There are many upsides to working in the presentation sector – a steady flow of new and interesting projects, incredibly grateful clients and the opportunity to spread your creative wings on a daily basis. There is, however, one sizeable downside – you’re expected to be a natural raconteur with an innate ability to hold an audience in the palm of your hand.
That’s just not me.
Actually, scratch that. That’s not me today.
You see, when asked to speak at a conference nowadays, my ‘fight or flight’ reflex is almost immediate and I find myself digging deep for the resolve to see it through. The rising sense of panic hits hard, manifesting itself in a range of ways; from wanting to rush to the loo (standard) to feeling faint and short of breath (worrying for a man of my age) through to wanting to feign a mystery illness to dodge the whole anxiety-inducing experience (silly, ungrateful and a wasted opportunity).
Yet it hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when I welcomed the opportunity to strut my stuff on stage and while there would be the standard pre-presentation jitters (the loo seems to be a constant in any presenter’s schedule), it was all relatively benign and quickly forgotten once the first minute of the presentation was under my belt. I’d be asked to coach nervous presenters and, while sympathetic, was also a little bemused as to how they managed to get themselves so wound up.
There was no obvious catalyst that took me from confident to anxious – it took hold over a long period of time, creeping up on me over the years. The one benefit of this slow decline in confidence is that I’ve been able to test out various coping mechanisms to minimise the impact on my presentation and maximise the engagement of the audience.
Coping Mechanism #1 – Eat Well
During the promotion of my book, I was speaking almost constantly.
Days spent travelling = days spent eating badly = my energy levels were on the floor.
Dragging yourself from one speaking engagement to another is a recipe for disaster and the subsequent presentation anxiety was inevitable. I now ensure I eat properly in the days leading up to a speaking engagement as it not only helps me prepare but also ensures I deliver the best presentation I can to the audience. They deserve me to be on top form, so salads it is…
Coping Mechanism #2 – Sleep Well
Energy levels play a massive part in managing my personal presentation anxiety. As such, while I hate being away from my family, I ensure that I travel the night before the event whenever possible. Waking up refreshed is a great way to quell any signs of anxiety. Fighting rush hour traffic has the opposite effect.
Coping Mechanism #3 – Be Professional
We all know the well-worn professional tips for managing anxiety (rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, keep hydrated etc) yet many choose to ignore them and then wring their hands in worry as their presentation slot moves ever closer.
Yes, they can be a little tedious to follow. And yes, it would be so much easier if you didn’t have to work so hard to make presentations work. But the reality is that these presentation preparation clichés are clichés for a good reason – they work.
I applied this blindingly obvious thinking to a specific part of our presentation training ‘Think, Act & Deliver Differently’ seminar that had become a specific anxiety hotspot in the presentation. It was a short personal story that illustrated the need to build your presentation in stages in line with a clear audience centric objective. In short, it was important enough to warrant leaving in but a big enough stumbling block for me to worry about.
So, I rehearsed this specific section. Over and over again. Multiple times.
Yes, it was tiresome and yes, it got boring very quickly. But it was worth it… and now is the part of the presentation that I most look forward to sharing.
So outside of this blog being some form of catharsis, what do I suggest to fellow sufferers of presentation anxiety?
- Find your coping mechanisms. They are unlikely to be the same as mine… but they are out there.
- Acknowledge that you’re not on your own. I kept my presentation anxiety as a guilty secret for years – after all, I was supposed to be the one with all the answers. Interestingly, as I coyly shared my anxiety with my other presentation professionals, many of them expressed similar fears. Even more interesting was the fact that the speakers I admired most were the ones dealing with similar levels of anxiety.
- Recognise that it doesn’t have to be crippling. In retrospect, my presentation anxiety seems to have done me a favour. Since the anxiety dominated my presentation preparation, delivery and reflection, feedback from audiences has been increasingly positive. It’s forced me to be better prepared and engaged with my presentation and audiences which in turn has ensured I’ve improved as a presenter. It’s a virtuous circle (despite it feeling the polar opposite).
In short, presentations are too good an opportunity to pass by simply because you come out in hives every time you think about them. Grab the nettle, find your coping mechanisms and make it happen.