We all feel nervous before speaking in front of an audience. There’s no escaping the nerves, the best thing is to recognise the symptoms for what they are, that they are natural to everyone and that the most important things in life should make you nervous.
Of course, if you haven’t done any preparation then you should be nervous and there’s nothing anyone can do or say that can help. Very few people can make impactful well-structured impromptu speeches. But what can you do five minutes before your presentation if you’ve prepared well AND you’re still feeling unbearably nervous? Try going to the bathroom and doing these 5 simple things:
Breathe. When you’re nervous you forget about your breathing. The stress makes you breathe quickly and not very deeply. This will increase your nervousness and will also affect your voice, the most important tool you have to deliver your presentation (more important than your body language and immensely more important than your slides). Get control of your breathing by thinking about it as you do it. Be aware of how you breathe in, hold it for a few seconds, then breathe out, wait a few seconds and then breathe in again. Repeat 10-15 times.
Jump. When you’re nervous you forget about your body and are locked inside your imagination thinking about what is coming next. To reconnect with your body (and with the present) jump up and down like you are trying to break through the floor into the room underneath. Focus on the feeling in the soles of your feet. Do this in bare feet if you are wearing heels. Jumping like this will make you feel more connected to the floor, more grounded. Also, by focusing on the feeling in your feet, your brain has to send and receive signals all the way from your head to your toes, thus connecting all of your body. If you don’t want to jump, wiggling your toes and focusing on the sensation this gives you will have the same effect (but less energising!)
Look. Check yourself in the mirror. Make sure that your zipper isn’t open or that your blouse isn’t undone. Check that you are happy with your hair and there is nothing in your nose. Smile and check that there is no food stuck in your teeth. Why is it important to do all this checking? Because when you step out in front of your audience, and you see everyone looking at you, you’re going to feel self-conscious like a 16-year old on their first date. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen presenters walk out, say hello and immediately touch their zipper to check it’s up, pull down their skirt, start fixing their hair, or even pick their nose. Check that you look ok, but don’t do in front of everybody!
Read. Go into the cubicle, sit down and take out your presenter notes (see my previous post “How to remember what you want to say during your presentation”). Scan them quickly and then take the first card, which has your opening. Out loud (or in a whisper if you are in a communal bathroom) speak the first few sentences you intend to say. And then repeat them two or three more times. Why? Because the beginning is the hardest section as this is when you will feel most nervous. Once you get going, you’ll forget about the nerves. So, practice and, if necessary, memorise the opening of your talk to get you through this stressful part.
Mr. Miyagi. Remind yourself why you are making this presentation. Remember, you are here to help the audience with a problem they have (see my article You are Mr Miyagi, not the Karate Kid: The most important person in your presentation), not just to speak about yourself, present results or describe your current work. People are only interested if you are speaking about something that can help them in some important way. If you truly believe that you are here to help the audience, then you will be enthusiastic and proud of your talk. And knowing this will make you feel less nervous. If you can’t think of a good reason as to why these people should be here to listen to you, maybe it would best if you stay in the bathroom.