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How to Deal with Nerves When Presenting

In this post we will discuss 5 strategies you can utilize to manage nerves when speaking. These strategies are applicable whether you are speaking in public, presenting in meetings, going on job interviews, or (cue terrifying music) meeting your significant other’s parents. Nerves come up when we speak to other human beings, especially when we are the center of attention. Jerry Seinfeld has the perfect joke. “I saw a study that said speaking in front of a crowd is the number 1 fear of the average person. Number 2 was death! So you’re telling me, people would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy?”

I love that joke because it’s reflective of how most people feel about speaking in public or to strangers! Maybe we get this aversion from talking to strangers back when we were kids, our parents instructions to NOT SPEAK TO STRANGERS seeped into our soul because every networking event can feel really scary and uncomfortable! If you get nervous when speaking to others, especially those you don’t know then you are what I like to call - NORMAL!

Here are five practical strategies you can use to fight nerves when speaking.

  • Breathe and Count

  • Preparation

  • Reduce Physical Distance

  • Power Pose

  • It’s OK and Give Yourself Permission to be Nervous

1. Breathe and Count: Have you ever felt stressed and nervous and then someone comes up to you and says those magic words, “just breathe”. And by magic……I mean magically annoying! Just breathe is the worst thing someone can say when you’re stressed. My brain thinks, HELLO! I am breathing otherwise I would be DEAD!

So what type of breathing would actually help? Here are three breathing strategies you can experiment with to reduce nerves. Pick the one you like and ditch the rest.

A) Breathe normally and count the number of breaths you take in 60 seconds. Next, breathe again for 60 seconds and aim to cut your number of breaths in half. For example, if you take 20 breaths during the first 60 seconds then focus on reducing the number to 10 breaths in the second 60 second time period. Make sure you count the number of breaths in your head while you do this exercise.

B) Breathe out twice as long as it takes to breathe in. For example, if you breathe in for 3 seconds then take 6 seconds to breathe out. Repeat 6 times and count the seconds in your head while you are breathing. Practice with me. Breath in 1, 2, 3. And breathe out 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

C) Breathe in, hold, breathe out. For example, breathe in for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds and then breathe out for 3 seconds. Repeat 10 times and count the seconds in your head while you complete this exercise.

These exercises help to reduce nerves in two ways. First, they force you to take longer and deeper breaths which gives you more oxygen and helps you relax. Second, they force you to actively count which activates the rational part of your brain and reduces the focus on the emotional side of your brain.

Remember, when we are stressed out, our feelings can be daunting. Thomas Jefferson said “when angry count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.” Counting and breathing will help reduce your anxiety by activating the rational part of your brain.

Breathe and count!

2. Prepare: We all remember growing up when we didn’t prepare enough for a paper or exam. A lot of stress came from that lack of preparation! Most of us procrastinate because the pain of doing the work is worse than relaxing and watching NETFLIX! Studying and preparing for a speech, a job interview, or whatever is on our plate, is not usually enjoyable. But the pain of it being a failure, going terribly wrong, or making a fool of yourself should outweigh the pain of having to do the prep work. Therefore, you have a choice. Don’t prep and be super nervous OR prep and minimize the nerves. The more time you put into prep, the less nervous you will be. When I was studying for the CFA exams, I studied so much that I was actually looking forward to taking the test and getting it out of the way. It reminds me of the age old saying "you get out what you put in." If you put a ton of prep in, you get the reward of being less stressed. If you put no prep in you get the reward of anxiety.

Critical Point: practice speaking out loud Practicing out loud is critical especially if the stakes are medium to high. What can help is to give yourself a preparation goal such as 10 minutes in my head and 5 minutes out loud. If you think you are above preparation out loud then just remember Steve Jobs put in over 100 hours of prep into his keynote presentations. I recently spoke with a CEO of a large start up who said he practices his company elevator pitches before he speaks with candidates, venture capital firms, or anyone where it is important. We can all benefit from preparation no matter how good we are. Most people practice in their head because it seems ridiculous to say something out loud, it feels borderline silly. Have you ever prepped in your head and thought to yourself, wow I am brilliant, that is such a good point I am about to share. Then, you voice your point out loud and voice vomit comes out. All I can think is wow I am such an idiot.

