Last week I wrote about the physiological effects of nervousness that many people (at least the people with bodies) experience before a presentation, negotiation or interview. Today I want to have a look at the common psychological consequences of fear.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – the most important thing to overcome fear and nervousness is to be clear about why you are in this situation. If it’s a presentation, see it as an opportunity to help your audience overcome a problem they have (not to share information with them as many presenters think). If you are being interviewed for a job, see it as an opportunity to show your potential employer how and why you would be a great member of their team. And if it’s a negotiation, be clear about your non-negotiables, what you’re willing to negotiate about, your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), and finally but most importantly, all these same factors from the other’s point of view.

Now, let’ have a look at most common psychological fears and hang-ups (based on my classroom discussions with more than 1500 workshop participants over the last 7 years) related to high-stakes “performance” situations for leaders.

1. Negative self-talk. 

Some people, maybe without even realising that they are doing it, are talking themselves into failure. With their inner voice, and maybe even out to the audience, they are saying things like “this is going to be terrible”, “I hate this, I don’t want to be here”, “I haven’t prepared enough”, “they are going to laugh at me the moment I open my mouth” etc. I’m not a psychologist, but I remember when I used to play Gaelic football, there were always guys like this in the dressing room. They would be talking about how bad they felt and their injuries before a match. I think it was a way to make excuses before they had even started the game. If they lost or played badly, then their predictions were right. If they won, they were also right, in fact even better then right, they had played well despite not being in peak form. I think the other reason why people engage in negative self-talk is because it is easier than being positive. Being positive about the future, about your capabilities and about other people, involves risk – you could be mistaken, life always goes at least a little contrary to expectations. However, there is no risk being negative about the future, you are always going to be right to a certain extent; but it can stop you from trying something new and from achieving your potential.

What is the solution to negative self-talk? Well, first of all, you need to catch your voice speaking negatively. You need to take some time to listen to your thoughts in the hours leading up to the event. It can be difficult as this is when we are frantically running around making last minute changes, checking our materials and going over our notes. Take a minute (it only takes a minute) to sit somewhere quiet and turn your attention inwards. What is your inner-voice saying? Repeat to yourself positive phrases (e.g. “This is good”, “I’m prepared for this”, “My world is going be better after this”). Take a positive posture as this will help you think positively. Visualise (positively!) your opening, your closing, have good interaction with the audience. It can also help to visualise something you are good at (sport, music dancing) and let those good feelings influence how you feel right now.

2. Fear of going blank

Many people are afraid of going blank in the middle of their presentation and being unable to continue. To avoid this, they literally put the script of their talk into their powerpoint slide. This is not the solution! Instead, prepare presenter notes on index cards and have them in your pocket or close by. Just preparing these cards will help you remember your speech and key points. And if the worse happens, just take them out and look for what to say next. The audience probably won’t even notice and will think that you are pausing to give them a break for a few moments. I’ve done a full post on how to prepare these cards here.

3. The audience is waiting for me to make a mistake

Ok, maybe if Donald Trump is speaking to the Mexican Parliament, then yes, his audience really is hoping he’ll spill water on his suit, forget his lines and his pants are going to rip. However, this is not the case for most presentations. The audience don’t want it to be bad, or for the presenter to make an ass of themselves. In fact, its quite the opposite – they are hoping you’re going to do a good job. No one wants to spend half an hour listening to a terrible presentation. Remember, the audience are on your side at the beginning of the talk, or at the very least they are indifferent to you. Show them that you’ve thought about them in your preparation, that you know what preoccupies them, and they will support you in your talk.

Also, you probably will make mistakes. Everyone does and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. Interpersonal communication is never perfect. The wonderful and unique aspect of “performance” is that it only happens once, it is live and you can interact with each other (this goes for presentations, interviews and negotiations). Remember that your reaction to your mistake will dictate your audience’s reaction – if you spill water on your pants while you are talking and react like it is the end of the world, then your audience will react the same way and feel very awkward about watching you. However, if you react with a joke or a smile and acceptance that “shit happens!”, so will they and, furthermore, they will be on your side. In my Improvisational Leadership workshop, we look at the importance of “celebrating our mistakes”. We have been brought up to believe that mistakes are bad, and consequently to be afraid of taking risks in case we make them. But taking risks is heroic and people will respond positively even if you fail. See mistakes as learning opportunities and a chance to bond with others – people bond over success, but bond even stronger when they fail together. Perfection does not exist so don’t aim for it. Instead, aim for improvement – aim to make this negotiation or interview or presentation better then the last one.

4. Fear of making a start

The hardest part is always the beginning and even nervous presenters will find that once the first few minutes are over they feel much better. We get so afraid of just standing up and walking out in front of the audience, or walking into the room and greeting the negotiator sitting opposite us at the table. For this reason, memorise the first few things you intend to say. Practice how you intend to greet and break the ice with the other negotiator. However, don’t memorise everything you intend to say – this will make you sound robotic and you also increase the risk of forgetting what you want to say as if you forget one piece of your speech, all the parts that come afterwards will also be lost to you.

5. Fear of not knowing the answer to a question

The final fear I will speak about is of not knowing how to answer a question. I know people who don’t get very nervous when presenting but hate the thought of answering questions in the Q&A session after their talk. This is a shame, as I would argue that the Q&A session is the most important part of your talk, and that your presentation could be seen as merely warming up the audience before you get down to the important interactions. Remember, the unique thing about live leadership performance is the chance to interact with your audience, which is a powerful way for them to trust you, like you, and believe in your arguments.

So, what can we do about this fear of being unable to answer a question? Well, first, let’s clarify the different types of questions that can be difficult to answer. First, there is the type of question asking for information that you have, but not with you right now. This is an easy one, all you need to say is that you will find that information and email it to the questioner (or all of the audience). Also, remember to ask if anyone in the audience has the answer. This shows your humility and desire to share and work with them.

The second and more interesting type of question is the one you hadn’t thought about before. It might take you by surprise and make you doubt the arguments you have just presented. Of course, in the moment it is natural to get a shock and be defensive when asked this kind of question. But try to see it as an opportunity to test the validity of your argument and above all don’t take personal. If you show your audience that the most important thing for you is the truth (and not being right), they will trust you.

I hope these strategies prove useful that next time you are feeling nervous before a big event.

Remember that this is a companion piece to my previous article “How to deal with the physiological effects of nervousness before a presentation, interview or negotiation”. Please add some a comment if you have any other ideas about overcoming fear and nervousness, I’d be delighted to get your feedback.