Coping with Presentation Nerves
It is entirely natural to feel nervous before making a presentation.
Many seasoned teachers, lecturers and other presenters feel nervous beforehand despite having given hundreds of presentations. The same is true of actors and actresses, celebrities, politicians, preachers and other people working in the media or in the public eye.
Being nervous is not a problem or a weakness, you just need to channel your nervous energy wisely. On the other hand, being over-confident and not nervous could be a weakness!
The symptoms of nerves (or stage fright) can include "butterflies" or a queasy feeling in your stomach, sweaty palms, a dry throat and the panic that your mind has gone blank about your opening lines.
Fortunately, there are some tried and tested strategies and techniques to manage your nerves so that you can concentrate on delivering an effective and engaging presentation.
These techniques will not get rid of your nerves; instead they will help you to use your nervous energy to your advantage. When you are in a heightened state from the adrenaline that is being pumped around your body, you can use that energy to communicate enthusiastically, convincingly, and passionately. The key is to decrease your level of nervousness so you can focus your energy on these positive activities, not on trying to control your nerves.
Managing Presentation Nerves
Leading up to the presentation
It is essential to always be well prepared and well-rehearsed in order to feel confident.
Do not fixate on the presentation delivery at the expense of good preparation.
Spend time preparing, good preparation, knowing your subject well, and knowing what you are going to say and how you are going to say it, will boost your confidence and help reduce your nerves.
Think of a presentation like an iceberg: what your audience sees - the delivery - is a small percentage of the whole. What goes on out of sight, the planning and preparation, should make up the bulk of the work.
Read our Presentation Skills pages for tips and advice on how to best prepare for your presentation, starting with: What is a Presentation?
Practice your presentation; rehearse to family, friends or just in front of a mirror. Listen to any feedback. Check your timings, speak slowly and think about the types of questions that your audience may have.
If possible visit the presentation venue before the event to see the room layout and check what facilities are available. This will help ensure that everything runs smoothly on the day and help you visualise giving your presentation, which can help reduce feelings of nervousness.
Keep Your Mind and Body Healthy
Nervousness can be heightened if you're not feeling 100%.
Avoid alcohol the night before and on the day of your presentation. Reduce or avoid your caffeine intake from coffee, tea and other sources.
Try to engage in some exercise the day before your presentation. This will not only release endorphins, which make you feel better, but exercise will also make it more likely that you'll sleep well and feel more refreshed on the day of your presentation.
See our pages The Importance of Exercise and The Importance of Sleep for more information.
Eat healthy. If you're feeling nervous then you may not feel like eating. However eating something healthy, fruit and vegetables are always good choices, will make you feel better and give you the energy you need to get through presentation day.
Immediately before the presentation
When you feel nervous immediately before a presentation, the following strategies and exercises should help you:
Practice Deep Breathing
Adrenalin causes your breathing to shallow. By deliberately breathing deeply, your brain will get the oxygen it needs and the slower pace will trick your body into believing you are calmer. This also helps with voice quivers, which can occur when your breathing is shallow and irregular.
Adrenalin can cause a dry mouth, which in turn leads to getting tongue-tied. Have a glass or bottle of water handy and take sips before you start your presentation and occasionally during your presentation, especially when you wish to pause or emphasize a point. Take care not to take large gulps of water.
Chewing gum before a presentation may help you to feel more relaxed. Research has shown that the act of chewing can increase your alertness and help to reduce anxiety. It is usually best to get rid of the gum when you start your presentation.
Use Visualization Techniques
Imagine that you are delivering your presentation to an audience that is interested, enthused, smiling, and reacting positively. Cement this positive image in your mind and recall it just before you are ready to start.
Press and massage your forehead to energize the front of the brain and speech centre.
Although you may not feel relaxed before you give your presentation relaxation, exercises can help. Try the following relaxation exercises, but do not continue with them if they cause any pain or discomfort although remember that you may use some muscles you have not exercised for a while and so feel a little stiff afterwards.
Quick Relaxation Exercises
- Stand in an easy position with your feet one pace apart, knees 'unlocked' and not rigidly pushed back, spine straight, shoulders not tense, and head balanced. Try to keep your face muscles relaxed by not clenching your jaw or clamping your teeth together.
- Now stretch SLOWLY upwards, aim to touch the ceiling but keep your feet flat on the floor. Then flop forward from the waist bending your knees slightly as you go. You are now hanging forward like a rag doll - your arms and head totally unsupported and relaxed.
- Straighten up SLOWLY, almost vertebra by vertebra, as if you were puppet and a giant puppet master was pulling you up by the strings keeping your head until last, when you are standing in your original easy position.
Repeat this exercise three times.
Alternatively you can relax in a chair:
- Sit comfortably with your lower spine pressed into the back of the chair.
- Raise your arms above your head and stretch as high as possible.
- Release your arms to your sides and bend forwards with your legs stretched out and stretch your arms out far as possible.
- Return to your starting position.
Repeat this exercise three times.
See our section: Relaxation Techniques for more information and ideas of how you can learn to relax effectively.
During the presentation
Many people find that once they are actually giving their presentation or speech they feel a lot better and more relaxed. But it's important to remember to:
Just before you start talking, pause, make eye contact, and smile. This last moment of peace is very relaxing and gives you time to adjust to being the centre of attention.
Smiling is a natural relaxant that sends positive chemical messages through your body. Smiling and maintaining eye contact also help you build rapport with your audience.
Speak more slowly than you would in a conversation, and leave longer pauses between sentences. This slower pace will calm you down, and it will also make you easier to hear, especially at the back of a large room.
Move around a little during your presentation as this will expend some of your nervous energy. However, try not to pace backwards and forwards, or rock on your heels, as these activities can be distracting or irritating to your audience.
Stop Thinking About Yourself
Remember that the audience is there to get some information and that it is your job to put that information across to them. Try to put your nerves aside and think about communicating your message as effectively as possible.
After the event
It's important to focus on the positives of your presentation once you've finished. Experience is the single most effective way of overcoming presentation nerves and delivering better presentations in the future.
When possible, ask members of your audience for constructive feedback on your presentation. Listen to what they say and focus on areas that need improvement. Try to see any negative points not as a measure of failure but as learning opportunities for future presentations. Our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback may help here.
Use reflective practice
Reflective practice is a useful technique to help you think about and analyse your experiences and can be used for many aspects of life. The use of reflective practice for a presentation can be particularly useful for helping to minimise feelings of nervousness for future presentations. See our page of Reflective Practice for more help and information.
Don't beat yourself up
Like most things in life, presentations are unlikely to be perfect and there are always ways you can improve. When you get feedback from others and reflect on your own performance, it is important that you understand this and give yourself a break. Think about the positives and what went well, and learn from any mistakes or elements that you feel unhappy with.
Treat yourself to something that you'll enjoy. Perhaps a glass of wine, or a nice cake or just a relaxing soak in the bath. Something to make you feel a bit special and recognise your achievement.