Put the preparation time in, both in your head and out loud!

3. Reduce Physical Distance: When there is distance between people it can increase anxiety because they feel more like a stranger. Do you remember when you were younger and went on your very first date? The thought about putting your arm around your date is absolutely terrifying! You can feel the sweat beading down your forehead. However, once you put your arm around that person you finally relax and your heart rate goes from 6000 to 60.

Reduce physical distance between you and your audience by walking around and shaking people’s hands before a meeting, speech, or interview. This reduces the distance between you and what is intimidating you. It provides an ice breaker and loosens you up. Anytime, I perform a stand up comedy set I will go into the audience and shake a few random strangers hands and briefly introduce myself 15-30 minutes before I go on stage. It reminds me that these are just people that I am speaking to and it relaxes me.

Go shake people’s hands!

4. Power Pose: Amy Cuddy, researcher from Harvard found that if you hold a power pose (aka confident pose) such as standing like superman, putting your hands up in the air or posing like Usain Bolt that it would impact our body chemistry. In her lab, she had participants hold a power pose for two minutes and then put them into a stressful situations. What Cuddy found was that after holding a power pose for two minutes - testosterone, your confidence hormone increases, and, cortisol, your stress hormone, decreases! She then contrasted that with people holding weaker poses such as closing up or shrinking down and the opposite occurred. Cortisol would go up and testosterone would go down. She has a very powerful Ted talk on the topic. Point of the story: open up and stand or sit with your shoulders back before you communicate. Alternatively, stand confidently before your interview or presentation to reduce those nerves. If it is socially inappropriate then find a conference room, bathroom, or other setting where you can put yourself into the power pose in order to get into the right mindset. Your body is an incredible tool that can be used to reduce nerves.

There has been research that debunks power poses and we are not claiming that this will solve all your problems or turn you into Tony Stark or Captain Marvel. We are merely suggesting another approach to combatting nerves. If this works for you keep using it and if it doesn't work for you then try another strategy. Find what works best for you!

Hold a confident power pose to get in the zone!

5. It’s OK and Give Permission: When we are nervous, some of us fight our nerves. We fight ourselves by thinking what is wrong with me? I’m a freak. Why am I nervous? I shouldn’t feel this way? We take the form of resistance.

Don’t fight against your own nerves. Take a page out of Bruce Lee’s book: “Be formless, shapeless, like water. Be water my friend”

What does this quote mean? If you think about it, when a rock hits a rock, the rocks collide and resist each other. In comparison, when a rock collides against water, the water just flows past the rock and there is no resistance.

Don’t fight against your own nerves. Instead, be like water - embrace your nerves and accept them. Give yourself permission to feel nervous. A funny thing happens when we give ourselves permission, WE RELAX!

Remember, nerves can be beneficial. When you were young and participating in recitals, plays, or sports matches, were you nervous? Of course you were! Were these nerves good for you? Definitely! Your nerves provided adrenaline which meant you were focused and most importantly it meant you cared. It’s more of a problem if you have no nerves whatsoever. That may be a symbol that you don’t really care at all. Remember it is ok to be nervous, it is part of the process. Nerves are only an issue if you debilitated and cannot move.

Give yourself permission to feel nerves because it is part of the process.

Practice any of these five strategies before you have a meeting, interview or are speaking in public. Experiment and find the strategy that works best for you. The key to truly getting rid of nerves is getting out there and taking action. Taking action and attempting what we are nervous or afraid to do is also one fo the greatest ways to build confidence so keep trying. If we avoid speaking we are only going to get more nervous because we speak so rarely.

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