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How to control your nerves during presenting

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I’d rather die …

Butterflies in the stomach are the least of the problems for some presenters. Patrick Forsyth looks at how to control your nerves.

Most people feel some unease about presenting. It has been called creative apprehension, but it can still be worrying – after all, there may be a great deal hanging on what you do. So how do you calm your nerves?

The first rule is to think positive, because most thoughts tend to be negative – I can’t do it, they won’t like it, what do I say? Consider the audience. They actually want it to go well; what else? Audiences respond to a good presenter, especially one that focuses on and respects them. Indeed people may be secretly grateful they are not speaking. If all else fails, follow the old actors’advice and “imagine they are naked”!

nervous presentation

List all your fears and take practical steps to deal with the causes one by one. For example, if you worry about:

• Timing: rehearse, time it and make sure your notes include a guide on timing
• Losing your place: again, the style of your notes should make this difficult to do
• Dry mouth: always have a glass of water to hand, no one minds if you take sip
• What to do with your hands: hold something – something appropriate like a pen
• Visual aids: can they be seen? Check ahead of the presentation, then you know (and never say “can you see at the back” – people expect you to know all is well)
• Audible: just talk naturally aiming at someone in the back row and all will hear you.

Beyond that consider two areas:

Preparation is key

All the best presentations are well prepared. As Mark Twain said “It usually takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech”. So, always prepare thoroughly what you will say – and how you will say it. If it helps to write directions like PAUSE in big letters on your notes – do so. Notes should guide you on both content and emphasis. Prepare for giving the talk as well as the talk itself. For example, your notes must be clearly legible in use, not just read sitting at your desk. Knowing that you have a good presentation to give is the greatest antidote to nerves. The right length, a good structure, a logical argument, language that creates rapport with your audience – all reduce fears. Knowledge is power, so be knowledgeable – check out what makes things work.

Knowing the environment

You must know, or organise if possible, the speaking environment. Know how to work any equipment, where to stand to allow the group (and you) to see your slides and for you to see your notes, have sufficient space to put your papers, tape the projector lead to the floor so that you do not trip, count the steps to the podium. Whatever the environment, reduce nerves by being familiar with it.

Analysing presentations and planning changes – more of this, less of that next time – gives more certainty of the next one being easier and going better.

Tackle everything that create fears systematically and 90% of causes can be sorted. Doing so increases your confidence – it will be alright. Confidence certainly helps you present well – and impresses audiences. Then finding it is going well boosts confidence further, providing a positive virtuous circle. Ready. Take a deep breath and ….

Key points to boost confidence

• Always prepare thoroughly
• List fears, think through what causes them and seek solutions
• Think positive (remember you are actively dealing with fears)
• Focus on what to say and how to say it
• Understand the techniques you can use
• Check and organise the speaking environment
• Analysis your presentations and make changes to ensure you learn from experience
• Remember the audience want it to go well
• Overall, regard it as an opportunity (a good presentation can achieve so much).

About the author: Patrick Forsyth is the author of a Bookboon title “Avoiding Death by PowerPoint” which review another aspect of presenting.

Avoiding Death by PowerPoint

To find out more about presentation and communication skills, read our eBook "Avoiding Death by PowerPoint".

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