even your face. Wherever you can find tension, increase it, and then release it. For example, many of us carry tension in our shoulders. If you notice this, pull your shoulders up around your ears as high as you can, then release them. The relaxed, released-of-tension feeling is what you are aiming for. Some professional speakers and actors do facial stretches to soften their faces as well. Same concept.
- Be better prepared. It’s only natural; if you don’t know your content thoroughly, odds are you will feel anxious. Become an instant expert by researching, preparing, and rehearsing your content. Whether you have one day or six months to prepare, start as soon as you can. Read all you can on the topic. Talk about it with others to deepen your knowledge and to practice your words. Gather not only statistics but stories that bring the content to life. Practice your presentation with a pilot group.
- Get more practice. Many people present a few times a year, or even less. No wonder they feel nervous; they aren’t getting enough practice time. If you are serious about getting better—and feeling more confident—it is important for you to go out and practice. Volunteer to speak at your monthly status meetings, offer to train a class on a topic you know well, or become involved in your professional organization or on a committee where you will present frequently. Also consider every phone call, meeting, or face to face conversation a chance to practice your presentation skills. The more you practice each element, the more confident you will feel.
- Join Toastmasters. Toastmasters International is a non-profit organization for people who want to improve their presentation skills. Through member clubs, people work together to improve their communication and leadership skills and find the courage to change. Before joining, check out groups in your community or at your workplace, and visit a time or two to see how you “fit.”
- Hire a coach or start your own practice group. If you don’t have time or interest in a formal group, or if you have tried but still feel anxious, find a coach or colleagues who can work with you to build and reinforce presentation skills. Find people who support you, and who will take time to preview your presentations and give you honest, useful feedback. And as you give them feedback, you increase your own awareness and confidence.
Right now, this moment, decide which of these ideas you believe will be most helpful. Write it down, and create a reminder for yourself, so you will see it and remember to try it before your next presentation.