Tips to Get Rid of Anxiety and Nerves Before Your Next Presentation
By Matt Abrahams
Your credibility is your only currency when you present in front of others. If your audience does not trust you, then, no matter how engaging and important your message is, it will fall on deaf ears. In less than a minute, your audience forms impressions of you and your credibility based on what you say and how you say it. You must immediately establish your credibility to have a chance at successfully achieving your presentation goals.
At its essence, credibility is about the knowledge you possess — about both your topic and your audience — as well as your confidence. The purpose of this article is to explore these credibility components. We begin by examining how what you know enhances your credibility, then shift to how you can appear and ultimately become more confident in communicating by managing presentation anxiety and nerves. Finally, we address common pitfalls that undermine credibility.
Credibility = Knowledge + Confidence
Knowledge of your material
Domain expertise is critical to establishing your authentic credibility. Often, your expertise is what gets you the opportunity to speak in front of your audience. However, with expert knowledge comes the potential for losing your audience. Many knowledgeable speakers make assumptions and use terminology that their audiences don’t understand or can’t follow.
You must understand your audience’s perspective.
Knowledge of your audience
Your job is to be in service of your audience. As a presenter, your audience’s needs are paramount. To be effective, you must understand (a) your audience’s expectations for your presentation, (b) their experience with your topic and (c) their points of concern and resistance.
You must be motivated by the question, “What does my audience need to hear?” rather than the question, “What do I want to say.”
Your knowledge of your topic and your audience comprise the first component of credibility. The second critical component is your confidence.
Attitude and anxiety influence perceptions of confidence. Most speakers – upward of 85 percent – report being nervous when presenting. Managing this anxiety is key to confident and compelling delivery.
Rather than get anxious over your nervous symptoms, greet your anxiety as a normal, reasonable response to delivering a presentation.
Until the underlying cause of your anxiety is addressed, you are merely addressing symptoms.
Applying anxiety-management techniques designed for the source of your anxiety is the key to confidence building.
Root causes of anxiety and how to address them
Situation-based anxiety is fear that arises from the context in which the presentation is being delivered (e.g. a formal conference room with all eyes on you).
- Root cause: You see your presentation as a performance.
- Management technique: Reframe the situation as a conversation.
Audience-based anxiety is fear that arises from who you are presenting to (e.g. your executive management team).
- Root cause: You’re intimidated by the status, expertise and experiences of your audience.
- Management technique: Visualise your speaking situation in advance of speaking.
Goal-based anxiety is fear that arises from the objectives your presentation is trying to achieve (e.g. sell your product or get funding).
- Root cause: You’re concerned about the future consequences and ramifications.
- Management technique: Deliver your presentation while present-oriented.
Taken together, your knowledge and confidence directly influence your audience’s perception of your credibility.
As we have discussed, there are many things you can do to bolster your credibility in your audience’s eyes. In addition, though, we need to make sure that we do not invoke certain behaviours that can insidiously reduce our credibility. Specifically, we must avoid some common pitfalls, such as perfectionism, heavy reliance on slides and procrastination.
3 pitfalls that perpetuate a perceived lack of confidence
- Perfectionism: setting incredibly high and often unattainable standards
Result: Paralysis due to fear of all the possible things that could go wrong
Management technique: Create and enact contingencies.
- PowerPoint, Keynote, etc: confusing a slide deck for a presentation (the illusion of progress)
Result: Too much time spent designing slides rather than structuring and practicing
Management technique: Develop an outline and practice delivery prior to adding aids.
- Procrastination: Choosing to put off work
Result: Greater anxiety during “crunch time” and less practice time
Management technique: Publicly commit to a schedule and reward yourself.
Your audience forms impressions of you in less than one minute. These impressions guide their receptivity to your message. It is therefore critical to establish yourself as a credible and engaging speaker. By appreciating the role your knowledge and confidence have in influencing your audience’s perceptions, you can take active steps to becoming a credible, authentic and compelling presenter.
About Matt Abrahams
Matt Abrahams is a passionate, collaborative and innovative educator and coach who teaches Strategic Communication for Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and Presentation Skills for Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program, while also teaching at De Anza College. He has published research articles on cognitive planning, persuasion, and interpersonal communication. Matt recently published Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, a book written to help the millions of people who suffer from anxiety around speaking in public. Additionally, Matt developed a software package that provides instant, proscriptive feedback to presenters.
Prior to teaching, Matt held senior leadership positions in several leading software companies, where he created and ran global training and development organizations. Matt received his undergraduate degree in psychology from Stanford; his graduate degree in communication studies from UC Davis; and his secondary education teaching credential from SFSU. He is currently a member of the Management Communication Association (where he recently received a “Rising Star” award) as well as the National and Western States Communication Associations. www.boldecho.com